Meg Wolitzer received the attention of most of the top ten books lists of 2013 with her stand-out novel, The Interestings, which tells the story of a group of adults who befriended each other at an arts camp decades before. Now she is getting into the Young Adult literature game with her new novel Belzhar.
Jam Gallahue thought her life was perfect: She was very much in love with her handsome British exchange student, Reeve Maxfield. When Reeve dies suddenly, Jam is thrown into an emotional tailspin and is sent to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, yet highly intelligent teens.” At The Wooden Barn, Jam is surprised to be enrolled into a class called Special Topics in English. She’s even more surprised when there are only five students in the class.
The teacher, Mrs. Quennell, has hand-selected each of these five students to participate in the class because they’ve experienced a deep trauma: There’s Casey, bound to a wheelchair; Griffin, who is carrying a horrible secret; Mark, suffering from his parents’ divorce; Sierra, whose brother has gone missing; and, of course, Jam. The class is to study the work of Sylvia Plath for the entire semester. She gives each student a red leather journal and requires them to write in it twice a week. Jam is especially hesitant to write her feelings, but when she does, strange things start happening. Reeve appears and things are better than ever between them, but Jam knows their time is limited. Is she really able to connect with him again on the other side?
As each of the characters in Special Topics reclaim the part of the lives they are missing through the mysterious red journals, they meet in secret to try to get answers about traveling to the place they call Belzhar: What happens when the journal runs out of pages, and what happens if they never want to leave?
The obvious choice to pair with this novel is Silvia Plath’s classic The Bell Jar. The influence of Plath’s work is on every page, even beyond the group discussions of her work in the Special Topics class. Fans of Plath will be excited that a new generation of readers, through this novel, can discover her genius for the first time. Perfect for teens experiencing a tough break up or adults who remember those adolescent pangs, Belzhar speaks to the part of our hearts that have trouble letting go.
A.J. Betts' first U.S. published book Zac and Mia follows the sick lit trend popularized recently by the success of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. However, Zac and Mia are very different from Green’s characters in both personalities and stories. Zac is in isolation in a cancer ward after receiving a bone marrow transplant, when his life is made vastly more interesting as Mia moves into the room next door. On her first day in the ward, Mia comes in yelling at her mother and blasting pop music, causing Zac, a cancer veteran, to reach out with her through their shared wall, the only way he can while in isolation.
After knocking on the wall for a while and having nurses pass notes to the other, the two teens become Facebook friends. Then, they begin chatting each night at 3 a.m. when neither can sleep. Zac tries to reach out to Mia and help her come to terms with her diagnosis, but she keeps everyone at a distance, not even admitting to her friends that she has cancer. Their friendship ends abruptly when Mia goes into surgery, and Zac is released after his isolation finishes. They spend months apart until one day when Mia shows up on Zac’s doorstep, traveling across Australia to see him. Together again, Zac must try to break down the barriers Mia has been putting up her entire life and find out why she’s at his door.
Zac and Mia is an incredibly realistic book, featuring characters who face their cancer in vastly different, but equally realistic, ways. Betts has created characters that seem like they could be real teenagers, often unlikeable, but ultimately characters that you root for. Fans of The Fault in Our Stars will enjoy this new addition to the sick lit genre.
Was there ever a superhero created to save the day quite like Wonder Woman? Superman and Batman may have been made for pure entertainment, but Wonder Woman was always supposed to help usher in a new age of feminism where women reigned supreme over men and everyone got tied up a lot. This is The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, and it's going to be a wild ride.
Wonder Woman had three main creators. Psychologist William Moulton Marston was the grandstanding inventor of the lie detector (though not the polygraph). His wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, was a professional editor and the main breadwinner in a family of three adults and four children. Olive Byrne was the third member of their triad, the niece of Margaret Sanger, and likely the comic's ghost writer. Obviously, this concept wouldn’t have gone over so well in 1940s America.
