Tag Archives: debut novel

Book Review: The Third Son by Julie Wu

The Third Son by Julie Wu (Algonquin Books; 320 pages; $24.95).


Rocky Balboa had an anthem, and so did Daniel LaRusso.  Saburo, the irresistible protagonist in Julie Wu’s dazzling first novel, The Third Son, does not have an anthem, nor does he have a championship title, trophy, or belt.  But Saburo is just as much an unlikely and humble hero as Rocky and the Karate Kid are.  With a strong will, a big heart, and an indefatigable spirit, Saburo fights to survive and thrive in the midst of a family that deems him unimportant and a country drowning in violence, tumult, and autocracy.

A rich and evocative epic, The Third Son centers on Saburo, a tender and good-hearted underdog who drives Wu’s commanding historical novel.  Wu introduces Saburo when he is eight years old, in 1943, weeks before the Japanese begin bombing Taiwan.  As Saburo recalls in his own distinctive voice, “We all understood Japanese.  Taiwan had been a Japanese colony since 1895.”  The official language of Taiwan is Japanese, and even his family’s last name, Togo, is Japanese.  “But in our heads and in our home,” Saburo explains, “we spoke and were Taiwanese, descendants of the Mainland Chinese….”

Saburo’s life, like Taiwan itself, is complex.  He is the third son, “different, somehow,” from his elder brothers Kazuo and Jiro.  Saburo does not have a mind for his studies or sports.  Instead, it is ” far more interesting” for Saburo, “despite the real and everpresent threat of being struck by” his teacher, “to study the sky outside.”  The third son of the Togo family loves “the sky, its boundless, lovely blue, the translucent ruffled pattern of clouds stretching across it.”

Because his face is forever turned toward the skies, he spots the Japanese planes on the horizon before the air raid sirens sound.  While fleeing Japanese bombers, Saburo meets a young girl, Yoshiko, and is instantly smitten.  After their initial encounter, she suddenly vanishes; her disappearance breaks his young, tender heart.

Wu creates a pattern with the loss of Yoshiko.  Nothing comes easily to Saburo; life, for him, is a struggle.  Throughout The Third Son, Saburo must fight.  He must fight for food, because the majority of food in his household goes to his brothers and not to him.  He must fight to live when sickness threatens to overcome him.  Saburo must even fight to learn and so cherishes reading The Earth, a book his cousin gives him.

Saburo is “fed as much” from his “growing knowledge of the stratosphere, the ionosphere, and the aurora borealis as from the berries and mushrooms and silvery fish” that he collects from the land around him.   “Reading the book” is a “balm” for Saburo, as he witnesses “all the changes in the world outside.”  But even that is taken from him.

As the third son, Saburo must also fight for an education.  His older brothers are given instruction, but not Saburo.  He learns English on his own and studies to be an electrician.  His world is shaken, though, when he sees Yoshiko, after years of trying to find her, in the company of his oldest brother.  If he wants her in his life, then Saburo must fight for love.

As the years pass, and Saburo wrangles for position in his family and in his country, he comes to see that his future is not in Taiwan.  “Saburo,” his cousin tells him, “you have only have one life.  Fight for it.”  This is all the impetus Saburo needs to try to find a place in America, yet he must also fight to study and work in the United States.  That could be the biggest challenge of all.

As Saburo battles his naysayers and fights for a better life, we cannot help but cheer on this beloved underdog.  He maintains a great deal of persistence and perseverance despite the obstacles Wu throws in his path.  Because we watch him grow to be a good and just man, we develop a strong bond with Saburo; he becomes important to us.  Wu forces us to connect emotionally with this character, and the link lasts well beyond finishing the story.

The Third Son is a rich debut featuring a character who I came to see as family.  Saburo is a very special narrator, one who resonates and one who will steal your heart.  Wu’s story is perfect for fans of Samuel Park, Jamie Ford, Janice Y.K. Lee, and Lisa See.  Saburo has so much to teach us about life and about living.

Debut novelist Julie Wu

Debut novelist Julie Wu



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

Interview with Melanie Thorne, Author of Hand Me Down

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Melanie, for letting me ask you these questions. Hand Me Down is so incredibly powerful and provocative.


Melanie Thorne: Thank you, Jaime, for taking the time to ask such insightful questions!


JB: Did you always want to be a writer?


