In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.
In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.
Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.
Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.
Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.
A new Elinor Lipman novel is always a must-read for me, and On Turpentine Lane certainly lived up to expectations. Filled with relatable, funny characters, sharp dialogue and fast-moving stories, Lipman writes wonderful romantic comedies that bring the reader into the world she creates.
Faith Frankel moves from Brooklyn back to her hometown of Everton, Massachusetts, and falls in love with a cupcake of a house on Turpentine Lane. She has a job in fundraising at her alma mater and a solid boyfriend in Stuart. Her life is starting to take shape. But when Stuart leaves for a cross-country hitchhiking expedition, her job is threatened and the police start ripping up her basement looking for bones, her world is torn upside down. Through it all, Faith’s family is supportive, as is her colleague and soon-to-be roommate, Nick.
Elinor has been called the Jane Austen of America and I was thrilled to be able to talk to her about her inspiration, her favorite authors and Colin Firth, who we both agreed was the best Mr. Darcy ever!
Between the Covers: I am so thrilled to be talking to one of my favorite authors! You never disappoint, and On Turpentine Lane was wonderful with sparkling characters, sharp dialogue and laugh-out-loud comedy. Who or what was your inspiration for this novel?
Elinor Lipman: Thank you! The inspiration was a dark, creepy house on my childhood street, in a thicket of overgrown trees and shrubs and weeds — the whole thing looming large in my memory. The owner had been a reclusive widow, always dressed in a long black, witchy dress, rarely seen. I used to cross the street rather than walk past her house and certainly never trick-or-treated there.
Fast forward 40-plus years, and I found out that my best childhood friend had bought the house and had moved in. I was astonished. I was going to write an essay about visiting a house as an adult that had spooked me as a child, but then it struck me as not only a setting for a novel, but a character in the story.
BTC: Faith Frankel is delightful! She’s gutsy and loving, yet honest and sometimes immature. How did Faith come to you? Is she based on anyone you know?
EL: Naïve, yes, but I'd argue with immature in case that made her sound bratty. She's not based on anyone I know. I start with an opening sentence or a line of dialogue and then develop the character as I go along. She's her own person…though probably has a lot of me in her.
BTC: Your dialogue in this one, as in all of your novels, is snappy and smart and your supporting characters are quirky, realistic and well-developed. Are the dialogue or characters based on real conversations or people?
EL: That's a hard one to answer because while dialogue isn't based on real conversations or people, I'm always trying to make it sound right, natural, crisp. No speechifying. No planting information in the dialogue. I don't want everyone to sound the same, and since Faith is half my age, I ran a few expressions by younger people. (One I remember was "didn't sleep a wink." Was that from another era? My son said no, it's fine.)
I'm constantly paring sentences down and following something David Mamet said, quoting the screenwriter William Goldman: "Get into a scene as late as possible and leave it as early as possible." To me, that means cut out the "hello, how are you?" and the "okay, good-bye, see you next time." Sometimes I cover the opening dialogue with my hand to see how far and late I can start an exchange.
BTC: Can you give us a sneak peek at what you’re working on next?
EL: Sure. I'm more than half-way through, and it centers around a heavily notated high school yearbook that a woman bequeaths to her daughter. Why was the original owner so obsessed with this class? Complications ensue! No title yet.
BTC: Were you always a reader? What was your favorite book as a child? Who are some of your favorite contemporary novelists?
EL: Yes, always a huge reader, especially as a child, aided by the no-TV-on-school-nights rule. I re-read my favorites literally dozens of times. Most beloved was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. I adored Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna and read every Nancy Drew.
Contemporary favorites: Stephen McCauley, Anita Shreve, Maria Semple, Stacy Schiff, Jill McCorkle, Laura Lippman, Tom Perrotta, Maggie O'Farrell, Philip Roth. I love memoirs; two recent ones I flipped over (as audio books) are Trevor Noah's Born a Crime and All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen.
BTC: I know your first novel Then She Found Me was made into a charming movie starring Helen Hunt and Colin Firth. First, did you get to meet Colin Firth? How was the process of having your book turned into a movie? Are any of your other novels being made into movies? Who would be your dream cast if On Turpentine Lane was made into a movie?
EL: I didn't get to meet Colin Firth — the only star of Then She Found Me I didn't meet!