The Margaret Sanger link is important. The Marstons had very close–but hidden–ties with the women’s rights movement. William Marston conducted psychology experiments at Harvard. He put himself through college writing movie scripts. His attempts to get people to recognize the value of his lie detector got an innocent man a life sentence, got lie detectors permanently thrown out of court and put him on the FBI's watchlist. Wonder Woman comics contain the history of several eras, as reimagined by a self-important huckster.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman brings all the different pieces of history together – of early psychology, education reform, suffrage and feminism from several decades. Everything is illustrated with panels from the Wonder Woman comics. From the Harvard psychology professor who became Wonder Woman's first villain to Wonder Woman's real world run for president after her creator's death. History shaped Wonder Woman, and then Wonder Woman rewrote history.
In Dear Daughter, Janie Jenkins has the kind of life teenage girls like to read about in fan magazines. She’s famous for the parties she’s attended, the high-profile celebrities she’s gotten high with and the fabulous clothes she wears. Paris Hilton wishes she were Janie Jenkins. Until 16-year-old Janie sneaks into her mother’s closet, climbs into her mother’s best fashion boots and overhears a passionate argument. The next thing Janie remembers, she is covered with her mother’s blood and trying to explain this to the police.
Janie is known among her set as the girl most likely to steal your boyfriend. She may be popular in the press, but not among her peers. She is devious and her number one priority is herself. This may not be evidence of murder, but it sure gets you biased witnesses and an unsympathetic jury. Convicted of her mother’s murder, Janie spends 10 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Or, did she?
Released on a technicality, Janie follows clues she’s uncovered in the prison library databases. Pursued by the vulture press and obsessed bloggers who want her to pay for her evil act, Janie assumes the identity of a nerdy historian. In her new guise, she probes the past of the tiny gold-rush town her mother grew up in, proving that even the tiniest towns can hold deadly secrets.
Elizabeth Little’s debut thriller Dear Daughter brings a completely fresh perspective to the mystery scene. Her character exhibits the raw emotion of a traumatized teenager. Instead of compassion and therapy, she receives condemnation and punishment. Isolated and alone, Janie must battle her own demons in order to unearth the truth, no matter how horrific. Fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and William Landay’s Defending Jacob will appreciate the fast pace and moral conundrums. Climb into your favorite easy chair, you are about to pull an all-nighter.
Mikita Brottman may be a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but she clearly has a greater passion in her life. In The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, Brottman shares not only her love for her French bulldog but how dogs have been a major sources of inspiration to people throughout history. Grisby, the titular dog, was the influence for Brottman’s book which explores many human-canine relationships, both fictional and real.
While each chapter is ostensibly about such pairings as Prince Albert and his dog Eos or Charles Dickens’ character Dora and her beloved dog Jip, Grisby does turn up throughout the narrative in asides and anecdotes. The stories run the gamut from heartwarming to heartbreaking as Brottman relates tales about the very peculiar bond that exists between people and their furry friends. Just be warned that some of the dogs did meet untimely and even grisly ends which are told in graphic detail.
When it comes to comic books and graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is a 21st century Renaissance man. Hailing from Canada, he has been recognized numerous times for his prowess in both storytelling and artistry. Lemire has written and drawn most of his works completely on his own, but he also fares incredibly well when teaming up with other writers and inkers at DC Comics.
Lemire’s sci-fi brain bender Trillium is an eight-issue comic series published over the span of August 2013 to April 2014. In Trillium, adventurers Nika and William are torn from their worlds by occult magic and thrust together in an alien jungle on a foreign planet. Through this supernatural machination, the couple becomes intertwined, although they don’t realize it at first since they’re unable to communicate due to language disparities. Nika and William fight to understand each other while combing the flora and fauna in search of the rare trillium flower, which is thought to be the only possible cure to a sentient, space-travelling supervirus that has decimated humanity.
Trillium is confounding and strangely beautiful. Navigating dimensions with William and Nika is a thrilling experience with a rewarding narrative that endears readers to persevere. Throughout the series, Lemire toys with conventional comic layout standards and actually has readers flipping the book upside down and reading from back to front, conveying the disorientation the characters are feeling. Lemire’s signature mixed medium art style leaves each page messy and scrawled, evoking hysteria and tension. His ability to convey emotions through his characters’ faces is incredible; oftentimes it isn’t what’s said, but what’s left unsaid that resonates in Lemire’s works. The same is true of his 2008-2009 Essex County Trilogy, which has been praised as one of the best Canadian graphic novels of its decade.
