Tag Archives: coming of age

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial; 368 pages; $15.99)

 

Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Round House is quite a departure from her previous novels.  Typically, Erdrich writes from multiple 16248070perspectives, with each narrative contributing a little window into a larger world.  She switches gears with The Round House, winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction.  Joe Coutts, her primary narrator and an Ojibwe Indian, recalls a horrific crime that occurred when he was thirteen.  A cacophony of voices is unnecessary inThe Round House; Joe drives Erdrich’s story, and his voice speaks volumes.

Like Erdrich’s previous works, The Round House is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation.  Erdrich is part Chippewa, and problems facing Native American communities mean a great deal to her, as they should to us all.  In The Round House, she once again tackles difficult subjects, such as violence against women, crime, and, most glaringly, the injustice of the law.  Unlike her other books, The Round House features an unforgettable young boy on the cusp of adulthood, who transfixes us with his strong, intimate narrative.

Erdrich sets her story in the spring of 1988.  Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is badly beaten and raped.  To the consternation of Joe and his father, Bazil, a judge, Geraldine is reluctant to tell what happened or even where the crime occurred.  Father and son are further dismayed when Geraldine retreats from them and spends her days in bed, eating little and saying nothing.  Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she is a shell of her former self.

Bazil begins investigating the rape and enlists Joe’s aid.  The boy is more than eager to help his father find the culprit.  Bazil knows that he shouldn’t put so much pressure on a boy of 13; he knows he has told Joe too much.  It is too late, however.  Joe is already fixated.

“I wanna get him,” Joe tells his friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack.  Joe wants to avenge his mother and watch the culprit burn.  His love for her is so bright and fierce that he seeks to kill his mother’s rapist.  “Mom, listen,” he tells her.  “I’m going to find him and I’m going to burn him.  I’m going to kill him for you.”

You’d think Joe would not have to make this promise.  You’d think the police would investigate, find the accused, and prosecute him.  It’s not that simple on an Indian reservation, where jurisdiction is key.

Geradline was raped in the round house, a sacred space to the Ojibwe Indians, where they practiced religious ceremonies.  And there lies the conundrum.  An Indian did not commit the crime; a white man is to blame, a man who loathes Indians.  A crime was committed, but “on what land?  Was it tribal land?  Fee land?  White property?  State?  We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply.”

It seems the rapist violated Geraldine in this sacred space deliberately.  He knew what he was doing and where he was doing it.  In all likelihood, he will not be charged with anything.

Joe cannot let that happen and will use any means necessary to get his revenge.  He will enlist his friends; he will sift through his father’s old case files; he will seek advice from his grandfather; he will garner information from the twin sister of the accused.  If the law is unjust, then Joe will seek his own vigilante justice.

The Round House is part coming-of-age story and part crime novel.  Erdrich uses humor and pop culture to show how Joe and his friends are obsessed withStar WarsStar Trek, and girls.  The boys are so close that they would do anything for each other.  Their closeness reflects the tight-knit community they call home, where everybody knows everybody and where everyone looks out for everyone else.  Whatever happens, they will insulate the boys from reprisal.  In a sense, when Geraldine is raped and beaten, the whole town is violated.

Since Joe looks back on these events from an adult viewpoint, he is able to view the crime from two perspectives simultaneously: child and adult.  Joe puts an adult spin on things whenever he can, yet Erdrich manages to capture how the crime shattered his innocence and stole his childhood.  The offense against Geraldine turns Joe into a man.  The crime affected Joe so much that he went on to study law; eventually, Joe becomes a lawyer.  He can tell the story then from a son’s eye, yet with a lawyer’s keen focus.

The Round House illustrates how a senseless crime can forever change a town, a community, a family, and a young man.  Lives are overturned, and relationships are altered.  Yet a boy discovers the power of friendship and understands the meaning of giving one’s word.  That same youth becomes a man in this tale and finds his life’s calling– to seek justice even in the unlikeliest of places.  Erdrich instinctively knows when it takes a chorus to tell a story and when only one voice is needed.

The Round House is now available in paperback with a new and arresting cover.  Winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction, Erdrich’s story is definitely worthy of a read.

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The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)

As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a rathbones1.jpgtale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year.  September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths.  Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.

In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty.  The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father.  Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea.  Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature.  This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him.  Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.

Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history.  Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight.  As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.”  If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.”  Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface.  He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.

Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them.  Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats.  Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar.  Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.”  His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.”  Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.”  No other whaling family came close.

But it did not last.  Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale.  The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land.  In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.

janice clarkIn The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel.  Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave.  And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.

The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

 

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Spotlight on Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford’s debut Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet ranks in my top 10 favorite novels of all time.  I was so excited to get my hands on his newest work of fiction, Songs of Willow Frost, out today from Ballantine.

About the Book:

songs of willow frost

Twelve-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.

About The Author:

My name is James. Yes, I’m a dude.

I’m also the New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—which was, in no particular order, an IndieBound NEXT List Selection, a Borders Original Voices Selection, a Barnes & Noble Book Club Selection, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller. It was also named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.

In addition, Hotel has been translated into 34 languages. I’m still holding out for Klingon (that’s when you know you’ve made it).

I’m an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp.

My next novel, SONGS OF WILLOW FROST, should be hitting shelves September 10, 2013! And I’m also working on a YA (Young Adult) series that even my agent doesn’t know about…yet.

Bookmagnet Says:

Four words: Wow.  My God.  Wow.  I guess that’s technically three, but you’ll probably share my sentiment once you read Ford’s story.

This book has everything.  It’s steeped in rich history, placed during a time of great suffering yet also a period in which modern cinema was born.  The characters leap off the page right into your heart.  The well-paced plot means you will not be able to put Songs of Willow Frost down until you finish the book.    A quest for identity, for forgiveness, for understanding, for reunion, Songs of Willow Frost proves you sometimes have to suffer to recognize and seize true happiness.  I loved Songs of Willow Frost every bit as much as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Jamie Ford is no one-hit wonder.  No one writes a boy’s coming-of-age like he can.  

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Interview with Karen Brown, Author of The Longings of Wayward Girls

The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (Washington Square Press; 336 pages; $15).

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.