MT: It didn’t even occur to me that I could make a career as a writer until I was in my early twenties and Pam Houston suggested I apply to creative writing graduate programs. For most of my youth, I wanted to be a rock star or an actress/singer.


JB: How would you describe Hand Me Down in ten words or less?


MT: OMG, this is so hard! Here goes: A tough, tender novel about sisters searching for home.


JB: Hand Me Down is semi-autobiographical.  Can you explain?


MT: The basic outline of events in the novel—Liz’s mother choosing her sex-offender husband over her daughters, the sisters’ separation and subsequent journey—is based on my childhood experience. But in writing and revising this book over the years, real people turned into characters, timelines and places and exact details were altered and adjusted to better serve the story, so the result is a mix of truth and fiction.


JB: Why did you want to write a novel instead of a memoir?


MT: When I first started writing Hand Me Down, I had images of a “based on a true story” line on the eventual cover. There was a part of me that wanted the world to know that these events had really happened, but as I got deeper into the project, there was a bigger part of me that wanted the freedom to shape the truth of what happened in order to tell the truth of the story. In a novel, I could make stuff up without worrying about the limitations of “what really happened” so I could get at the larger emotional truths more easily. There is also an aspect of protection in writing a novel. No one knows which parts are pulled directly from my teenage journals and which parts I made up completely, and I appreciate that little bit of shelter.


JB: The title Hand Me Down has so many meanings to me in this story: sisters Liz and Jaime are passed from relative to relative almost like an old garment yet abuse is also passed down like eye color and diabetes in your story.  What does the title mean to you?


MT: Very close to what you said, actually, which is great to hear. I tried so hard to come up with a title that would encompass the idea of Liz and Jaime literally moving from place to place, and also the idea of qualities and behaviors—both genetic and learned traits—being passed down through generations. I had pages and pages of possible title lists in my journals and then one morning I woke up and Hand Me Down had appeared in my brain like a little present from the writing fairy.


JB: Hand Me Down is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Liz.  Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?  Do you think the story would have the same deeply moving effect on the reader if you had not used the first-person point of view?


MT: Part of the motivation for writing this story was hearing my angry and hurt teenage self in my head, begging at first, and then demanding that I let her tell her story. She needed to be heard, that part of me needed to be heard, so I thought I’d give her a voice retroactively, on the page. First person was the only way for me to truly let Liz tell this story, and I’m not sure it would have been as powerful without access to Liz’s emotions and inner thoughts. There is so much she doesn’t say for so long that having insight into her mind allows readers to connect with her more.


JB: I know you have a younger sister.  Is the character of Jaime based on her?  What has been her reaction to your novel?  What has been the reaction of other family members?


MT: Jaime is indeed based on my sister, and much of Liz and Jaime’s dynamic is the same as my and my sister’s. The first thing she said after she read Hand Me Down was, “I forgot what a jerk Dad was.” The book brought up a lot of memories for her, but it was also gratifying to hear that the one other person who’d lived some of these experiences felt I’d gotten them right. My sister has been incredibly supportive, as have the rest of my family members. I think it’s been difficult to have so much of this stuff stirred up and put out in the public, and they have been so understanding and supportive, and best of all, proud of me for this accomplishment. I’m so lucky to have them.


JB: Liz is based on you.  How are you alike and how are you different?


MT: Liz and I were both fighters; both of us skeptical and cautious, slow to trust but fiercely loyal. We were both independent, but acted tougher than we felt; both driven and determined to succeed beyond what the world expected given our circumstances. But Liz is braver than I was at fourteen, says the things I wish I’d said, takes action when I would have retreated. I like to think of her as a stronger version of my teenage self; me with the benefit of ten years of hindsight.


JB: How does Hand Me Down differ from what really happened to you? 


MT: It’s hard to separate out all the little exaggerations or adjustments I made in the process of fictionalizing my experiences. I can tell you that one of the few entirely made-up scenes in the novel is the big climax scene with all involved parties near the end. There wasn’t a big blow out fight like that in real life, but the book needed to hit a peak, and I thought bringing everyone together would cause sparks to fly.


JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Hand Me Down?  Was it hard recalling painful events and issues?  Did you ever just stop writing and leave it for a while?  Or even cry and rage at the past?


MT: There were definitely issues that were difficult to confront and moments that hurt to relive, but it was worth the uncomfortable trips down memory lane. The initial planning and research—which mainly involved reading old journals from when I was fourteen—made me cry a lot. I did rage some, too, but most of that was in the early stages of the project, the personal steps I needed to take towards healing that made it possible for me to write a three-dimensional story that was bigger than just me.


