Matthew Thomas is a New Jersey high school English teacher who has spent the past decade writing his first novel We Are Not Ourselves. A labor of love well worth the effort, his debut is being heralded as the next major American novel.
The story begins in the early 1950s with Eileen Tumulty, the American daughter of two Irish immigrants. Eileen’s hard-working, barroom-preaching father is trying his damnedest to provide while shunning racetrack bookies. Her mother, reeling from a miscarriage, spends her days drinking herself into a quiet stupor to quell the pain. Eileen is left without anything to call her own, and vows to become empowered and successful as she grows up. We Are Not Ourselves is Eileen’s story as she searches for the American Dream in New York City.
After college, Eileen takes a well-paying job in a city hospital and marries Ed Leary. Ed is a scientist and professor at a community college whose dedication to academic integrity keeps him in the classroom and out of the Dean's office, where Eileen wishes he would be. After months of failed conception, Eileen and Ed are graced with Connell, who grows up pudgy and struggles with body image issues amongst his classmates. Against Ed’s wishes, Eileen decides to move the family out of their comfortable apartment in Jackson Heights and into a large, dilapidated house in the upper-middle class suburbs. She hopes that tasking Connell and Ed with evening home improvements will help bring the family closer, but Connell is preoccupied with developing renown at his new school and Ed is seemingly inundated with his studies. While Eileen achieves her childhood goal of working domesticity, the Learys are not nearly as cohesive as she wishes. Her efforts to bring them together only cause more tension, which, when combined with the everyday tribulations they experience in their personal lives, stress everyone into a state of crisis.
Thomas asks in We Are Not Ourselves if it still counts as the American Dream when it comes with so many hitches and broken promises, and he does so through an incredibly well-developed cast of characters and with beautiful, insightful prose. Contemporary fiction enthusiasts and readers who enjoy deep characterization should not miss this wonderful debut.
Anthony Breznican, senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, is trying his hand at fiction writing with his debut novel Brutal Youth. This omniscient view of a parochial high school demonstrates how vicious adolescence can be, and what lengths people will go to hide their secrets.
In a parochial school where sins are so pervasive that they fill the halls, the students just try to make it through the day while administrators work to save the school for another year. On Davidek and Stein’s introductory visit to St. Michael's, the halls are so full of tension that a student snaps and begins throwing objects at other students while fortified on the roof. It’s Davidek and Stein’s quick thinking that allows them to save a fallen student and, due to their efforts, they’re bonded in friendship.
Despite their abysmal first impression of the school, both students find themselves enrolled for their freshman year. The novel follows their first year of high school from freshman hazing to dysfunctional families and even relationship woes. An omniscient narrator is able to show how anxieties trickle down in the school from administrative setbacks to pressure on teachers who let off steam by cracking down on students who then turn on the freshmen.
This bold debut takes an interesting look at a subject that’s all too relevant in today’s society where bullying runs rampant. The setting of a parochial school is a thought provoking choice as well because expectations are different for public school versus religious establishments. However, the reader will quickly discover there’s not a whole lot of difference other than the dress code and course offerings.
A devastating pandemic wipes out the human population in Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel Station Eleven. Kirsten Raymonde was just 8 years old when it happened, but she was one of the lucky ones. Now, she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of artists and musicians that wander from town to town, keeping the works of Shakespeare alive. Her comfort lies in two issues of a gloriously detailed comic book and a glass paperweight that was given to her just before the pandemic began by fellow actor Arthur Leander who died on stage that night while performing King Lear. In a world torn apart by disease, the things that matter most are memories and people.
Station Eleven is a lyrical dystopian novel with compelling and complex characters. The plot transports the reader forward and backward in time, meaning you meet many of the characters at different times in their lives. The central characters connect in ways that become more apparent throughout the course of the novel, and each shines with their own intensity. These connections become more important as the characters face their own mortality and the mortality of those they care about. They hold on to memories of the past, clinging to the world that was as they are forced to face an uncertain future. Although this is dystopian literature, the prose is both graceful and thoughtful and will appeal to a much wider audience. The characters, themes and style would make this a good novel to discuss with book groups.