Sonali Dev’s debut novel A Bollywood Affair is getting a lot of attention from romance readers and authors alike. Mili was married to a boy named Virat when she was only 4 years old, and she never saw him again. Twenty years later, Virat sends his brother Samir to find Mili and to obtain a divorce for him. Samir hides his identity, and as their friendship deepens, a romance develops. But Samir knows that his secret could destroy their blossoming relationship. A Bollywood Affair contains familiar romantic comedy elements that will make it appeal to a wide audience, but it feels like something new and special. Elements of Indian culture permeate the novel, forming a rich backdrop for this sweet love story.
Read on to learn more about Dev’s favorite Bollywood films and her experience as a debut novelist.
Between the Covers: This is your debut novel, which brings with it a lot of firsts. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
Sonali Dev: The short answer is everything. Everything about this process has been exciting and it has absolutely taken me by surprise. A Bollywood Affair is the book of my heart and, at my most optimistic best, I had hoped to get a traditional publishing deal. Then I had pictured myself working slowly and steadily toward drawing in readers to build an audience. But the reaction I have received has completely blown me away. First, all these huge names in the romance genre got behind my book, including Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nalini Singh and Kristan Higgins. Then the reviewers embraced it with a passion. Booklist, Library Journal, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Dear Author, RT Book Reviews and a myriad bloggers and reviewers raved about it. It even made Library Journal’s list of Best Books of 2014. Even though I had experienced firsthand how incredibly generous writers and readers in the romance genre are, as a newbie unpublished writer, I had never expected to see this level of love and acceptance for a book that was so different from the norm.
BTC: A Bollywood Affair, then titled The Bollywood Bad Boy, was a finalist for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart award for best unpublished manuscript in 2013. What did that honor mean to you and your career?
SD: Again, it meant everything and it set everything in motion. To have five anonymous strangers pick this book when they had to have nothing in common (at least on the surface) with my characters or my world gave me an immense amount of confidence in the power of the story. Thanks to that confidence, I was able to send it to authors I admire for endorsements. And to have authors whose word is respected in the industry not only endorse the book but like it enough to advocate for it set it on the path to a dream debut for me in terms of buzz.
BTC: Indian culture and Bollywood elements are infused throughout the novel, building a rich backdrop for the story, but at its heart, this is a novel built around the characters’ relationships. As a writer, how do you develop those deep connections between your characters?
SD: Thank you so much for saying that.
This is a really hard question. Because I don’t really set out to develop those connections per say. I just set out to develop characters who are struggling with something. Something big and binding that is seemingly impossible to heal from yet familiar enough that we’ve all struggled with some shade of it, like fear of abandonment or feelings of unworthiness. And then I work on making these struggles tangible and rooted in trauma and childhood events, so they are almost cemented in the fabric of the character’s being. I think the deep connections come when these seemingly insurmountable flaws draw one character to another because their flaws and their strengths somehow interlock to create those deep connections.
BTC: Do you have any recommendations for readers who are interested in trying Bollywood films after reading your book?
SD: There are several Indian films made in English for international audiences like Monsoon Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice. These are wonderful, authentic films that I recommend for anyone whether or not you’re familiar with Indian culture.
If you’re interested in ‘full-on’ Bollywood films in Hindi (with subtitles), Dil Chahta Hai, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge, Kal Ho Naa Ho, and Life in A Metro are some of my favorite films and they’re a great place to start.
[Several of these films are in BCPL’s collection. A list is available here.]
BTC: What are you working on next?
SD: I’m working on the next few books in the Bollywood series. Which isn’t technically a series but more a set of stories in which one of the protagonists works in Bollywood.
BTC: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
SD: I love Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series, and Shield of Winter, which came out earlier this year, I think is the most romantic and magical book in the series yet (which, by the way, is saying something because that series is full of great books).
With the arrival of the winter holiday season comes a much mocked tradition: the dreaded holiday newsletter. Hello from the Gillespies by Monica McInerney is a novel that explores the consequences when a truthful account of a family’s past year unintentionally hits the presses.