I did take long breaks while working on it because I was too busy working the jobs that paid the bills to write much, but I think those pockets of time away really helped me to process the events and gave me (and the book) a better perspective.


JB: The paperback version of Hand Me Down, published March 26, has an epilogue.  Why did you choose to add an epilogue to the paperback edition?


MT: The epilogue, “Word Association” was originally a story I wrote in grad school that features Liz and Jaime about ten years after the events in Hand Me Down. My agent and editor thought it would be a nice addition to the paperback as a glimpse into the futures of the characters, and I agreed. Many readers have written to me asking for a sequel, so I think they are really going to like this extra bonus material. I also love the way we’ve added it: as an essay Liz writes for a creative writing class in school, just like I did in real life.


JB: Hand Me Down was originally your thesis.  Writing it, did you have any idea that one day it would be a successful and compelling novel?


MT: I hoped that it would be both those things, but at that point, mostly just enough for me to satisfy my degree requirements and not make a fool of myself at my thesis defense. I never really thought it would become a real book until it did, and sometimes it still seems unreal.


JB: How has writing this book helped you overcome your own neglect and abuse?


MT: One of the biggest things I realized while writing Liz’s journey was that the mistakes her parents made—the mistakes my parents made—were not about her or me, but rather results of their own childhood traumas. For a long time I wondered what I had done wrong, as so many kids in these situations do, and I beat myself up over the ways I could have tried harder to be good enough to keep.


Writing Hand Me Down helped me see that my parents’ choices were influenced by their own abusive childhoods, and I learned to accept that their errors were not my burden or responsibility. What is my responsibility is how I choose to move forward.


JB: Have you heard from readers who shared a similar childhood as you did?  Is the novel helping them come to terms with their own pasts?


MT: Yes, many readers have written or told me their stories of abuse and family betrayals, of separation from parents and siblings, of being forced to move out at young ages, or bouncing between friends’ couches and guest beds to avoid unsafe households.


A woman in her late sixties wrote to me and told me she’d been abused as a child and had never told anyone until now. My book had given her the strength to say out loud the unspeakable things she’d experienced. It made me cry. There seems to be a sense of freedom in these readers in finally expressing their private tragedies, and it’s amazing for me to be able to witness their first steps toward recovering.


JB: What was it like working with Pam Houston and Lynn Freed at UC Davis?  What advice did they give you?


MT: Pam and Lynn are tremendously talented writers and teachers, and I learned so much from both of them. I think the greatest advice I got from Pam was to resist the urge to write the lines that say, “Look, reader, at how bad it was.” She taught me to earn the emotions, to show them by focusing on the concrete physical world. From Lynn, “Smother your darlings” and “Less is more” are the two bits of advice that stand out the most. I am so grateful to have been able to work with such amazing women.


JB: What advice do you have for anyone writing a debut novel?  Or for anyone writing about trauma in his or her own life?


MT: In writing about a personal trauma, I think it’s important to try to look at the events from multiple angles. That might not happen in the first draft, and it’s normal to write your side first. But in revisions, shift your perspective and do your best to see through the eyes of multiple people involved. Don’t be afraid to admit the hardest thing about your characters, especially if one of them is you. Writing the difficult truths makes the best stories.


For all writers, I’d say just keep going. That is the only thing you can do.


JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?


MT: Reading, of course, gardening, watching smart TV, going to the beach, walking in pretty places, crafting, singing, cooking, and having good conversations with friends.


JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?


MT: Oh, boy. There are so many, and so many ways to classify favorites. But here are a few off the top of my head in no particular order. Books: Kindred, Animal Dreams, The Beach, Good in Bed, Alice in Wonderland, The God of Animals. Authors: Pam Houston, Christopher Pike, Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Allison, Amy Bloom.


JB: What are you currently reading?


MT: I just finished The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about heart-breaking.


JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?


MT: Nancy Drew and Christopher Pike books were my earliest major influences, and then when I began to study the craft of writing, Pam Houston, Toni Morrison, and Dorothy Allison inspired me with the strength of their writing and the power of their stories.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Hand Me Down?


