Fans of Toni Morrison will find the new and not-so-new in her latest novel, God Help the Child. The new: This is Morrison's first book to be set in present day instead of the historical past. The not-so-new are the issues Morrison is known for tackling, such as sexual abuse, betrayal and race perceptions. Each is accounted for in this slim, spare novel about the ways in which people revive themselves from life's early trauma and rejection.
This story of a mother and her daughter stares down a heartrending path, punctuated by cruelty and denial. Sweetness, the mother, is a light-skinned African-American woman who is repulsed by the midnight blackness of her own daughter, Lula Ann. “She was so black she scared me,” says Sweetness, who calls herself “high yellow.” For Lula Ann, growing up with a distant mother meant that she would do just about anything to gain her attention, including telling a devastating lie that will haunt her. As an adult, Lula Ann changes her name to Bride. Successful, with a soon-to-be-launched cosmetic line, the stunningly beautiful young woman embraces her fashionable blue-blackness, dressing in accentuating white. She falls apart when her lover leaves her. Her search for him leads to more discoveries about herself and the man she may not know at all.
Told from shifting points-of-view, God Help the Child exudes characteristic Morrison prose with its powerful imagery and subtle emotional probing. There is also a bow to the author's canon of previous works, including a spell of magical realism that readers may recognize. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison is widely considered one of the world’s superb storytellers. And while the length of her novels may be shortening (this is her 11th and one of the leanest at 178 pages), the 84-year-old continues to mine the black American experience for lessons from the past. In her latest work, a breach of trust in childhood becomes the conduit that shapes all that comes later, making forgiveness and reconciliation necessary but daunting.
In 1985, the first Back to the Future movie was released and was an instant blockbuster. Two sequels followed and the trilogy remains popular. Ten years later, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, was released and became a touchstone for a generation. Two new books go behind the scenes of these seminal movies and offer gossipy tidbits, interviews, photographs and more.
We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy by Caseen Gaines explores the time-travelling vehicle which brought us Marty McFly and catapulted Michael J. Fox to superstardom. More than 50 original interviews were conducted with key players, including director Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Huey Lewis. Gaines shares insider information about the movie, including details of the recasting of Eric Stoltz and the resulting domino effect, but he also looks at the staying power and devoted fan base of these three inventive films.
As If!: The Oral History of Clueless As Told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew by Jen Chaney delivers on its title’s promise with an in-depth account of this innovative movie told by the people who were there. Chaney’s interviews garnered information about casting, costume design, soundtrack and setting, all of which were so vital to the film’s message and success. It appears that this Beverly Hills comedy of manners holds up after 20 years as it remains one of today’s most streamed movies. Chaney includes never-before-seen photos, original call sheets and casting notes, along with ideas as to why the movie continues to have such a powerful pop culture presence. Think you’ll find a more fun summer read? As Alicia Silverstone’s Cher would say: As if!
Jane Smiley continues the saga of the Langdon family with Early Warning, the second installment in her trilogy. Picking up the story from where it left off at the end of Some Luck, Early Warning begins in 1953. We follow the second generation through the Cold War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King and wars across the planet. Mothers raise their children according to Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach. Fathers take jobs that make their fortunes and bend their principles. Through the social unrest of the campuses, the shifting political tides, the Jonestown Massacre and Watergate there is one constancy — the family.
Only one child of Matthew and Roseanna Langdon will choose to stay on the farm. The siblings roam the country — in some cases the world — and settle in locations from Maryland to California. The Langdons are prolific, but fortunately Smiley provides a family tree in case we get lost. Indeed, some of the characters lose themselves along the way, only to find themselves in unexpected ways. Through it all, we find ourselves sharing the joy and heartache as each Langdon child negotiates the perils of adulthood and defines their own family. Despite the foibles of the world, it is ultimately the daily challenges that affect our lives the most.
Each chapter depicts a year of the characters’ lives. Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, is a master at weaving a tale through large historical events while never losing the minutia of daily life. In Early Warning, she chronicles the story of America through the lens of 19 characters while staying true to the story and their personalities.
Lisa Jewell’s riveting family drama The Third Wife unravels the layers of a seemingly cohesive blended family to reveal emotional scars and disquieting truths, all while delivering an authentic tale complete with love, loss and renewal. Jojo Moyes raves that this remarkable new novel is “Clever, intelligent . . . wonderful.”
At 48, Adrian Wolfe’s life is ideal. He is married to the much younger Maya who is perfectly at home in his world which consists of two ex-wives and five children. Maya’s calm spirit and amenable attitude mask a different reality which comes to a head when she can’t cope any more, gets plastered and is killed when she steps in front of a bus. Circumstances indicate that it was just a tragic accident, but a string of events a year after her death prompt Adrian to investigate what really happened.