Jaime Boler: Thank you for letting me ask you these questions, Karen.  The Longings of Wayward Girls captivated and wowed me.  Your setting, your plot, and your characters are all pitch-perfect and smart.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Karen Brown

Karen Brown

Karen Brown: I have piles of writing stored in accordion folders and boxes, going all the way back to my first illustrated story about talking squirrels who convince a girl to jump from her second story bedroom window. Writing has always been something I seemed to do well. In school teachers put my poems on the bulletin board. When you have early acknowledgement, it becomes part of who you are, and if you’re lucky, who you become.

JB: Your previous works have won awards.  Pins and Needles received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, and Little Sinners, and Other Stories was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  What were those experiences like?

KB: I was a short story writer who’d published in literary magazines, and the natural goal was to get “the book.” These contests came with publication, so I began putting stories together and submitting them. I did this for many years–rearranging stories, replacing older stories with newer ones. I never got discouraged—maybe because I was always writing, and always changing the manuscripts, and because it was fun, and I was doing what I loved. It was a great surprise and a great honor to have each of my manuscripts chosen. I knew how many people entered, and I was all too well aware that my winning meant others faced rejection.

JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is very similar to the titular tale from your short story collection, Little Sinners, and Other Stories.  Did you always intend for the story to be a longer novel? little sinners

KB: Each story I write feels like just a piece of something larger. I was drawn to the setting of “Little Sinners,” and I thought that the prank the girls pull might have more lasting repercussions. I’d also written “Housewifery” at this time, and I knew that I wanted the main character to be living in a similar suburb with her own family, and to discover a hidden pond. The combination of both stories led to the novel.

JB: Please describe your new novel The Longings of Wayward Girls out July 2 from Atria Books.

KB: 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.

JB: How did you come up with the title?

KB: The story of titles starts with the collection, Little Sinners. Originally, the collection was titled Leaf House, and the press felt that I needed something more commercial. I’d already been working on the novel, based on the short story “Little Sinners,” and I’d always planned for Little Sinners to be the novel’s title as well. But faced with coming up with a new one for the collection, I basically stole my novel’s title. That left the novel title-less, and the working title (The Lost Girl) wasn’t quite what the team at Atria wanted. “Something more like Little Sinners,” my editor said. Of course, I regretted stealing my novel’s title, but the book had already come out, and I couldn’t steal it back! We made lists. I even brainstormed with my students. We had some good ones! But I kept going back to my editor’s suggestion, and I agreed. The title Little Sinners fit Sadie and her friend so well. My idea for Longings came from that. They aren’t really “wayward,” just like they aren’t really “sinners.” The title assumes a world within the book that judges them, one that the girls emerge from, that’s ingrained in who they become.

longingsJB: Did you always know where you ultimately wanted  to take your story and your characters even when you wrote it as a short story?

KB: When I’m writing a story I don’t really know the ending until I get about halfway through. Because the novel is based on the story I had a sort of template, but I had to change the ending to add more momentum—so I did know where I was heading—just not how I would get there!

JB: I know the idea for Longings is based on a real person.  Who was Janice Pockett?  And how did this little girl provide the impetus for your literary works?

KB: In the 1970s several girls went missing in a particular area in Connecticut, and Janice Pockett was one of them. I’d been researching missing girls even before I wrote the short story, and I discovered newspaper articles about Janice’s disappearance. She went missing about the time my friends and I were exploring pastures and woods, and roaming freely about our neighborhood. We didn’t know about Janice Pockett or the other girls, or feel any sort of fear about where we lived, and yet they’d disappeared just a few towns away. Janice, too, lived in a rural area. She’d simply gone off on her bicycle to retrieve a butterfly and never returned.

The presence of the real missing girl was always with me as I wrote the book, and it greatly influenced the conclusion. She has never been found, and her sister keeps a Facebook page for her. On it she posts photographs of her sister wearing the same clothes my friends and I wore—the same Brownie uniform, the same bell-bottom pants and cardigan sweaters. I think I wanted the Laura Loomis sections to bring to life the stages of loss and the absence of resolution that families with missing children experience.

JB: Now I want to talk about the differences in the novel compared to the short story.  First of all, you have changed points of view.  In the short story Little Sinners, you tell the story from the main character’s first person perspective.  In the novel, though, you write in the third person.  Why the change?

KB: The reminiscent narrator in the short story isn’t Sadie from the novel—she’s an adult at a different place in her life, regretting her inability to determine what really happened all of those years ago, and seeking forgiveness. I had to invent a character who would live within the frame of the story, who would have experienced things—marriage, childbirth, the loss of her own mother—that the story’s narrator hadn’t. And I didn’t feel that the voice in the story could carry a book. It’s just too heavy with sadness.

JB: Another difference is the name change of the best friend.  In the short story, the friend’s name is Valerie Empson; while in the novel, the best friend is Betty Donahue.  Why was this changed?

KB: I’m not sure why I changed the name! Valerie was the name of one of my close friends growing up, and I think I wanted to be sure to distance the fictional character from the real person—in case she read it—something she is actually doing now! And as Betty’s character developed she seemed more like a “Betty.”

JB: By far the biggest change, though, is that in the short story, Francie, a little girl who disappears, is found alive.  But in the book, it is years and years before her fate is revealed.  What prompted you to change this part of the story?

KB: I wanted the revelation of what happened to Francie to remain, as it does in the short story, at the end. And I wanted the impact of this to have had bigger ramifications for Sadie—so that the reader knows she’s lived all of these years with the belief that she was implicated in Francie’s disappearance. It felt weightier, more powerful. Also, since the main characters in the story and novel are fundamentally different, the events resonate differently in each.

JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is set in a Connecticut suburb.  Is it much like the town in which you grew up?  What was your childhood and adolescence like?

KB: I used the town I grew up in as a model for the town in the book. My niece drew the map from a sketch I made. The town was once called Wintonbury, and the historical society is called The Wintonbury Historical Society. The names of the roads are slightly off (mostly because I didn’t use a real map of the town as I wrote—I just pulled names and vague locations out of my memory!) We had plenty of fields, a swamp, the “dead end” and a local produce stand. There was a Vincent Elementary School. The pond, and the American Indian names are drawn from Windham County, in northeastern Connecticut, where my brother lives. (Once, he led me up a path through the woods, and showed me an amazing pond.) My friends and I did put on plays, and hold a version of the Haunted Woods in the summer. We played elaborate games of house in my basement. And so much more, that never found its way into the book!