I loved having the book made into a movie, even though the plot departed greatly from the novel. I'd been prepared for that. "Think of it as a movie based on a character suggested by the novel," a Hollywood-savvy friend told me. (I wrote about the experience in my essay collection, I Can't Complain.) It took 19 years from first bite, the option, to the screen in 2008, so I was very inclined to love it.
My dream cast for On Turpentine Lane would be Emma Stone and Mark Ruffulo…well, Mark Ruffulo at 35. Or how about if Jessica Chastain turns to romantic comedy? She lives in my building, and I'm going to give her a signed copy ASAP.
A deadly car bombing on a Navajo reservation sets in motion professional rivalries, intertribal tensions and an FBI investigation into possible eco-terrorism in Anne Hillerman’s Song of the Lion. Off-duty tribal officer Bernadette Manuelito is anticipating an epic battle between the current Shiprock High School basketball team and the old-time alumni seeking to recreate past glories. Instead, an explosion rocks the night, and Bernie is thrust into a miasma of fleeing spectators. In the parking lot lays the ruined remains of a BMW owned by the mediator of a multi-million dollar development intended for the Grand Canyon. Considering the highly controversial negotiations about to be conducted, it is assumed the mediator is the target of the attack. Bernie’s husband, tribal officer Jim Chee, is assigned to protect the very uncooperative potential murder victim.
While dozens of stakeholders plead their case for the future use of the land, sabotage threatens the hearings and tensions rise between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. As Bernie and Jim are drawn deeper into the case, what appears to be straightforward case against eco-terrorists becomes an investigation into a complex web of events buried deep in the past. Patiently plotting, this killer has waited a very long time to carry out his well-laid plans for revenge.
The sacred ground of the Grand Canyon provides the landscape for this latest entry in the Navajo detective series. Anne Hillerman proves herself a worthy keeper of the flame for her acclaimed father, Tony Hillerman. Like his, her writing is rich with the customs, lore and sacred myths of the Hopi and Navajo tribes. Readers of Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton will enjoy this haunting read.
The writing team styled as James S.A. Corey picks up the ever complex interplanetary politics and resulting war without missing a beat in book six of The Expanse series. Longtime fans of the series will enjoy the return of many characters from previous books in the newest installment, Babylon’s Ashes.
The spaceship Rocinante’s crew is reunited for a drawn-out debriefing on Luna Base. Captain Holden and company ship out under former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper’s command to help coordinate what remains of the joint fleet from Earth and Mars, as well as the unaligned OPA factions, to put a stop to Marco’s plans.
The complex tribal nature of the Belt is given a hefty portion of the storytelling though the voices of Naomi, Dawes, Pa, Prax, Filip and Marco. Corey devotes time into exploring the poisonous father-son relationship between Marco and Filip, as well as Naomi’s guilt for sacrificing her son to Marco’s control. One of the most striking moments of the book occurs when Filip has an important realization about his father.
If you are new to the novels that precede the sixth installment, make sure to get started with Leviathan Wakes, or check out season one of The Expanse before the next season starts back up on February 1.
Karen Brown won acclaim for her debut The Longings of Wayward Girls, a suspenseful novel about two missing girls. Although her new book, The Clairvoyants, is also billed as psychological suspense, it’s really more accurate to describe it as a coming-of-age story with dark, supernatural overtones.
Martha and her sister Del grow up on a farm in Connecticut. When Martha is only 7 years old, she has a vision of her great aunt. Unfortunately, her great aunt has already been dead for many years when they “meet.” As a child, Martha is only mildly disconcerted by the event. It seems to be an isolated, intriguing fluke. But in her late teens, a harrowing incident triggers her strange gift again. She begins experiencing more visions of the dead — most not as pleasant as her great aunt.
Hoping to leave the dead behind, Martha flees to college in Ithaca. There she finds romance with a brooding photographer named William. But her idyll is disrupted when the past comes calling in the form of her impulsive sister Del. Just as Martha tries to reconcile herself to being her unstable sister’s caretaker, a fellow student on campus vanishes. Martha’s visions return with a vengeance.