First, Jane, an attractive stranger, begins appearing wherever Adrian and his family are. Then a series of vitriolic emails directed to Maya are unearthed and Adrian vows to uncover what really happened to his wife. As he uncovers more facts, he tries to avoid the real truth that his marriage was not a happy one and his family is not perfect. Jewell successfully manages to present multiple perspectives, including Maya’s, which allows the reader to see the other side of the Wolfe family, the unpleasant reality which Adrian ignored in an effort to make himself feel at peace with his abandonments. The characters are sharply written and the quick pace will keep you turning the page as revelations from the past affect the present all while creating an honest portrayal of a real modern family.
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, set for publication on July 14, is one of the most anticipated books in recent memory. Publisher Harper Collins has said that pre-orders for this novel are the highest in company history. The book has been closely guarded, but now a few details are being revealed with both The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian previewing the first chapter available here. If you want to get a taste of Reese Witherspoon’s narration of the audio book, here’s a sneak listen to the first chapter.
Lee’s second novel takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and opens with Scout returning by train to Maycomb, Alabama. Lee has said the novel did not undergo any revisions since she completed the manuscript in the 1950s and is “humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
Learn more about this big event, including a preview of PBS’ Thirteen Days of Harper Lee, on BCPL’s Tumblr, and be sure to check back for a Between the Covers post about the novel soon!
University chums meet to celebrate the wedding of one of their friends in Ann Cleeves’ Thin Air. Lowrie and Caroline want to start married life in the Scottish tradition, with a hamefarin’ on the most northerly Shetland Island of Unst. After the bridal march, friends of the bride and groom serve the celebration supper. It’s a time of joyous celebration, of new beginnings and old friends. That is, until Eleanor disappears, and Polly receives a text message, “Don’t bother looking for me. You won’t find me alive.”
Detectives Jimmy Perez and Willow Reeves investigate. They discover that Eleanor was desperate to have a child and had lost a baby late in her pregnancy. Before she disappeared, Eleanor claimed to see the ghost of a local child who drowned in the 1920s. Did Eleanor commit suicide? What is the meaning of the apparition? Is the mystery of the child’s death linked to Eleanor’s disappearance?
We become a part of the old college crowd, living through the evolution of their relationships and their personal development from students to adults in a competitive world. We are privy to the maturation of the investigative team as well, as they resolve personal as well as professional challenges. Through it all, Cleeves’ tale has as many twists and turns as the cliff paths on the Shetland Islands. The stark remoteness of the Shetland landscape hints at undercurrents that ebb and flow with the tide.
Ann Cleeves’ body of work has been long-listed for the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger in the Library Award. This is the 6th entry in the Jimmy Perez series. The other titles are Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning and Silent Voices. Her Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanehope characters are the basis of the television series Shetland. Fans of Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George and Stephen Booth will find a deeply satisfying mystery with an ending you won’t see coming.
Eight Hundred Grapes is what it takes to make a single bottle of wine, and one family’s secrets can’t be contained in a bottle in Laura Dave’s excellent new summer read.
Georgia Ford walks out of her wedding dress fitting and shows up at her childhood home on her family's vineyard, still wearing her dress, grappling with a major question about her future life with her fiancé, Ben. Looking for the comfort of her parents and her two brothers, not to mention her mother’s famous lasagna, she finds not everything at their once idyllic Last Straw Vineyard is the way it is supposed to be.
Her mother seems distracted and far away, her brothers are barely speaking and her father, well, he’s the workaholic he’s always been, but there’s a difference she can’t quite put her finger on. Then, there’s the grapes: Will this year’s harvest be their best but their last? As Georgia stays in her old bedroom and ignores Ben’s frantic phone calls, she finds herself taking on the responsibility of keeping everything and everyone together: The family she thought nothing could ever break apart, the relationship she thought was invincible and the family business, the one constant beauty they have all revolved around for their lives.
If you devoured two of the most popular books of last summer, Rainbow Rowell’s Landline and Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you’ll love Eight Hundred Grapes. Enjoy with a glass of your favorite wine!
Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris is the biography of a groundbreaking reporter who covered seminal events of the civil rights movement. Morris, a former journalist himself, writes about Payne’s work in journalism which forged a new path, as a woman and as an African American.