Angela Gillespie is weary. She lives on an expansive sheep ranch in Australia’s isolated outback with husband Nick and young son Ig. In order to bring in extra money, she takes in bed and breakfast guests. When the time comes to write her annual cheery Christmas email which depicts her family as a cross between “the Waltons and the Von Trapps,” the words just won’t come. Her marriage is strained, the family farm is failing, Ig’s imaginary friend is becoming all too real and her three grown daughters are returning home with their lives in shambles. But wait, there’s more — Nick’s tart-tongued Aunt Celia is coming for an extended stay and Angela’s beset with debilitating headaches. Sitting at the computer, she dashes off a stream of consciousness letter intended to let off steam. Instead of deleting the rough draft, which details the failings of each Gillespie, she gets distracted…and Nick and Ig think they are being helpful when they click “send.”
While her husband and children are reeling from the realization that Angela doesn’t think their lives are peachy keen, she is in an auto accident which leaves her with an unusual form of amnesia known as confabulation. She no longer recognizes her own family, but thinks her “real” life consists of a long-ago boyfriend as her husband and one perfect daughter. Can Angela’s family band together behind a woman who now thinks she’s a guest in her own home? Like fellow Aussie writers Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies) and Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project), McInerney is an engaging and droll storyteller in Hello from the Gillespies.
Historic St. Pancras Station dwells at the heart of the latest Deborah Crombie British police procedural, To Dwell in Darkness.
During the International Festivities at St. Pancras, the protest group Save London’s History hopes to gain a little notoriety. Despite careful planning, the intended detonation of a harmless smoke bomb sparks a conflagration from a phosphorous grenade. Superintendent Duncan Kincaid will be hard pressed to identify the perpetrator, much less discover who wanted him dead. After eliminating the possibility of terrorism, Kincaid concentrates on the members of the protest group, who have organized to prevent the destruction of various historical sites.
Unfortunately, Kincaid has more on his mind than the investigation. His former superior at Scotland Yard has left the country under uncertain circumstances, and Kincaid is transferred to the London borough of Camden. While he doesn’t lose rank, it’s definitely a demotion from leading an elite murder squad at Scotland Yard. Kincaid is also left wondering if the recent promotion of his wife Gemma James is a palliative to prevent his protest. Then Kincaid discovers just how vulnerable his family can be.
Simultaneously, Inspector Gemma James is investigating electronics shop clerk Dillon Underwood for kidnapping, raping and murdering 12-year-old Mercy Johnson. Determined to build a case, Gemma is thwarted by the serial stalker, who clearly knows how to avoid leaving evidence.
Deborah Crombie is a master at weaving the intricate details of an investigation with the family life built by Duncan and Gemma. Well-drawn, solid characters bring authenticity and honesty to her work. Crombie based one of the characters on actual events involving an undercover agent who was betrayed by his fellow officers. Historical details of the train station pepper the narrative, but don’t overwhelm. For anyone who appreciates a literary mystery, Deborah Crombie is sure to please readers of Louise Penney, Elizabeth George and Peter Robinson.
Have you ever wondered if you are using a word correctly? Or what exactly a split infinitive is anyway? In Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, author Ammon Shea sets out to explore and explain how English has evolved and why we use (or misuse) certain conventions in our language. Told with a great mix of insight and humor, Shea’s topics include semantics, grammar and even the evolution of certain common words.
For instance, in the chapter “221 Words that Were Once Frowned Upon,” Shea explains how people were advised by Frank Vizetelly in 1906 that the word ‘kid’ was “a common vulgarism for ‘child’ and as such one the use of which can not [sic] be too severely condemned.” Alfred Ayres told his readers in 1894 that “there are many persons who think it in questionable taste to use thanks for thank you.” While modern readers may be surprised to discover that certain words we use today were once considered improper, it does make one wonder which words we currently use will evolve to mean something very different in the future.
Whether you are interested in the evolution of English or just enjoy absurdity, Shea’s book offers plenty of both. One of the funnier parts may be the Shakespeare quote or rap music lyrics quiz which is not as easy as it sounds!