When Richard Simnel invents the locomotive, it's Steam Engine Time in Ankh-Morpork, the greatest city of the Discworld! With financial backing from Harry King, King of the Golden River and Moist von Lipwig, the Disc's wiliest civil servant, everyone and everything is on the move. A bid to get seafood that's still fresh spawns the tourist industry. But where there's change, there's people who don't want to change, and the budding rail has to fend off attacks of Deep Dwarves.
As a story alone, this is solid material, but Terry Pratchett remains one of the greatest living satirists. (He's also better than quite a few who are dead.) With Raising Steam, he looks at societal change driven by technology bringing people together. At the same time, it's an homage to rail culture, engineers and all the people who make the transportation industry go. It's also a blistering indictment of people who try to burn the world down rather than letting their neighbors move on with the times. "Tak does not require that we think of him, but he does require that we think."
At the same time, Raising Steam is also clearly the book of a man struggling with Alzheimer's. It remains a wonder that Pratchett can still write at all, much less as well as this. His earlier books may have been stronger (a few plot threads appear and vanish in Steam, never to be seen again), but it's still a gem. Written with the understanding that any book he turns out could be his last, he gives us a chance to check in with old friends throughout. The Discworld may be a long-running series, but every book stands alone while providing bonuses for the fans who have read the books that came before.
Raising Steam is a reminder that big things often start with little things. Here they start with a load of octopus on a midsummer's day.
Great art "is capable of grabbing a person," explains one of the characters in Lisette's List, the equally enthralling new historical novel by bestselling author Susan Vreeland. Fans of Ms. Vreeland and her well regarded art-inspired fiction will not be disappointed with this story of a young woman's defining journey into the ordinary life of a rural French village and the power of art that beckons her amidst a world war. Recently, Susan Vreeland answered questions for Between the Covers about her latest effort.
Between the Covers: In Lisette’s List, you introduce readers to one of the most beautiful villages in France and to the organic nature of art in this sweeping story of self-discovery set around World War II. Unlike your previous art-related novels, this story explores more than one work of art. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea and the setting for this latest book?
Susan Vreeland: It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist's friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters who I wanted to embrace.
Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.
BTC: Lisette tells her own story. What made you decide on a first-person narrator?
SV: First person was a natural choice. I wanted Lisette's realizations and discoveries to be revealed in her own voice. I thought that would lend an air of authenticity to the story if she would be the one to deliver it. Also, this point of view lent itself to her writing of her “List of Hungers and Vows.”
BTC: As a writer of historical fiction, how do you reconcile the facts of the time period with your characters’ development?
SV: One has to be careful with this. A writer of historical fiction cannot stray too far away from recorded fact. Integrating a fictional character is not hard when that character encounters events of history, as in this case, World War II. In fact, the wealth of information about that war helped me invent peripheral characters, like Bernard. An enigma for much of the novel, he ends up illustrating the conclusion that in war, particularly a long war, no one comes out unstained. That applies to Maxime as well.
BTC: Inspired to “do the important things first,” Lisette creates a list of vows to herself. Are you maker of lists yourself?
SV: I suppose I am: lists of ideas for novels and poems, lists of books to read, lists of things I want to learn, lists of places I want to go. However, I don't keep a superficial bucket list, as common parlance calls it, nor should we think of Lisette's list as a bucket list. I consider it to be deeper, at least most of the items on it. They are designed to show the inner Lisette to us.
BTC: At what moment did you realize the power of art could be conveyed through your stories?
SV: This happened very early on. Let's take my first art-related novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Lisette's List as examples. Both involve the Second World War, and large-scale pillage of art as well as small-scale theft. In writing the separate stories that comprise Girl, I realized that art could be coveted, that art could betray a secret, that art could exonerate bad behavior, that it could be seen as a commodity, that it could be loved by the unfortunate and uneducated as well as the fortunate and educated, and that it could be loved in a pure sense of awe at its beauty. If you reread Girl, you'll see that I have described each chapter this way.
Now, with Lisette's List, I move deeper in developing the theme of the power of art. While the uneducated (Pascal) also adores paintings, it is the educated (Maxime) who sees in them the scope of art history and for what they do for people. Great art, he says, “is capable of grabbing a person...and holding him in a trancelike state of union with the subject until he sees who he is or who we are as human beings more clearly...Being completely absorbed by a piece of art, he becomes minutely different than he was before, less limited to his previous, narrower self, and this equips him to live a better life and to avoid getting swallowed by the world's chaos.”
BTC: Of the works you have researched do you have any favorites?
SV: As difficult a question as choosing which of one's children one loves most. Certainly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party comes to mind, for the joie de vivre of 14 of Renoir's friends enjoying an afternoon on a terrace overlooking the Seine, and so openly allowing me to tell their stories. From Lisette's List, I favor Chagall's exultant Promenade with Marc holding up Bella on one hand as she flutters sideways in the sky, too exuberant after the October Revolution in Russia to remain on the earth. And from The Forest Lover, Emily Carr's monumental painting of a Red Cedar, “…more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that brought her this far: reaching.”
BTC: Libraries have played a significant role in your growth as a writer and researcher. Can you share a favorite memory?
SV: Ah, libraries, my second homes from grade school to adulthood, and the groundwork of my fiction. It was a librarian who found for me a dissertation from the Sorbonne on 19th century boating on the Seine which authenticated scenes in my novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.
And it was a librarian who located for me Chagall's historic "Letter to the Paris Artists, 1944," a thrilling discovery. Reading this important letter led me to see that the novel I was writing, Lisette's List, was more than a narrow story of a woman retrieving her family's seven paintings, hidden and lost during the Occupation. Her experience was a microcosm of the vast and systematic seizure of Europe's art by what Chagall called "satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul — the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity." By focusing on one character's loss, I could represent the larger issue of vast art theft, hidden hoarding and threats to national patrimony which are still concerns today.
Books give birth to books, you see, and librarians are vital to that creativity. We don't know what important research is being done today, what projects are underway in our cities — in the arts, the humanities, the sciences — but librarians get glimpses, and that's what must make them so dedicated to helping their researching patrons.
As summer draws to an end, it’s time to start getting the little ones ready for school. This new adventure can be a little scary for kids. What will they do at school? Will they make any friends? Will their teacher be nice? Help your child prepare for the first day of school with these new picture books.
Being the littlest Valkyrie in Asgard is a lot of fun, but sometimes Edda wonders what it would be like to be with kids her own age. Fortunately, Edda’s papa knows just what to do in Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School, written and illustrated by Adam Auerbach. Flying down to earth for her first day of school, Edda is worried. She’s never been away from Asgard and isn’t sure that she will fit in. Things are a lot different at school on earth than they are in Asgard, but Edda is brave and, through a writing assignment, soon makes some new friends. Auerbach’s simple pen and ink illustrations have been digitally colored and help tell this mythology-meets-real-life story.
Monsters love adventures, but with summer coming to an end, Blue must prepare to go on his biggest adventure of all in Monsters Love School, written and illustrated by Mike Austin. With the help of his monster friends, Blue makes sure he has all the supplies needed to start school. But why does he have to go to school? “I already know my ABGs and 413s and XYDs!” says Blue. Children will be able to relate to Blue’s worries and cheer him on as he experiences all the wonders of his first day at school. Digitally enhanced illustrations with monsters reminiscent of Monsters Inc., Austin’s book is sure to please your little monster.
'You can run but you can’t hide' could be the motto for Mike Earp and David Fisher’s book U.S. Marshals: Inside America’s Most Storied Law Enforcement Agency. Earp, a retired associate director of operations for the Marshals Service, served with the organization for nearly 30 years, and has the hair-raising stories to prove it. The Marshals are tasked with bringing in some of America’s most wanted, and they do it well. In 2012, they arrested 123,006 fugitives and each marshal averaged four felony convictions apiece. Created by Congress in 1798, the service has both an illustrious and romanticized past, and chapters in this book often begin with historical accounts about the OK Corral, wild west African-American Marshal Bass Reeves or the capture of Billy the Kid. Packed with tales of stake-outs, stings and chases, U.S. Marshals tracks the growth of this law enforcement agency from a deputized posse on horseback to the tech-savvy federal agency with international reach and task force authority doing what Marshals do best: getting the bad guys off the streets.
Detective work of another kind also figures in The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. Author Deborah Halber says that “tens of thousands of unidentified human remains” are in storage across the United States. Enter the modern Miss Marple; townspeople are sitting at their home computers, using the Internet to match up clues to give these anonymous deceased an identity and provide some closure to families whose loved ones have disappeared. Working independently or using online resources like the aptly named Doe Network forum or NamUs, a federal website for missing persons, civilians sift through images, news stories and databases, connecting dots and solving cases which had confounded the police. True crime readers will enjoy The Skeleton Crew, following the hobbyists’ detective work which leads to real-life mysteries solved.
In some circumstances, 10 percent may seem insignificant. A $50 item listed at 10 percent off, in reality, only saves you $5. Yet Dan Harris, in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, demonstrates that his 10 percent increase in the happiness department really has made a significant difference. Harris is the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. His years of covering international combat, followed by hard recreational drug use, culminated in an on-air panic attack about 10 years ago. Realizing that his greatest battle was with the “voice in his head,” Harris researched non-traditional remedies which led to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness development as a way to improve health and his outlook on life.
Described as a book written for, and by, “someone who would otherwise never read a spiritual book,” 10% Happier provides plenty of practical, authoritative information about meditation and its benefits, as well as Harris’ own journey to master his internal struggles. His time at a meditation retreat is especially telling of his progression and introspection. Along the way, readers learn about his career, his encounters with famous figures like the now-notorious Ted Haggard and James Arthur Ray, and his time with news legends like Peter Jennings. Some of the laugh-out-loud moments include his research into famous gurus like Eckhart Tolle, as well as his memories of yoga class as a child.
I recently read The Last Best Cure, and much of Harris’s research and experiences affirm the lessons in that book: There are scientifically founded ways to “green” your mind and repair your brain’s damaged pathways. Hilarious and well-written, this book steers clear of being a hokey, clichéd self-help guide. I especially recommend the audio version, which Harris narrates.
Who doesn’t love a big scoop of ice cream on a hot summer afternoon? These cookbooks will help you whip up delicious frozen treats for your friends and family. For a playful spin on ice cream sandwiches, check out Natasha Case and Freya Estreller’s Coolhaus Ice Cream Book: Custom-Built Sandwiches with Crazy-Good Combos of Cookies, Ice Creams, Gelatos & Sorbets. The creators of the popular ice cream stores and trucks teach you how to construct the perfect ice cream sandwich. The book is filled with color photos, and it reflects their spirited style. They provide the perfect cookie recipe to complement each frozen dessert. Try inventive combinations like Pistachio Black Truffle Ice Cream on Oatmeal Raisin cookies, Nutella Toasted Almond Ice Cream on Pretzel Chocolate Chunk cookies, Whiskey Lucky Charms Ice Cream on Maple Flapjack cookies or Spicy Pineapple-Cilantro-Chile Sorbet on Snickerdoodle cookies. Vegan and gluten free recipes are also included.
Ice cream meets baked desserts in Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts. Don’t look for a scoop of vanilla ice cream as an afterthought on a pie here. Jeni Britton Bauer, the woman behind the Ohio-based company Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, shares recipes for scrumptious baked desserts along with her sophisticated ice cream flavors, allowing you to create unique and complex flavor combinations. Mix and match her Orange-Blossom Bisque Tortoni Frozen Custard, Mango Manchego Ice Cream, Sweet Cream Shortcakes, Magnolia Mochi Ice Cream and Macaroon Cake. The only limit is your imagination.
Former Martha Stewart Living food editor Shelly Kaldunski’s The Ice Creamery Cookbook: Recipes for Frozen Treats, Toppings, Mix-ins & More offers recipes for a range of frozen desserts and all of the great accompaniments that we love. After laying out the basic types of frozen desserts, the ingredients you’ll use and the tools required to make these tasty treats yourself, she jumps right in to recipes for sumptuous desserts like Cinnamon-Brown Sugar Ice Cream on Brioche Cinnamon Toast, Olive Oil Ice Cream with Meyer Lemon Zest, Dulce De Leche Frozen Yogurt, Mango-Ginger Margarita Pops and even Homemade Sprinkles. Kaldunski also includes party ideas to help you host the best ice cream party of the summer.
How are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.
In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.
Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.