Ethel Payne, born in 1911, was raised in Chicago’s West Englewood area—one of the few enclaves in Chicago which permitted African-Americans to live outside the racially segregated “Black Belt” neighborhoods. By 30 years old, this granddaughter of slaves was reporting for one of the nation’s preeminent African American newspapers, the Chicago Defender. Her trajectory continued as Ms. Payne reported on civil rights issues domestically and abroad. She investigated the state of black soldiers stationed in Japan and interviewed Vietnam’s General Westmoreland about the treatment of black troops fighting in the war. As a member of the White House Press Corps, she won accolades from Clarence Mitchell after she questioned the Eisenhower administration about discriminatory practices. Payne was present for the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, rubbed elbows with presidents (even entertaining Richard and Patricia Nixon in her home), met with foreign leaders and traveled with Winston Churchill in Africa. Her efforts to end apartheid allowed her a private audience with Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Eye on the Struggle chronicles Payne’s illustrious career, made all the more remarkable by Payne’s unswerving approach of recording events both important to and from the perspective of black Americans.
Jessica Balzano and Kevin Byrne are back and hot on the trail of serial killers in Richard Montanari’s The Doll Maker, the eighth installment of this series about his Philadelphia-based investigators.
Byrne is grappling with the impending execution of a woman he put behind bars a decade before. The woman kidnapped and murdered a child, and he is convinced she had a hand in the disappearance of several other children. Determined to get her to confess to these disappearances before she dies, he has to navigate an endless spool of red tape to get close to her. However, there’s a new case developing that will take up all his time.
A girl sits placidly on a painted yellow bench as if waiting for a train, a half-smoked cigarette in her fingers. A passing cyclist initially doesn’t think anything is wrong, but then goes in for a closer look. The girl is dead, and the elaborately staged scene around her is part of a sick puzzle designed by killers who call themselves Mr. Marseille and Anabelle. When detectives Balzano and Byrne stumble upon an invitation to tea the next week at the murder site, they know they’re racing against time before the next death.
The next death happens, and this time it is two young people, but there’s something even more eerie waiting for the detectives: A doll designed to look exactly like the first victim and another invitation to tea for seven days from now. The victims seem random, but something about them triggers a memory for Byrne about a case he worked long ago.
Full of twists and turns and heart-stopping action, The Doll Maker is one to read for those who want to be spooked enough to sleep with the light on. Readers who enjoyed James Patterson’s The Postcard Killers, fans of a series like Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay and those who enjoy the show Criminal Minds will want to dive into the entire Balzano/Byrne series, starting with the first book, The Rosary Girls.
Jill Morrow’s Newport sends us to the glamorous and wealthy Newport, Rhode Island, of the glitzy 1920s inside a spectacular mansion filled with secrets. Adrian, a debonair lawyer and former resident, has returned to handle a will and encounters the secrets of the Chapman family while dealing with his own murky history. With elements of mystery and dark humor and a cast of distinctly drawn characters, Newport succeeds in bringing the 1920s to life in a finely wrought setting. The New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams noted, “A delicious plunge into the gilded lives and mansions of another era, Newport sends you swimming through an intricate mystery involving money, tragedy, bittersweet love affairs, and voices from beyond, until you arrive at the whirlwind ending. It’s everything you need for literary escape: a ripping good read.”
Local author Jill Morrow has worked in various fields, including practicing law and singing with local bands. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Towson University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore School of Law. Meet Jill at The Ivy Bookshop on July 8 at 7 p.m. and get to know her there as she answers questions about her novel, writing and Baltimore of course!
BTC: What inspired you to tell a story set in the upper echelons of 1920s Newport society?
Jill Morrow: I wanted to set this story in an era where individuals were particularly vulnerable to the lure of séances and the supernatural. 1921 fit that bill. Following the end of World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, people were desperate to contact their lost loved ones, and spiritualism experienced a surge in popularity that cut across social class.
Newport appealed to me as a setting because it really had everything needed to enhance this story. There was the beauty of the ocean, the danger of the rocks, the magnificent mansions …and an iconic social class which several characters in the novel longed to join.
BTC: Adrian is at the heart of the story and is a fully developed character who the reader empathizes with immediately. Was it difficult getting inside the head of a man to present an honest portrayal of his emotions and development?
JM: Adrian arrived with a story to tell. He was, in fact, the first character in Newport to introduce himself to me. His story unfolded slowly, so I never quite knew where it was going. I was so immersed in each layer revealed along the way that it never struck me that I was writing from a man’s perspective. To me, it was just Adrian’s story, and I wanted to get it right.
BTC: How long did the novel take you to complete? Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? Where? Who do you use as a sounding board? Are there any must-have beverages or snacks to keep you motivated?
JM: My writing process now is very different than it was when I wrote Newport. With Newport, I had yet to give myself permission to treat writing as much more than a hobby, which meant that a manuscript that would probably have taken about a year-and-a-half to write stretched into three years. Life is different now. I write nearly every weekday, although that doesn’t mean I’m always working on my current manuscript. In general, I prefer to write in the mornings, and I like to leave myself notes to help jumpstart my next writing session. I have a great office at home, but if I’m really stuck, I take myself and a legal pad away from home distractions and walk to a coffee shop. (There should be a seat with my name on it at both Towson Hot Bagel and Panera.) I’m a great believer in long walks, too. They help me think.