The map from Karen's website

The map from Karen’s website

JB: When you were younger, did you ever pull a prank on someone?  Or have one played on you?

KB: I do remember leaving letters from a farmer boy under a stone at the dead end. But I’m not entirely sure they were ever retrieved, or who, exactly, they were intended for. Memory has a way of blurring these things. If I remembered exactly I wouldn’t have been able to make a story out of it.

JB: Do you see Sadie and Betty as bullies?  Why or why not?

KB: I think they are precocious and caught in the process of moving from childhood to adulthood. The book pauses them on the edge of that, and so their actions seem to arise out of a sense of their trying to claim some power over something in their lives. Sadie, especially, feels the loss of childhood acutely. But to answer your question, yes! Most readers would agree that they are bullies.

Holyoke is one of the subjects in this book.

Holyoke is one of the subjects in this book.

JB: You incorporate colonial history into your story, and I really love that you do.  What role does the diary of Mary Vial Holyoke play in the life of Sadie, your main character?  What does Sadie learn from the colonial woman?

KB: Colonial women frequently dealt with the death of a child—something Sadie discovers when she volunteers to map out the old cemetery. The section of Mary Vial Holyoke’s diary that I quote is her recording of the illness of her oldest daughter Polly. Most of the diary notes the passage of days as chores and errands and visits, and suddenly there’s a line that alerts the reader that Polly is sick. From this point on each day names a different woman who came to “watch” over Polly, and there’s a great sense of women pulling together to help Mary through what we discover is the death of her child. I think Sadie is in denial about her own grief—and doesn’t yet see the ways the women who gather at the pond, and at Kate’s, might help her through it, or how the regularity of her life—the way she is needed by her husband and children–might ease her pain.

JB: Emotions such as deep loss and impossible longing resonate throughout your novel.  What made you want to explore these feelings?

KB: I’m not sure I set out to explore those feelings exactly, but in creating the character of Sadie I seemed to gravitate toward them. I imagined that loss and longing fueled Sadie’s choices, and that these feelings arose from her childhood. While I never feel I have to explain a character’s actions, I still believe that a reader should understand her or him, whether she agrees with them morally or not.

JB: You teach creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.  How has teaching writing made you a better writer?

KB: The practice of reading good fiction in class, and discussing what strategies a writer has used to achieve that result definitely keep me focused on my own choices.

JB: In your view, Karen, what is good fiction?  How can good fiction change both the writer and the reader?

KB: For me, good fiction provides readers with a unique voice—one that allows us to navigate a world  that is familiar enough for us to believe we are experiencing events there, but that retains an element of strangeness that keeps us guessing, and wanting to know more. Good fiction utilizes specific details that accomplish multiple tasks: they let us in on secret aspects of the world—visual, emotional, and intellectual. If a book can lure a reader in, it has the potential to change the way they view their world.

JB: Which writers have influenced your work the most? Which books have had the greatest effect on your life?  Which matter the most to you?

KB: I’m drawn to lyrical writing, and as a literature student I loved writers like [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Vladimir] Nabokov, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo. I still love these writers, and reread their work. They tell their stories, which seem private—and by this I mean they are about particular people’s lives, but somehow they manage to encompass all of us, and deal with vital issues in the world.

JB: As an author of both short stories and novels, which medium do you prefer?  Why?

KB: As a reader, I enjoy a novel to escape. But if I’m reading as a writer, and want to come away from something with a jolt, a fine short story is always best. As a writer I can’t choose which I prefer—they are both so different, and require different things from me. I’ve trained myself to distill a moment down to fit the length of a story, but it’s an entirely different process loosening up the story, and filling it with scenes and multiple moments.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Longings of Wayward Girls?TheLongingsofWaywardGirls

KB: I’m going to answer this in a roundabout way: When I knew I wanted to write a novel, I began to read them voraciously. I joined a book club, and I read the other members’ choices—books I would never have chosen myself as a stuffy instructor of Modern American Literature: Stieg Larsson, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, David Baldacci, Kate Morton. And I introduced my book club to my own choices: Richard Yates, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jess Walter. I learned how invested readers could be in characters, and how engaged they became with the events that befell them.

I realized that books can entertain, as well as teach us something about ourselves, and I hope that readers will enter the world I’ve created and experience both of these things.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

KB: I’d like to publish another novel, and I’m working on one now. The process of writing Longings—the revisions, the editing—taught me so much! I’m trying to apply that knowledge to this new book. (Like Longings it was inspired by one of my short stories—“Galatea” from Pins & Needles.)

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

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Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

yonahlossee1.jpgWe’ve all known girls like Thea Atwell—girls who made mistakes so big they were sent away, fast girls, precocious girls, daring girls.  Thea narrates Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exquisite period piece and a provocative, passionate, and bold coming-of-age tale. Much more than just a precocious teen, Thea is a magnificently well-drawn character, a trail-blazer, wholly modern, and a feminist (before there was such a thing).  No one who reads this story will be able to forget Thea, one of the most memorable characters in fiction today.

Exiled from her family, from her Florida home, and from her beloved horse, Sasi, Thea is sent to a school for girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  In a voice that is at times worldly and sometimes naïve, Thea reveals, “It was called the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, but it was neither a camp nor a place for girls.  We were supposed to be made ladies here.”

Her place in the family had once been well-defined, but now Thea is displaced and struggling, “a confused, wronged girl” whose parents punish her for a misdeed by banishing her.  Her twin brother, Sam, who commits a transgression of his own, is left unpunished.

DiSclafani uses two story arcs, one present and one past, to tell her story.  The two narratives are like Thea herself—on the cusp of something.  Each story arc leads up to a shuddering climax, while Thea herself is a character also on the cusp, at a crossroads of adulthood, womanhood, and budding sexuality.

Thea slowly comes to realize it is a man’s world.  Whether she is in Florida or in North Carolina, she must obey either her father or the headmaster.  She must obey their rules and abide by their laws.  And she is not alone.  At Yonahlossee, her new friends must also follow the dictates of their fathers and the depressed economy.  Friends like Leona, mistress of the showing arena, who must leave her horse behind when her father can no longer afford his daughter’s tuition.  They are “but daughters.” It’s no wonder these girls ride horses: only in the saddle do they have any semblance of control.