MT: I think the biggest lesson Liz learns is to speak up, which is a lesson I also learned in writing this story, and something I hope anyone else who has caged a secret in their chest will take away from the book. It’s so important to unearth the betrayals and abuse that often get buried in embarrassment or fear or shame. It’s necessary to discuss those uncomfortable truths, to release the pent-up emotions in order to begin to heal. I hope that’s another take-away: hardship doesn’t have to mean destruction; getting the truth out in the open is the first step in moving on.


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


MT: I’m currently in the early stages of writing my next novel. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and, like Hand Me Down, this next book will ask questions about what it means to be a family. I love the contradictions in people, the complexities of what people try to hide and why. The dysfunctional family I’m brewing in my head should be interesting to live with for the foreseeable future and fun to introduce to the world when I’m ready.


JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Melanie, and best of luck.


MT: Thank you, Jaime! It’s been a pleasure.



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Filed under author interviews, books, fiction, literary fiction

April Fiction–Lots of Books Blooming!

This is the start of something new.  Spring is new, and the time could not be more perfect.  From now on, at the beginning of each month, I am going to share with you the notable new releases for that month.  You’re in luck!  There’s much to talk about for April.

Before I begin, please note: If there is a book you’re keen on that is not listed here, let me know.  Perhaps I do not know about it and would like to read it.  I will try to limit myself to ten books.  Sometimes I may have more; sometimes I may have less.  It all depends.

Without further ado.  Here are the books I’m excited about for April.

1.  The Lifeboat Charlotte Rogan

The debut novel of Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat, is getting a lot of attention right now.  That is amazing, considering it was released on April 3.  The New York Times ran a review in which I learned Rogan was 57 when she got her book deal.  What an inspiration she is!  The Lifeboat is perfect for your book club and the main character, Grace, on trial for murder, will generate much discussion.

2.  The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

This novel was released March 27, but Amazon has the title listed as one of its best of April.  Another debut, The Land of Decoration features a ten-year-old heroine named Judith.  It’s difficult to resist a story which Emma Donoghue, author of Room, said “grabbed me by the throat.”

3.  The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

Robert Olmstead’s The Coldest Night is another title you can pick up now.  Olmstead sets his story during the Korean War and after.  I am lucky because Olmstead will visit Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 19.  If your local bookstore features signings, check to see if Olmstead will be there.

4.  The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

People Magazine loves this novel about four Harvard roommates who reunite after 20 years.  Their seemingly perfect lives are anything but.  The Red Book has been called The Big Chill meets The Group.”  This novel is out now.

5.  Calico Joe by John Grisham

John Grisham’s newest book, Calico Joe, is one of Amazon’s best books of the month and comes out April 10.  This time, Grisham turns to baseball and explores the themes of forgiveness and redemption.  Like all of Grisham’s previous novels, Calico Joe is sure to become a bestseller.

6.  The Cove by Ron Rash

The bestselling author of Serena returns with The Cove.  The novel is about a sister and brother and the cove, which may be cursed, where they live.  Rash will appear at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on April 18.  Be sure to check in your area.  Your city may be a stop on his tour.  The Cove is an Amazon best book of the month.

7.  The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I must confess that I have never read Anne Tyler, but The Beginner’s Goodbye intrigues me.  Tyler tells the story of a middle-aged widower who is having a difficult time dealing with the death of his wife.  Until he starts seeing her, that is.  Amazon has this listed as one of the best books of the month.

8.  A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

I cannot wait to read Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, to be released April 17.  Cash’s debut has been compared to those of John Hart and Tom Franklin.  Amazon chose the novel as one of its best books of the month.  Cash will sign copies of his book on June 1, at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS.  A Land More Kind Than Home is a “mesmerizing literary thriller about the bond between two brothers and the evil they face in a small western North Carolina town.”

9.  Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

The author of The Absence of Nectar and The House of Gentle Men (two of my favorites) returns with Blue Asylum.  I would love to interview Hepinstall.  During the Civil War, a Virginia plantation mistress is put on trial and convicted of madness.  She is sent to Sanibel Asylum, where she meets many interesting people.  Hepinstall asks the questions what is madness and who decides in this gripping tale.

10.  Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

On the cusp of World War I, a young English actor has an affair.  She later goes to the police and accuses her former lover of rape.  In a twist, the young man is saved from trial by two diplomats.  William Boyd’s upcoming book is already getting lots of buzz before its April 17 release.  This one could be a stunner!


Which books are you excited about this month?  What about for summer?  I’d love to hear all about them!