I was fortunate with Newport: I had talented critique-group members to use as sounding boards.
I’m a coffee person throughout the morning, but I can’t even open the door to snacks, because I am a chocolate person all of the time!
BTC: You really bring the Newport of the 1920s to life. How involved was your research for the novel?
JM: I research quite a bit, because I want to get not only the facts of a historical story right, but the texture of the time as well. I usually start by researching the bigger picture. What was the state of the world? Who were the world leaders? What new discoveries or products had just hit the market? How did people spend their leisure time? I research just about everything you can think of, from ground-breaking world events to which toothpaste my characters would use.
I like to research. My problem is knowing when to stop researching and start writing – a misleading statement, since I usually find myself researching each new aspect that reveals itself in a manuscript, which makes research an ongoing process throughout the writing of the story.
I should add, though, that no matter how hard I try to be accurate, no matter how often I triple-check my facts, there is always the chance that something incorrect will slip into the story. I cringe in anticipation of that.
BTC: I enjoyed the essays at the end of the book describing the American Spiritualist movement and The Four Hundred. Séances are important to Bennett Chapman. Why was including the spirit world necessary in the telling of this story?
JM: Newport had its roots in an incident I read about years ago. It took place in the late 1860s and involved Victoria Woodhull (who later became the first woman to run for president) and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. These two were the daughters of a con man and a fanatic spiritualist, and it would take more than a brief paragraph to do justice to their vivid lives. In 1870, Victoria and “Tennie” became the first women to open a stock brokerage firm in New York City. They were a success, but whether or not native acumen played into that was open to debate since they were backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the country. They’d caught Cornelius’ ear at just the right time: He was a superstitious man, still mourning the loss of his beloved first wife, so the sisters began hosting séances for him to “help ease his pain.” Naturally, this arrangement proved fortuitous for all parties involved. The sisters got financial backing, while Cornelius’ broken heart was soothed not only by the séances, but by Tennie, with whom he had an affair. That story started me thinking. At what point do people who grieve become so desperate that they will believe anything? Does anything other than greed motivate the medium? What if the medium is legit, and the messages delivered from “beyond” are real? So, from the very start, the spirit world was in Newport’s DNA. But aside from the obvious plot points, there were subtle benefits to using the supernatural that I didn’t pick up myself until the book was well underway. The spirit world leveled the playing field between classes. In his desperation to hear from his late wife, Bennett Chapman allowed himself to view Catharine and Amy in ways he never would have done otherwise. And all of the characters became vulnerable where “Mrs. Chapman” was concerned, regardless of their class, backgrounds or the secrets they wanted to keep.
BTC: What authors, books or ideas have influenced you? What are you reading now? Is historical fiction a favorite genre? Do you have any favorite historical fiction authors?
JM: I have always enjoyed historical fiction. I’m not sure I could point to any particular authors who have influenced me, but I tend to be drawn to novels where the history doesn’t hijack the story, but instead infuses characters and plots with a sense of time and place.
I just finished The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James and am looking forward to catching up on her other titles. I enjoy Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig, and am eager to read each of their new summer titles (Tiny Little Thing and The Other Daughter).
I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.
I like looking at my nightstand and seeing a nice stack of books waiting for me. Right now that stack includes Murder at the Brightwell (Ashley Weaver) and Dark Road to Darjeeling (Deanna Raybourn).
BTC: You’ve had a varied career, including working as a lawyer. How did law school and your legal career influence your writing?
JM: My three years of law school were probably my least productive creative-writing years ever. Too many facts jangling in my brain, too much “real life” going on (During those years I also sang in a band, got married and had a baby.) But each life experience has value, not only adding information to my personal databank, but allowing me to understand different approaches and varied patterns of thought. For a writer, that’s invaluable, because it gives me a whole range of choices for fleshing out my characters and their lives.
BTC: What’s the best part about living in Baltimore? I know you sang in local bands. Is that something you still do? Do you enjoy the Baltimore music scene?
JM: Baltimore’s history is rich, varied, and not always pretty, and I’m always fascinated by the way those roots have formed the city’s modern-day personality. I’m also amazed by the fact that no matter where you go in this city, you’re likely to run into somebody you know.
I enjoyed the years I spent singing in bands – can I send a shout-out to Fortune and Mariah here? I left band work to perform in musicals, so it’s really been quite some time since I’ve been involved in the Baltimore music scene. I am woefully out of touch!
BTC: What can readers expect next?
JM: The novel I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Road to You and is set in Hollywood during the years 1930-1934.