Interestingly, Thea seems to assume the role that others have assigned her at Yonahlossee.  “Did my parents hope I’d been taught a lesson?  They thought they’d sent me somewhere safe.  Away from men, away from cousins…If my parents had kept me home, I might have learned their lesson.”  Thea, though, chafes at convention.  She is a girl who wants too much and who desires desperately, a girl who has been introduced to the world of men and finds she likes this world, even if she does not always understand it.  She is fearless, an attribute that aids her “in the [horse] ring” but “badly in life.”

At fifteen, Thea wants to explore who she is and what and where the boundaries are.  Today, her rebellion is a rite of passage, but it was unusual in 1931 for a girl to behave as risky as Thea does in the novel.  Since her parents have expelled her, she feels that there is nothing left for her to lose.

With reckless abandon, Thea sets her sights on the headmaster, Mr. Holmes.  And what Thea wants, she usually finds a way to get.  She knows “what it was like to want, to desire so intensely” that she is “willing to throw everything else into its fire.”

When DiSclafani reveals both the shocking act that led to Thea’s expulsion and the scandalous way in which she leaves Yonahlossee,

Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani

you are speechless, shaken, and consumed with awe.  DiSclafani writes, “I wanted everything.  I wanted my cousin.  I wanted Mr. Holmes.  I was a girl, I learned, who got what she wanted, but not without sadness, not without cutting a swatch of destruction so wide it consumed my family.  And almost me.  I almost fell into it, with them.  I almost lost myself.”

Yet it is only because of her intense desire and wildness that Thea is able to forge her own path, a place in the ring where she rules supreme and where fathers and headmasters are absent.  Neither her parents nor Thea expected this surprising turn of events when Thea was cast out.   In the end, Yonahlossee shows Thea her life is hers and no one else’s. Thea must “lay claim to it.”

Penetratingly plot-driven, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a literary stunner and will be one of the most talked-about novels of the year.  Get a head start and read it now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Anton DiSclafani, Author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Anton, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, your debut novel, is a masterful and exquisite period piece.  Did you always want to be a writer?

 

Anton DiSclafani alt (c) Nina Subin (2)Anton DiSclafani: Thank you for the questions!  And the compliment.  I did not always want to be a writer–for a long time I wanted to be a professional horseback rider, and then I went to college and took a creative writing course, and gradually the path became clear.  But I didn’t scribble away in journals in elementary school, and if I were stuck on a deserted island I wouldn’t be writing.  I’d be trying to figure out a way to ferment coconut juice so I could have wine.  

 

JB: How would you describe your book in ten words or less?

 

AD: Girl sent away to a new world.   

 

JB: What provided the impetus for The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?

 

AD: I love the Blowing Rock [North Carolina] area, where the book is set, and so first came the place, and then the girl, and then her crime.  I worked backwards from setting; it’s impossible for me to imagine this book on a beach, or in the tundra.   

 

JB: How did you come up with the title? 

 

AD: There is a real Camp Yonahlossee, in Blowing Rock, but it’s called that, and not The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  I just love the rhythm of it.  But honestly, I can’t remember coming up with it, exactly.  

 

JB: What was it about the 1930s and the Great Depression that prompted you to set your story in that era?

 

AD: I wanted to write about the beginning of the Depression, when everyone thought the worst might be over.  Little did they know…and that’s where I wanted to set my story, on the cusp of something awful, in that hopeful to them, hopeless to us, moment.   

 

JB: Like your main character, Thea, you grew up in Florida, where you rode horses.  I often hear that novelists should write what they know best.   Is that true for you?

 

AD: Yes and no.  It’s difficult to write about something that’s technical–horseback riding, or tennis, etc–without knowing it really well, and knowing something really well usually means doing it.  I can’t imagine learning all about bridge but never playing bridge.  I can always tell when someone who isn’t a rider, or a horse person, writes about horses, but most readers probably can’t.  Same with bridge–not being an expert, I could probably fool 99% of my readership.  Does the expert 1% really matter?  I’m not sure.  

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story?  If so, who, and why?

 

AD: Hmm…good question.  I like Leona, the character in the book who’s least like me.   But most like me, perhaps, in her obsessive tendencies.   

 

JB: Are any of your characters based on real people?

 

AD: No.  Not a single one.   

 

JB: Thea is so mature and wise by the end of the novel, prepared to make her own way on her own terms.  She’s so modern and ahead of her time.  Is Thea a feminist in a time when feminism did not exist?

 

AD: Yes.  I said in another interview that she was an “unconscious feminist” and my husband made fun of me for weeks (as in, she’s unconscious and a feminist!) so maybe I should say she’s unconsciously a feminist.  Semantics aside, yes, absolutely, Thea is a feminist.   

 

JB: If you had set the story in 2013, how would it have been different?  Would Sam have been punished?  Would Thea?

 

AD: I don’t think it would be a story in 2013.  At least not the same story.  The punishments meted out to the characters are so dependent on the particular morals of the day.  Things happened in the book that would still be frowned upon today, yes, but the way information is handled now seems so different to me.  

 

Is it possible now, to completely remove yourself from the stream of information?  Perhaps the first, and biggest way the story would be different is that Thea wouldn’t have been so isolated.  She would have gone to school, and met other children.   

 

JB: How different would Thea and her life have been had she not been exiled from her family at 15?

 

AD: Oh, so much different, in so many endless ways.   

 

JB: You teach creative writing at Washington University.  How has teaching writing made you a better author?

 

AD: Teaching makes me a better person.  Well, to back up, having a job makes me a better person–a sense of purpose, getting up in the morning and being accountable to something besides my laptop.  I’m one of those boring people who needs routine and structure, and plenty of it.  I also have an insane need to be busy at all times, so teaching satisfies my need to be busy and to have structure and still leaves time for writing.  And teaching doesn’t feel like work.  Not even the tedious parts of it.  To be fair, I teach really excellent students at a really excellent school.  I find my time in the classroom utterly energizing–it’s like having a captive book club.  

 

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?

 

AD: Not knowing if it was going to sell, and being sure at many times during the process that it would not.   

 

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing this book?

 

AD: I have more patience than I thought.   

 

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

 

AD: I get up a few hours before my earliest obligation–usually teaching–and write for two or so hours.  I can revise for longer than that, but if I’m writing new material, I lose steam after those few hours.  I also look at writing like a job, and set page limits (it’s generally one single-spaced page a day) and try not to let myself off the hook too often.  