Filed under book review, book signing, books, fiction, Lemuria Books

The Lost Saints of Tennessee

The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis (Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 pages; $25).


The Lost Saints of Tennessee is the debut novel of Amy Franklin-Willis, an eighth-generation Southerner born in Birmingham, Alabama.  She was “raised on the tall tales” of her father’s “Huck Finn-like boyhood” growing up in Pocahontas, Tennessee, and those recollections inspired her multi-generational family saga.  Although her story is set in the fictional town of Clayton, it serves as a “love letter” to her father’s hometown.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee also “pays homage” to her grandmother, who “made the best corn bread in the world, smoked cigarettes in the bathroom so she wouldn’t set a bad example for her grandkids, and made strangers feel like family and family feel beloved.”  And that is exactly what you will feel for the Coopers and the Parkers as you read this book: these characters become like your family, and you will not want to let them go.


Franklin-Willis tells the story in two distinct yet compelling voices, Ezekiel “Zeke” Cooper and his mother Lillian Parker Cooper.  Both first-person narratives speak to us back and forth through time from the 1940s to the 1980s, revealing the ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs, of a family.


Zeke is not at his best when we first meet him.  Recently divorced from his high-school sweetheart, Jackie, distant from his two daughters, and still distraught over the tragic death of his twin brother, Carter, Zeke plans on killing himself and his beloved old dog, Tucker, in a motel room in Pigeon Forge.  Because this is primarily a story about redemption and second chances, Zeke fails in his suicide attempt.  We breathe a sigh of relief, because we are already invested in the story and in its characters.


Little by little, it is revealed that Zeke and his mother are somewhat estranged.  He cannot forgive her for what she did to his twin, who was forever damaged after having the measles as a toddler.  There is just too much on Zeke’s shoulders, and he wants to get away from everything.  Luckily, he finds an alternative to suicide.  Zeke had briefly stayed with Lillian’s cousins on a farm in Virginia when he went to college there.  Georgia and Oz are childless and have not forgotten Zeke after all these years.  In fact, they think of him as their son and open their home to him.  On the Virginia farm, Zeke becomes a new man, learning about farming, working through his problems, and even finding a second chance at love.


Lillian, meanwhile, discovers she has lung cancer.  “Isn’t it amazing when you think about it—that a machine can see right through your skin, through your blood, and see what’s wrong inside?”  She must have surgery to remove her lung.  Her first-person narrative really allows you to see what the family has been through and why certain choices were made in the past.  Interestingly, Zeke sees her as a bad mother, yet as I read Lillian’s account, I came away with the feeling she was anything but.


Parents, Lillian tells us, are not supposed to have favorite children.  But she and her husband “took up favorites pretty early with the boys.”  Her favorite was Zeke.  Lillian had wanted Zeke to escape the confines of Clayton.  Her dream was for him to go to college.  “You see those lights up in the sky, Ezekiel?  You see the brightest one” she said.  “That, my boy, is you.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.  You’re one of the chosen ones.  God will strengthen you.  That’s what your name means.”  It was Lillian who persuaded Zeke to go to college in Virginia, and it was Lillian who kept the truth from him after a horrible accident.  That catastrophe was the turning point in the relationship between mother and son.  Nothing would ever be the same between them until Lillian’s surgery brings the whole family together.  A new chapter then begins for the Coopers and the Parkers.


            I did find a few faults in the novel.  Franklin-Willis is at her best when writing for Zeke and Lillian, but she tends to use too many stock characters.  For example, Jackie takes on the role of jealous, whining, unhappy ex-wife.  His older daughter, Honora, is mad at her father and seems to want to hurt him in any way she can.  So what does she do?  She turns to a boy who breaks her heart and ruins her reputation in Clayton.  Zeke’s love interest in Virginia is a divorced rich girl who rides horses.  Zeke’s twin, Carter, has the exact kind of life and death you would expect from someone with mental retardation.  The real problem with Franklin-Willis, then, is that her story is often too predictable.  She is much better at writing this family’s past than she is at describing their present.  Lillian’s voice is particularly strong, and her remembrances mark my favorite part of The Lost Saints of Tennessee.


If you’re looking for a feel-good story about family, love, redemption, and second chances, Franklin-Willis delivers all that and more.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee is a heart-warming debut from a talented up-and-coming Southern author.  I hope we see more of her.



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Filed under book review, books, fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers