Some books are beautifully written while others tell a fascinating story. And then there is Anthony Doerr’s new novel All the Light We Cannot See, which combines exquisite prose with an engrossing and layered tale of history, science and myth set in Europe during the era of World War II.
In August of 1944, the French coastal city of St. Malo was the location of a battle between the occupying Nazi troops and the Allied forces determined to drive out the Germans. In the city, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a 16-year-old blind girl, is home alone, hiding under her bed when the shelling begins. Across town, German army private Walter Pfennig is stationed with his radio team in the basement of the Hotel of Bees.
Doerr moves his story back and forth within a 10 year time frame. Marie-Laure was living in Paris with her father, the locksmith for the vast complex of the National Museum of Natural History. The pair fled Paris as the Occupation began, possibly carrying with them a priceless diamond steeped in legend from the museum’s collection. As a boy, Werner lived in an orphanage where he repaired a radio discarded as trash. He and his little sister would tune in to French radio broadcasts about science. Gifted with an analytical mind, Werner is drafted by the Nazis, using his skills to hunt down amateur broadcasters for the Resistance. Doerr carefully unfolds each character’s narrative as they gradually converge in St. Malo.
The center of this story might be a peerless gem, as cursed as the Hope diamond, both precious and horrifying. It might be the realization that both good and evil — or caring and callousness — can live within one heart. All the Light We Cannot See is a finely crafted work and deserves its place on The New York Times best sellers list. Readers of World War II literary fiction might also enjoy Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, a 2012 Man Booker finalist.
We all have friends from yesteryear with whom we pine for the perfect, golden memories of whatever chapter of our lives we consider to be “the good old days.” Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel The Girls from Corona del Mar follows two best friends, Mia and Lorrie Ann, as their journeys take them from their California hometown to the far corners of the world and back again, testing their bond along the way.
Mia is convinced that her friend Lorrie Ann is her counterbalance in the universe. Beautiful, soft-spoken and otherwise perfect in every manner, she can do no wrong in her kindred spirit’s eyes. Lorrie Ann’s only flaw seems to be her terrible luck; despite being an elementally good person, she suffers three distinct, life-altering tragedies that leave her reeling and unsure of her purpose in life. Mia feels powerless, remorseful and guilty, as if her best friend was being punished for her own shortcomings.
As the two grow older, their lives become disparate; Mia marries and moves to Turkey to develop her career while Lorrie Ann is swallowed up by the world. After years of sporadic contact, Mia is shocked when her best friend turns up in Istanbul, battered and in need of help. What transpires after the two are reunited challenges the temper of their time-forged companionship.
The Girls from Corona del Mar is a tragic, beautiful reckoning of the worst catastrophes life can muster, and illustrates just how powerful and enduring friendship can be, despite the fragility of youth. Anyone who has lost a best friend to time or distance will sympathize as Mia and Lorrie Ann’s story progresses. Rufi Thorpe has written a wonderful debut that will be enjoyed by fans of literary fiction or women’s literature.
Up-and-coming novelist Nickolas Butler brings us Shotgun Lovesongs, an all-American tale of male friendship in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Although Hank, Ronny, Lee and Kip grew up together in the small rural town, they have grown into their own complex lives in strikingly different ways.
Hank stayed in the town to have a family and run his father’s farm, where it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet. Ronny became a battered rodeo star who lost his career to crippling alcoholism. Singer-songwriter Lee took his show on the road and is now a famous yet humble millionaire rock star. Lastly, there’s Kip, the Bluetooth-wearing stock-market trader, who has come home to revitalize the tallest structure in town, the beloved old feed mill. The four friends are drawn together again by Kip’s impending wedding.
Told in alternating perspectives, the novel achieves its tension and ultimate heart from the honest portrayal of conflict and comradery between these soul-searching men. Various masculine takes on marriage, love, loyalty and healing are all examined in this surprisingly rustic landscape. Readers who enjoy character-driven plots and fulfilling endings will find themselves satisfied with and surprised by this debut novel.
Also, keep an eye out for Nickolas Butler’s highly anticipated forthcoming short story collection, The Chainsaw Soiree.
Ephram Jennings has spent his life loving Ruby Bell. He’s loved her since the first time he saw her as a wild red haired child who was “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at.” After his beloved mother is committed to a mental institution and his heavy-handed father’s death, Ephram is raised solely by his devout sister, Celia, whom he calls “Mama.” Ruby grows up in the shadow of ancestors accused of witchcraft, with violence swirling around her until she finally packs up and leaves Liberty Township for New York City.
When Ruby returns, the town takes notice. Ruby’s red lipstick, fine clothes and perfume draw the attention of all the wrong kind. Over a decade later, the lipstick and heels gone, Ruby lives like a ghost, walking through the town in rags and caked in dirt. No one speaks to her, no one sees her. No one except Ephram. Under the filth, Ephram still sees Ruby for who she really is and longs for her fiercely. Having spent the whole of his life under the thumb of his Mama Celia and the discerning eye of the town and church, Ephram lacks the courage to speak his mind. He suffers from crippling headaches and finds himself vulnerable to the manipulation of others. The day comes when Ephram decides enough is enough and sets out to save Ruby Bell from the town and herself. He is unprepared for the reality of who Ruby has become and what she has succumbed to in her isolation.
In Ruby, a novel rife with heartache, tragedy, love and a touch of mystery, author Cynthia Bond weaves a story so thick and heavy it could pass for the southern grits served at the church picnics in Liberty Township. The story of Ephram and Ruby reverberates with the enduring power of love and explores the depths of the soul through Bond’s powerful words. Readers of Toni Morrison will appreciate the carefully crafted prose Bond presents.
Who’s the fairest of them all? Is it Snow, with her fair skin and hazel eyes? Maybe it is Bird, with her cap of dark curls and golden skin. Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, takes classic fairy tale themes of beauty, stepmothers and sibling rivalry and reworks them around a 1950s New England town and a family’s secrets.
Eighteen-year-old Boy Novak lives in New York City with her sadistic father who works as a rat catcher, using blinded rats as bait. To escape her father’s abuse, she buys a train ticket for the far-away stop of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The fine-boned, flaxen-haired Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, local professor-turned-jeweler, widower, and father of Snow. Boy slides right into her role of benevolent stepmother and daughter-in-law until she and Arturo have their own baby, Bird, who is “born with a suntan.” Unbeknownst to Boy, her new husband and his family are African-American passing for white. Bird’s arrival pulls back the curtain on their carefully constructed public lives.
What is fair, either in beauty or in deeds? Arturo’s mother wants to send the darker-skinned Bird away to live with relatives; Boy views stepdaughter Snow as the interloper who needs to go. Oyeyemi uses a conversational writing style and alternates characters’ narration, including letters sent between the sisters, to explore issues of identity relative to race and gender. Boy, Snow, Bird warns us of the danger in allowing our reflection, whether in the mirror or eyes of the beholder, dictate who we are.
British author Laline Paull is setting the book world abuzz with her debut novel, an imaginative and gripping tale which takes place in a beehive. Paull began studying bees after a beekeeper friend died; the fascinating societal structure of the hive inspired her to write The Bees.
Flora 717 is a worker bee living in a hive valuing conformity. Born “obscenely ugly… and excessively large,” Flora is saved from immediate execution because a ruling class priestess wants to use her in an experiment. The hive’s rigid caste system relies on mind control and strict job divisions, which keep the hive operating for the good of the group, but its totalitarian mindset allows no individual freedom. Flora defies the limitations of her Sanitation class: She is able to speak, block other bees from accessing her thoughts and use her abilities to forge a unique role for herself when the survival of the hive is threatened.
In creating the intricate life of this honeybee colony, Paull did everything from attending beekeeper classes to watching nature unfold in her backyard. She blends factual bee behavior, like building honeycomb nurseries or the “dancing” and antennae touching which bees perform to communicate information, with elements of goddess worship, Catholic prayer and the British monarchy in her creation of a detailed parallel world. As in nature, The Bees is sometimes chillingly violent. It is also surprisingly funny, with its swaggering Drone class reminiscent of any Animal House frat bro collective hopped up on testosterone.
The Bees is being compared to the modern classic Watership Down by Richard Adams for its thrilling adventure and social commentary wrapped up in an animal story. This story makes a perfect book club choice or escapist summer read as Flora 717 takes the reader on a wild flight. Is Flora a traitor or a savior? The bees in your garden will never look the same again.
Life could be greener on the Emerald Isle these days, where Ireland's economic recession has wreaked havoc upon the residents of one small rural town. There are no jobs, no pension, no unemployment benefits. The effect is a domino-like collapse of livelihood and sanity for everyone in Irish writer Donal Ryan's insightful, darkly humorous debut, The Spinning Heart.
The title refers to a battered and flaking red metal heart on a front cottage gate belonging to the father of well-known resident, Bobby Mahon. Despite its beaten condition, the heart continues to spin on its hinge. It becomes a metaphor for Bobby and the other 20 blindsided souls, who each get a brief chapter to tell their story. They, too, need restoration after the town's big employer abandons them.
Pokey Burke is the corrupt, now-defunct builder who absconds with more than his workers' money. Soon everyone is pondering their hand-to-mouth existence and the fissures emerging in their community. The common thread is Bobby, Pokey's tough but well-respected former foreman whom everyone knows and generally respects. But even Bobby is not above reproach, as his possible complicity in his father’s death has people wondering.
Ryan’s snapshot into the recess of weary minds speaks to a wry, vulnerable sensitivity, and his writing in the vernacular hits home. The prose oozes with spot-on observations of the time, while his use of idioms smartly adds to the authenticity of the first-person narratives. Long-listed for the Man Booker prize, Ryan isn't the first author to swirl Ireland’s economic woes into a novel. Tana French did it in Broken Harbor, and closer to home, Stewart O'Nan did it with Last Night at the Lobster. Best laid plans are never guaranteed. “The future is a cold mistress,” Bobby’s father said. Tomorrow is like that.
Easter Quillby is a caregiver despite her tender age of 12. She takes care of her little sister Ruby as well as her pill-addicted mother, who mostly wanders around in a fog when she’s not passed out. Brady Weller is a disgraced ex-police detective who works for his ex-brother-in-law installing home security systems. Mostly alienated from his ex-wife and daughter, Weller volunteers as a court-appointed guardian ad litem. Finally, meet Pruitt: He’s a bodybuilding, former minor league baseball player recently released from prison, and he’s also a facially disfigured psychotic contract killer. (Is there any other kind?) Easter, Brady and Pruitt take turns narrating author Wiley Cash’s new novel, This Dark Road to Mercy.
Easter and Ruby end up in a children’s group home after their mother dies from an overdose. Weller is assigned to look after the girls’ interests. Easter’s master plan for life, which is college and a career as an FBI agent all the while raising her sister, is at risk when she overhears her foster mother discussing the sisters’ maternal grandparents’ plan to move the girls to Alaska to live with them. When Wade, the girls’ sad sack estranged father, himself a washed-out pitcher, shows up in the middle of the night toting a gym bag filled with ill-gotten gains, Easter impulsively grabs her sister and they take off with not-so-dear-old Dad ... only to find that Weller, Pruitt and the FBI are all in hot pursuit.
Set against the backdrop of the 1998 Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire race to break Roger Maris’ home run record, Cash explores the unbreakable ties of family and the sins from the past, just as he did in his first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. Easter’s voice is especially engaging as she tells her story with a clear-eyed realism. This Dark Road to Mercy will leave the reader rooting for the Quillby sisters and hoping for a grand slam ending.
Be careful what you wish for: a reminder that sometimes wishes are fulfilled in a way not quite anticipated. The desire to turn back the clock or proffer up a desperate bargain in order to keep a loved one with us is universal. Two new novels, The Returned by Jason Mott and Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, explore the consequences of cheating death and getting a second chance.
Lucille and Harold Hargrave are watching a riveting television news story reporting what seems to be an ongoing resurrection of the dead. A knock on the elderly couple’s door reveals a federal agent holding hands with a boy who calls Harold “Daddy.” The child is their eight year old son Jacob who drowned 50 years prior. The Returned explores not only the Hargraves’ reactions to the reappearance of their child, but also the complex societal and governmental responses to this unimaginable and unexplainable global phenomenon. Mott hit the author jackpot with this debut novel. In addition to climbing up The New York Times Best Sellers list, ABC developed the story into a television series entitled Resurrection, which is set to premiere in March.
In Bellman & Black, handsome Will Bellman is viewed as blessed. He’s inherited the family fabric-making factory where he’s introduced the principles and technology of the Industrial Revolution to great success. He adores his wife and young children and is a beneficent country gentleman. A man in black dogs Bellman, however, appearing at the funerals of his friends and family. When a diphtheria-like illness plagues Bellman’s village and takes the lives of his family, Bellman cuts a deal to save the life of his remaining child, Dora. Who is this man in black? Is it wrong to profit from death? Setterfield, who also wrote the popular ghostly story The Thirteenth Tale, delivers another atmospheric story that looks at the price one pays for a deal with the devil.
Lives will never be the same again in Rachel Joyce’s Perfect when, in the summer of 1972, two 11-year-old boys convince themselves that the British government is adding two seconds to that year. Byron, a heartfelt husky lad, admires his lone friend, James, for his intelligence and diligent approach to life. When James informs him of this addition to time, Byron has no reason to doubt him.
However, when Byron witnesses a shocking incident within these extra seconds, the repercussions prove costly for everyone surrounding him, especially his captivating mother, Diana. Although she delights in nature, theater and small kindnesses, Byron’s thoughtful observations detect a deeper sadness under his mother’s delicate repose. Her husband expects her to dress in the refined styles of the ‘50s and lavishes gifts upon her, like a brand new Jaguar, for the sole purpose of instilling envy in the community.
Fast-forward two decades and we encounter Jim, a man living in a dilapidated trailer who is plagued by obsessive compulsive tendencies. Although he is well-meaning, his stuttering and fear of disasters keep him from developing any real relationships with others. As these alternating stories escalate, the two seconds become more mysterious and questionable, yet are vital to these seemingly unrelated plots in this latest work by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.