 

Sometimes what I write is horrible, yes, but first of all, I won’t know that until later, when I go back and read everything as a whole, and second of all, the muse can’t visit you if you’re not sitting in front of your computer.  Or something like that.  

 

JB: Please describe your publication process.  Did you get any rejection letters?  How many drafts did the story go through? How were earlier versions of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls different from the final copy?

 

AD: The earlier versions are pretty different, though the main plot points and characters are the same.  I revised first with my agent and then with my editor.  And Yonahlossee was the first piece of writing I’d had accepted, so yes, I’d gotten a lot of rejection letters before that, from fellowships, literary journals, agents, etc.   

 

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

 

AD: Read, cook, take my dog on walks, and ride horses.  I spend a lot of time talking to my family on the phone (my parents live in Florida, my sister lives in Texas).  I also seem to go to the grocery store five times a week.  My husband says I’m in constant motion.  

 

JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?

 

AD: The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Arcadia by Lauren Groff.  

 

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

 

AD: Yes.  I’ll go from city to city in North Carolina and Florida, and then Houston, then Chicago, then northern California.  And of course I’ll start in St. Louis, where I live.   

 

JB: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is already getting a lot of buzz.  Did you have any idea while writing it that it could be big?

 

AD: No.   

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?yonahlossee

 

AD: I hope they feel some sort of sympathy for Thea and her world.   

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

AD: Yes, a novel set in a modern-day town in Georgia.  I’m only in the beginning stages.   

 

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

 

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Interview with Aric Davis, Author of The Fort

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Aric, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Fort is an electrifying coming-of-age thriller that grabbed me from the first page.  You are a professional body piercer and novelist.  How did you get into writing?

 

the fortAric Davis: Thanks for having me! I got into writing because of my lifelong love of reading. Being published was a dream, and it was wonderful to be able to see it through to fruition. I had a small kernel of hope that I might one day leave my day job behind to be able to write full time, and last year I was finally able to put the piercing needle down for good.

 

JB: How would you describe The Fort in ten words or less?

 

AD: A coming of age novel with realistic characters.

 

JB: What was different about writing The Fort, your third novel, than writing your first book, A Good and Useful Hurt?

 

AD: The Fort and Hurt share a few similar themes. They both allow entry into the mind of a delusional and dangerous killer, both have some very bittersweet moments, and both have a couple moments of stomach-churning violence. What makes The Fort different are the character perspectives of the children involved in the story. Their voices were a riot to bring to life, and it was a fun reminder of just how entertaining being young was.

 

JB: What inspired you to write The Fort?

 

AD: Much like Tim’s dad in the book, several years ago I installed a patio, and just like Tim, my daughter was lucky enough to get a fort from the leftover lumber. Staring at that day in and day out inspired the idea, and while I initially borrowed the idea to Will Daniels, the lead in Rough Men, I had to take it back.

 

JB: Whose character’s voice did you hear first?

 

AD: Tim, Luke, and Scott were the first characters brought to life in the first draft of The Fort, and they were the ones that led the charge. That said, Dick Van Endel, the cop in The Fort, is a character who has found his way into several books that I have written, most recently in Hurt, Rough Men, and in the Kindle Serial, Breaking Point. Van Endel has been featured in a few unpublished works as well, and hopefully I’ll be able to have more of my stories with him as a costar in the future.

 

JB: What prompted you to set the story in 1987?

 

AD: Some of my favorite books are the coming of age novels written by Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen King, both of whom have placed novels in the 1950’s. In that same way, I wanted the era that I grew up in to shine in The Fort. In pains me to say that the 1980’s are the same distance from today that the 1950’s were then, but somehow it happened.

 

JB: Are any of your characters based on real people?

 

AD: My neighbors have three sons that are finally on their way out of teenager-dom, and listening to them cussing at one another and bludgeoning their way through life was a wonderful reminder when writing younger male characters.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story?  If so, please share.

 

AD: I really enjoy Tracy, the wise-cracking and foul-mouthed medical examiner. He’s a riot to write, even if he’s only used sparingly.

 

JB: How were earlier versions of the story different from the final copy?

 

AD: They were actually very similar. The Fort went through the same number of edits as anything else that I’ve had published, but they were far and away the easiest edits that I’ve ever had to work with. That said, even the more daunting edits typically go pretty easily. My editors Terry and David are never short of good ideas, and I am typically not so stupid as to resist their thoughts.

 

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Fort?

 

AD: The hardest part of the book came about three quarters of the way through. My good friend and first reader Greg had a suggestion at that juncture, and all of a sudden the end of the book became clear. I may or may not still owe him a beer for that.

 

JB: Critics have compared The Fort to Stephen King’s Stand By Meand Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

 

AD: As those are two of my all-time favorite authors, I couldn’t be much more complimented.  It’s a hell of a thing to have my name mentioned in the same breath as writers like that, and it’s incredible to me to think that I could achieve anywhere near to what they have with writing.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Fort?

 

AD: Ideally a sense of longing for the story, in that way that any loved book grabs at the reader. As I certainly can’t hope for that from everyone, I’ll be a little more down to earth and say that I hope that readers don’t feel that they wasted their money and time by buying and reading my story.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

AD: What comes next remains a mystery, but I am always working on something new. I’m a prolific weirdo, and right now I’m workingaric_davis_200 on my fifth manuscript since completing work on The Fort last summer. Hopefully one of these goes through to publication; I’ve certainly had fun writing them.

 

JB: Thank you, Aric, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Aric Davis’ novel The Fort is available now on Amazon.com. At turns heartbreaking and breathtakingly thrilling, The Fort perfectly renders a coming-of-age story in the 1980s, in those final days of childhood independence, discovery, and paradise lost.

 

 

 

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It’s a June Books Boon

Ah, June.  So good to see you again.  What’s that you have there, June?  Oh, you’ve brought some wondrous works of fiction.  Why thank you!

Let me tell you, dear readers–so many great novels are being released this month.  So we better get started now so we can have time to read them all!

Titles To Pick Up Now:

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties constellationthat bind us together.  In his brilliant, haunting novel, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya, where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.  For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

we need new names

 

 

Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.  But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her–from Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee–while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

 

 

A novel about fear of the future—and the future of fear.  New York City, the near future: Mitchell Zukor, a gifted young mathematician, is hired by a mysterious new financial consulting firm, FutureWorld. The business operates out of an empty office in the Empire State Building; Mitchell is employee number two. He is asked to calculate worst-case scenarios in the most intricate detail, and his schemes are sold to corporations to indemnify them against any future disasters. This is the cutting edge of corporateodds irresponsibility, and business is booming.  As Mitchell immerses himself in the mathematics of catastrophe—ecological collapse, war games, natural disasters—he becomes obsessed by a culture’s fears. Yet he also loses touch with his last connection to reality: Elsa Bruner, a friend with her own apocalyptic secret, who has started a commune in Maine. Then, just as Mitchell’s predictions reach a nightmarish crescendo, an actual worst-case scenario overtakes Manhattan. Mitchell realizes he is uniquely prepared to profit. But at what cost?  At once an all-too-plausible literary thriller, an unexpected love story, and a philosophically searching inquiry into the nature of fear, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow poses the ultimate questions of imagination and civilization. The future is not quite what it used to be.

 

 

 

and the mountains echoed

 

An unforgettable novel about finding a lost piece of yourself in someone else.  Khaled Hosseini, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations.   In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most. 
Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.

 

One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in anythe blood of heaven novelist, no matter their age.  The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.  The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut.

Coming Soon:

May 30 from Putnam Adult. 

Memorial Day, 1938: New York socialite Lily Dane has just returned with her family to the idyllic oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island, expecting another placid summer season among the familiar traditions and friendships that sustained her 

a hundred summers

after heartbreak.   That is, until Greenwalds decide to take up residence in Seaview.  Nick and Budgie Greenwald are an unwelcome specter from Lily’s past: her former best friend and her former fiancé, now recently married—an event that set off a wildfire of gossip among the elite of Seaview, who have summered together for generations. Budgie’s arrival to restore her family’s old house puts her once more in the center of the community’s social scene, and she insinuates herself back into Lily’s friendship with an overpowering talent for seduction…and an alluring acquaintance from their college days, Yankees pitcher Graham Pendleton. But the ties that bind Lily to Nick are too strong and intricate to ignore, and the two are drawn back into long-buried dreams, despite their uneasy secrets and many emotional obligations.   Under the scorching summer sun, the unexpected truth of Budgie and Nick’s marriage bubbles to the surface, and as a cataclysmic hurricane barrels unseen up the Atlantic and into New England, Lily and Nick must confront an emotional cyclone of their own, which will change their worlds forever.

 

June 3 from Liveright

last summer

Set on Cape Cod during one tumultuous summer, Elizabeth Kelly’s gothic family story will delight readers of The Family Fang and The Giant’s House.  The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, from the best-selling author ofApologize, Apologize!, introduces Riddle James Camperdown, the twelve-year-old daughter of the idealistic Camp and his manicured, razor-sharp wife, Greer. It’s 1972, and Riddle’s father is running for office from the family compound in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Between Camp’s desire to toughen her up and Greer’s demand for glamour, Riddle has her hands full juggling her eccentric parents. When she accidentally witnesses a crime close to home, her confusion and fear keep her silent. As the summer unfolds, the consequences of her silence multiply. Another mysterious and powerful family, the Devlins, slowly emerges as the keepers of astonishing secrets that could shatter the Camperdowns. As an old love triangle, bitter war wounds, and the struggle for status spiral out of control, Riddle can only watch, hoping for the courage to reveal the truth. The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is poised to become the summer’s uproarious and dramatic must-read.

June 4 from Riverhead

yonahlosseeA lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls’-school rituals, set in the 1930s South.  It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country.  Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner—a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression—and the major debut of an important new writer.

June 11 from Thomas & Mercer

 

Booklist “Top 10″ author Aric Davis returns with The Fort, a brutal coming-of-age tale forged with the lost innocence of Stephen King’s Stand by Me and the rich atmosphere of Dennis Lahane’s Gone Baby Gone.  In the waning summer days of 1987, Vietnam vet Matt Hooper abducts and kills nameless young women from the streets, replaying violent wargames he can’t escape.  In a twisted turn of events, he picks up sixteen-year-old neighborhood kid Molly Peterson and she goes missing–but this time, there are the fortwitnesses.  For high up in their makeshift fort, local boys Tim, Luke, and Scott spy a strange man in the woods with a gun to Molly’s back, and for the first time in their lives, experience evil lurking in their suburban backyards.  The boys seek help from Detective Richard Van Endel, but their story is taken as foolish make-believe, and their only choice is to shed their adolescence and track down Molly and the killer.  These aren’t childhood games anymore; they can never go back to the long days of summer.  The author of A Good and Useful Hurt and Nickel Plated, Aric Davis returns us to the days of his youth, when the ever present shadow of a violent war gave way to paradise lost.

 

 

 

 

June 11 from Knopf

engagements

From the New York Times best-selling author of Commencement and Maine comes a gorgeous, sprawling novel about marriage—about those who marry in a white heat of passion, those who marry for partnership and comfort, and those who live together, love each other, and have absolutely no intention of ruining it all with a wedding.  Evelyn has been married to her husband for forty years—forty years since he slipped off her first wedding ring and put his own in its place. Delphine has seen both sides of love—the ecstatic, glorious highs of seduction, and the bitter, spiteful fury that descends when it’s over. James, a paramedic who works the night shift, knows his wife’s family thinks she could have done better; while Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, has seen every kind of wedding—beach weddings, backyard weddings, castle weddings—and has vowed never, ever, to have one of her own.   As these lives and marriages unfold in surprising ways, we meet Frances Gerety, a young advertising copywriter in 1947. Frances is working on the De Beers campaign and she needs a signature line, so, one night before bed, she scribbles a phrase on a scrap of paper: “A Diamond Is Forever.” And that line changes everything.  A rich, layered, exhilarating novel spanning nearly a hundred years, The Engagements captures four wholly unique marriages, while tracing the story of diamonds in America, and the way—for better or for worse—these glittering stones have come to symbolize our deepest hopes for everlasting love.