Although the missing girl is pivotal to the plot of The Clairvoyants, Brown’s story is too leisurely paced to feel like suspense. Her focus is less on finding the missing girl and more on understanding Martha’s unwillingness to use her “gift.” Indeed, Martha’s reluctance to get involved in the case becomes a symbol for her reluctance to take charge of her own life.
Readers who enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper should enjoy The Clairvoyants. Like these authors, Brown uses the suspense genre to explore the rivalries that shape women and their relationships with one another.
Brunonia Barry brings us an exciting and enchanting mystery in her new book The Fifth Petal, which takes place in Salem, Massachusetts.
On Halloween night in 1989, a group of women gather to bless the grave of their ancestors, who were accused of witchcraft and hanged during the Salem witch trials. That night, three of the women mysteriously die, leaving Rose Whelan and Callie Cahill, the 5-year-old daughter of one of the other women, as the only survivors. Rose is convinced that a banshee murdered the women and is sent to a mental hospital. Callie is questioned and sent away, and the case grows cold.
On Halloween night 25 years later, a teenage boy mysteriously dies while harassing Rose, and Rose is once again convinced that the banshee is the killer. While investigating the murder of the boy, old memories and the unsolved case resurface. Tormented by the memory of that night in 1989, Callie returns to Salem to see Rose and uncover some answers for herself.
The mysteries of the past are unraveled as Callie begins to remember exactly what happened the night her mother and the other women died. Full of mysteries, myths and strong storytelling, The Fifth Petal is entirely captivating. Check out Brunonia Barry’s other novel, The Lace Reader, also set in Salem.
In the more than 20 years that Hellboy has been engaged in supernatural pulp adventures, he’s been everywhere from Mexico to Romania and crossed paths with countless fantastic figures from history and myth. Though Hellboy made himself comfortable all over the globe throughout his life, there was only one logical place for him to end his journey: home. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola is a somber and surreal swan song that finally forces Hellboy to face the infernal heritage he spent his life rejecting.
Creator Mignola announced in 2015 that Hellboy in Hell would be his final art duty on a comic before an extended break to focus on traditional watercolor painting, and this series truly reads like a fond farewell to a beloved friend. Minimalist compositions present the majestic architecture and unholy denizens of the underworld in a way that invoke melancholy rather than horror. Fans of Mignola will recognize returning motifs throughout the glorious hellscapes he illustrates here, and new readers can look forward to being introduced to his unique style with a story that showcases him at the top of his game. Longtime collaborator Dave Stewart provides most of the book’s color, bathing each page in dismal limited palettes that perfectly compliment the gloomy tone of the story.
This is the sendoff Hellboy deserves. The unmistakable artwork and understated writing that readers have come to expect from Mike Mignola are here, presented in perhaps their most moving use since Hellboy’s origin. Whet your appetite with Hellboy: The First 20 Years and then settle in for a quiet evening navigating the depths with Hell’s lost son himself. Full disclosure: I cried a little.
In Helen Callaghan’s electrifying debut novel Dear Amy, a young teacher battles a faceless enemy to save an abducted student’s life. Margot Lewis teaches in an exclusive private high school in Cambridge, England. She has discovered a talent for reaching her students, and they often turn to her for advice. It’s a natural step for Margot to become an advice columnist for the local newspaper under the pseudonym Dear Amy. One day, Margot receives a letter that shakes her down to the depths of her soul. Dear Amy: I’ve been kidnapped by a strange man. I don’t know where I am. Please help me. It's signed by a young girl who went missing 20 years before.
It is a desperate plea that Margot cannot ignore. The letter may be a hoax, but if it’s not, it could be the missing girl’s only chance at survival. When a student from Margot’s class goes missing, Margot knows she cannot stand idly by. Facing the possibility of being accused as a fraud, she takes the letter to the police, where it is authenticated as written by the missing girl. The police renew their investigation, and refer the case to criminologist Martin Forrester of Cambridge University. Together, Martin and Margot descend into the mind of a serial felon. Echoes from Margot’s past resonate into her present. Margot must conquer her own demons in order to defeat this new enemy.
Powerful, lyrical and taut with suspense, this literary thriller will seize you from the first page to the last. Helen Callaghan has woven a compelling tale of obsession and evil that takes her characters to the limits of their endurance. Laced with references to the classics, readers of Tana French, Peter Robinson and Gillian Flynn will appreciate the prose as well as the plot.