June 18 from Soho Press

in the house

 

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.  This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

 

June 18 from Doubleday

A spectacularly original, vibrant, and spirited debut narrated by a shy, sensitive college student who, in her search for love and lovebirdfamily, must flee everything she knows.    Margie Fitzgerald has always had a soft spot for helpless creatures. Her warm heart breaks, her left ovary twinges, and Margie finds herself smitten with sympathy. This is how Margie falls in love with her Latin professor, a lonely widower and single father who trembles visibly in class. This is how Margie joins a band of ragtag student activists called H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Encouraging Animal Rights Today) in liberating lovebirds from their pet-store cages. And this is how Margie becomes involved in a plan so dangerous, so reckless, and so illegal, that she must flee her California college town, cut off contact with her dear old dad, and start fresh in a place unlike anywhere she has ever been. Introducing one of the most unforgettable heroines in recent fiction, The Lovebird is a novel about a girl who can’t abandon a lost cause, who loves animals, and who must travel to the loneliest place on earth to figure out where she really belongs.

 

 

June 18 from Soho Crime

Sequel to ROCK PAPER TIGER

Sequel to 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 when her mom takes up with “that nice Mr. Zhou next door,” Ellie decides that it’s time to get out of town—given her mother’s past bad choices of men, no good can come of this.  An old Army buddy, Dog Turner, gives her the perfect excuse. His unstable brother Jason has disappeared in picturesque Yangshuo, a famous tourist destination, and though Ellie knows it’s a long shot, she agrees to try to find him. At worst, she figures she’ll have a few days of fun in some gorgeous scenery.  But her plans for a relaxing vacation are immediately complicated when her mother and the new boyfriend tag along. And as soon as she starts asking questions about the missing Jason, Ellie realizes that she’s stumbled into a dangerous conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, an art-obsessed Chinese billionaire and lots of cats—one that will take her on a wild chase through some of China’s most beautiful—and most surreal—places.

 

June 25 from Redhook

universe

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.   But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.   So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

Paperback Releases

June 4 from Simon & Schuster

banyan

In her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, fiction eerily mirrors Ratner’s reality, as she tells the visceral and achingly heartbreaking story of 7-year-old Raami, a member of the royal family and a child who should never have had to see the things she witnessed.  Raami’s story is loosely based on Ratner’s life.

Like Ratner, Raami holds on to her innocence as only a very young child can.  Raami transports herself away from the ugliness and violence around her by turning inward.  For a time, she does not speak.  She is in a world of her own making.  Ratner employs magical realism, and this literary device works well when one is telling a story from the point of view of a 7-year-old, especially one who has seen such horror.  –From my book review

Read my interview with Vaddey Ratner here.

 

June 18 from Simon & Schuster

green shoreIn a nod to her father’s birthplace, Natalie sets her story mostly in Greece and focuses on a dark period of the country’s history, one that is virtually unknown to most: the 1967 to 1974 military dictatorship.  This period in Greek history, quite honestly, was Greek to this reviewer.  Natalie Bakopoulos, though, takes this event and personalizes it.  In her novel, the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political…Since Bakopoulos is part Greek, she is intimately aware of Greek history and tradition.  Her knowledge and familiarity with Greece make this story all the more authentic.  Early on in the novel, Eleni and the rest of the family celebrate Easter.  Each takes a dyed-red egg.  Bakopoulos writes, “As was tradition, they would each take a hard-boiled, bright red egg and hit it together with the adjacent person’s, first the pointed end and then the round.  The last one with an intact egg was destined to have good fortune for the rest of the year.”  Reading this description, I could not help but wonder if the family itself would be cracked and broken by novel’s end.  Bakopoulos’s use of this Greek tradition is clever foreshadowing.     –From my book review

June 18 from Back Bay Books

tigers

Klaussmann channels F. Scott Fitzgerald in her decades-spanning tale, which suspensefully and chillingly allows us to witness events as five different people see them, showing how much point of view matters in storytelling.   –From my blurb in Elle, December 2012

Read my full review here

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What are you looking forward to reading in June?  I’d love to hear from you!

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Book Review: Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).

is this tomorrow

            Fear of communism and nuclear war permeated the psyches of millions of Americans in the 1950s.  Public and private concerns were heightened by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he proclaimed that hundreds of Communists had infiltrated the United States government.  Many writers and entertainers were accused of sympathizing with Communists and thus were blacklisted.  His accusations were later disproved, but that did not stop his fervor from spreading.

In her tenth and best novel, Is This Tomorrow, expert storyteller Caroline Leavitt capitalizes on these anxieties.  “You can’t trust these Communists,” one of Leavitt’s minor characters maintains.  “They couldn’t tell the truth if they wanted to….You kids think it’s funny, but any second a missile could come down on us,” he insists.  “And we wouldn’t even see it or be prepared.  One minute we’re here talking in this nice neighborhood, and two seconds later, boom, we’re ash.”  In his eyes, the Russians “hide explosives” and could be anywhere, even in his own neighborhood, “and we wouldn’t even know it.”

The era in which Leavitt sets her story is perfect for her setting.  Father Knows Best gently reminds American kids who is boss in the household.  Echoes of “just wait until your father gets home” are heard all across the United States as the mother keeps house and raises the children and the father brings home the bacon.  Doors are left unlocked.  Sunday is the Lord’s day.  The post-war economy is booming, and so is the birthrate.  Everything seems idyllic, but appearances often deceive, as we all know.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is at its frostiest with no signs of thaw.  Nuclear annihilation is a real and daily threat as school kids are taught to duck and cover and worried fathers build bomb shelters.  New phrases such as Red Scare and Yellow Menace become part of the everyday lexicon.  Americans view those who are different, who do not conform, who look different, who sound different, and who worship differently with contempt.  Anyone deemed not like everyone else was considered deviant.

Life seems peachy for Americans, but ugliness and fear lurk just under the surface.  This juxtaposition is at the heart of Leavitt’s taut, atmospheric, and humane tale.  Blending a coming-of-age saga with history and mystery, Leavitt creates a tense and suspenseful atmosphere when a neighborhood boy goes missing.

Is This Tomorrow is told from three different and varied perspectives: Ava, divorcee, working mother, and the head of the only Jewish family on the block; Lewis, her son; and Rose, her son’s best friend and sister to Jimmy, the youth who vanishes.  Although Jimmy is not a narrator, his disappearance looms over the novel; his presence and his absence are powerfully palpable.

Because Ava is different from the other neighborhood parents, she is suspect.  Ava locks her doors when all the other doors are unlocked; she works when the rest of the mothers do not have jobs outside the home.  She does not dress like the other mothers and she has had a string of boyfriends. The neighbors see her as a floozy.  These things do not necessarily damn her, though.  Other parents believe she may have had an inappropriate relationship with her son’s best friend.  Ava denies it but admits she knew Jimmy had a crush on her.  He was at Ava’s the day he went missing.

Jimmy’s disappearance profoundly changes the lives of all of Leavitt’s main characters.  Jimmy’s departure leaves Ava, Lewis, and Rose stuck and unable to go forward.  The calendar turns and they grow older, but they are still stuck in the moment Jimmy faded away forever.  They have too many loose ends in their lives, and the burning desire to know what happened drives them.

Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rose, Jimmy’s sister, becomes a teacher but never forgets her family tragedy as she desperately pleads with the principal to put a fence around the playground so school kids will not wander off.  Lewis withdraws from his mother and searches for his father, who once wanted custody of Lewis but has since vanished himself.  Ava feels alone and bakes pies that she sells to a local restaurant but has never forgotten Jimmy and the day he seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Leavitt hooks you in the first chapter when young Jimmy goes missing and does not let you go until the very last page.  I was riveted.  Leavitt provides readers with timely and weighty issues such as missing children, difference, and paranoia.

With expert pacing, the author takes her time revealing secrets.  This master storyteller is meticulous and wise as she teases out every detail but still keeps you guessing.  Is This Tomorrow is atmospheric and taut and has everything you could ever want in a book: compelling, fully realized characters; an intense, dramatic, and compelling plot; and the perfect, evocative setting.  Everything comes together superbly in Leavitt’s skilled hands.

The title is taken from a propaganda comic book that came out in 1947 and warned of the dangers of a Communist takeover.  An estimated four million Americans purchased the educational comic, no doubt contributing to the fear and paranoia of the 1950s.  In Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt brings this era to life and illustrates how fear of the unknown and fear of difference transformed a country, a community, and a people.  Although her book is set primarily in a time very different from our own age, Is This Tomorrow is a cautionary tale for us in the Twenty-First Century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Book Review: A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $26.95).

teaspoon.jpg

            In 1981, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi shows her best friend, Ponneh, an issue of Life Magazine dated January 22, 1971.  The young Iranian girls look at the pages, featuring a newly-engaged Tricia Nixon, in awe.  “Ta-ree-sha Nik-soon,” Saba says, is “the daughter of the American Shah.”

As far as the two girls are concerned, Ms. Nixon’s world is straight out of a fairy tale.  “She is a princess.  Shahzadeh Nixon.”  Saba soaks up the four-page magazine spread of the smiling young woman and her beau, Ed Cox.  For Saba, the main character in Dina Nayeri’s breathtakingly beautiful debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, the daughter of the American president is vibrant and mysterious, and she is, above all, American.  Saba is enamored of everything American. And it’s very easy to understand why—post-revolutionary Iran is no place for a girl to grow up in.

Overnight, or at least it seemed so to Saba, the “pro-scarf people” overthrew the “pro-hair government.”  Just like that, the things Saba loves—nail polish, shorts, bare arms in summer, new music—are forbidden. Every part of Saba’s body must be covered.  Nayeri writes, “They [the new government] shut up beautiful things in dark places, so no one can see…What do you do when you want to douse a fire?  You throw a big, heavy cloth over it, deprive it of oxygen.”  That is exactly what the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters do to Iranian women.

But, in the summer of 1981, Saba does not yet care about all that.  Her concern is Mahtab.  Without her twin sister, Saba feels like an important piece of her body and her soul is missing.  What really happened to Mahtab, and to their mother, who disappeared the same day, is a mystery to Saba.

Saba cannot remember much about that day; everything is “muddled memories within memories.”  She recalls feeling dizzy, and her head ached.  It had hurt ever since “that night on the beach,” but she is oblivious as to what occurred or how she injured herself.  Saba is clear about one thing: she thought they were all going to take a plane to America, her mother, her sister, and herself.  Her father was to stay behind for the time being.

That was not to be.  As Nayeri wisely maintains“memory plays such cruel tricks on the mind.”  Saba can only recall seeing a woman dressed similarly to her mother, holding the hand of a little girl who looked just like Mahtab, getting onto an airplane to America.

Just like that, they vanish out of Saba’s life forever.  Nothing can fill the void of her twin, not Ponneh, not her father, and not even Reza, a boy she has a crush on.

Because Iranians believe that “all of life is written in the blood” and that twins must share the same fate, Saba believes that everything she experiences and endures her twin must also face and live through.  Thus, Saba imagines her sister’s life in America.

America, or at least the America that exists in her mind, captivates Saba.  She comes up with elaborate tales in which Mahtab confronts a problem or learns a lesson that Saba has recently tackled.  Since Saba is so obsessed with American television (Family Ties, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years, and The Cosby Show—all family dramas), each episode of Mahtab’s life lasts no longer than 22.5 minutes, the average length of a 30-minute TV show, minus the commercials.  These chapters help Saba feel closer to her sister, who is surely “conquering the world so many scoops of a teaspoon away.”

Since Saba herself cannot attend a prestigious university (she will marry instead), Mahtab gets accepted into the very best American institution of higher learning—Harvard.  Nayeri expertly personifies Harvard University—“Baba” Harvard.  The university becomes Mahtab’s father since Mahtab’s true father is absent.  Baba Harvard is kind, comforting, stern when necessary, and paternalistic.

Saba holds onto the hope that her sister is living the American dream, an Iranian Tricia Nixon, even though those around her insist her sister’s fate lies elsewhere.  Saba knows this, too.  Yet Iranians place a high value on the art of storytelling.  “At the end of every tale, Nayeri explains in her story, “the storyteller is required to do the truth-and-lies poem, the one that rhymes ‘yogurt’ and ‘yogurt soda’ (maast and doogh) with ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ (raast and doroogh).”  Lying “well is crucial” in Iran, but Saba must stop lying to herself if she is to have a life of her own.

This story is very personal for Nayeri.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s own dream of Iran, “created from a distance just as Saba invents a dreamed-up America for her sister.”  Saba “longs to visit the America on television” just as strongly as Nayeri longs “to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.”  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is Nayeri’s very “own Mahtab dream.”

What a dream Nayeri has invented for us.  A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea effectively transports the reader to post-revolutionary Iran and into this small village.  Nayeri’s passion and elegance are visible throughout her tale as she explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, family, identity, and memory.  Most of all, she illustrates how stories have the power to transform our lives.

Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri

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