Promising young voices in modern literary fiction are hard to come by, which makes Justin Taylor a man who deserves more recognition. In his newest collection Flings: Stories, Taylor confronts the awkward truths of adult life in stories centered around people who share a collective desire to be genuinely good, despite their misguided tendencies.
Both the titular story “Flings” and its continuation “After Ellen” follow people who are ensnared in the directionless, bleak traps of uncertainty that riddle our mid-20s. As friends, they live hollow lives in which they careen through dead-end jobs and relationships while waiting for what they perceive to be their real adult lives to begin. In the meantime, they’re left celebrating their miseries with compassion in their own beautifully tragic ways.
The more light-hearted "Sungold” stars Brian, a 30-something manager and bookkeeper at an organic pizza place. After nearly suffering heatstroke while wearing a questionably shaped purple mushroom costume in front of the restaurant, he gets busted cooking the books by a girl who happens to be there looking for a job. Her name is Appolinaria Pavlovna Sungold (seriously), and she knows what's up; she promises her silence in exchange for regular shift hours and a percentage of Brian's stolen funds. Brian hires her on the spot as both an act of self-preservation and an act of defiance towards the store owner, who only hires attractive college girls who enjoy fashioning the collars of their tie-dyed uniforms into deep, dangerous Vs.
Taylor’s prose is brilliant, humorous and unwavering. His characters are marvels; both uniquely individual and equally empathetic, and united by their searches for things to fill the voids in their lives.
Lines between dream and the reality of an isolated existence become hazy in acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s newest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel.
In high school, Tsukuru was included in a tight-knit group of friends. Although they were inseparable, spending their free time volunteering and studying together, Tsukuru felt deficient in their presence. Ao, Aka, Kuro and Shiro are each shown with a distinctly vibrant essence. In comparison, Tsukuru felt colorless, yet satisfied to be a part of such a special assemblage. This circle remained unbroken until Tsukuru was ejected from the group during his second year of college. At first, he thinks his friends must be missing his messages but after countless awkward brushoffs from their families, the banishment is clear.
Not having the faintest clue as to why, Tsukuru thrusts himself into an existential depression which wears down both body and spirit. Plagued by fear of actually being a nonentity, he is reduced to an inert husk. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we are taken on an enigmatic journey as an older Tsukuru sets out to discover the truth behind his exile. He soon encounters ghosts from the past, new acquaintances and lovers in an oscillating series of hallucination, memory and restless fantasy. Only Murakami, a master of magical realism, could conjure such pensive yet uneasy visions.
Oliver Harris’ ne’er do well detective Nick Belsey is in trouble again in the novel Deep Shelter. A random encounter with a speeding perpetrator leads Nick to an abandoned bomb shelter. Finding some crates of champagne as well as some heavy duty medically prescribed drugs, Nick thinks this might be the perfect party spot to take a female companion. When he does just this, the lights are extinguished and Nick’s date is kidnapped, apparently dragged away into a warren of tunnels that could go anywhere. Nick soon finds himself in the uncomfortable position of prime suspect and quite possibly in the middle of an extensive government cover-up that leads back as far as the Cold War. With little help and almost no resources, Nick races against the clock to try and recover the woman he lost.
Nick Belsey was introduced in Harris’ previous novel, Hollow Man. He is a likable character and a good investigator, albeit one that makes very bad decisions. Harris handles the element of suspense well, and Deep Shelter starts quickly and moves at a fast pace. The setting is also amazing and Nick travels from the busy streets of London to mysterious locations deep underground, hoping to find a discarded clue that might lead him in the right direction. The writing is solid; Harris has degrees in creative writing as well as English and Shakespeare studies, so readers who enjoy good descriptions and a sharp writing style will not be disappointed. Readers who enjoy this novel may want to try Stuart MacBride or Mark Billingham.
Erin Kelly’s Broadchurch invites readers to travel to the quiet British seaside town of the same name where we meet Detective Ellie Miller, fresh off a rejuvenating vacation and excited to return to work where a promotion awaits. She’s not back long before learning that her coveted position went to outsider Alec Hardy, an interloper with a checkered professional past. Simultaneously, readers are introduced to Beth Latimer, a typical mom and friend of Ellie’s, who is slowly reaching the gut-wrenching conclusion that her son is missing.
When a boy’s body is discovered on the beach, word spreads quickly through the small town. Ellie and Hardy arrive and immediately realize the death was no accident. Anguished mom Beth races to the scene only to learn that the dead boy is indeed her 11-year-old son Danny. As Ellie and Hardy work together to solve this devastating crime, they must also deal with two distraught families and a shattered community. The investigation intensifies, and it becomes clear that the killer is someone close to home. No one is immune from being cast a suspect, including Beth Latimer and her husband. This is a gripping, dramatic story set in a seemingly sleepy town that is bubbling with secrets and lies.
Kelly’s novel is an adaptation of the first season of the hit British drama Broadchurch, available on DVD. In October, FOX will begin airing Gracepoint, a 10-part reworking of the British drama set in California but interestingly featuring the same lead actor, David Tennant.
Throughout her career, author Mary Jo Putney has received multiple RITA nominations and awards, two Romantic Times Career Achievement Awards and the Romance Writers of America’s Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. She also has something in common with many of our readers — she’s a BCPL customer! In Putney’s new book Not Quite a Wife, which recently hit The New York Times Best Sellers list, fate brings a couple back together for a second chance at love.
Putney recently took some time to answer questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about her new book, her advice for aspiring writers and her favorite things about Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Describe Not Quite a Wife in one sentence.
Mary Jo Putney: A long-estranged couple who never stopped loving each other must come together again to see if they can rebuild their marriage.
BTC: You’ve written in several genres throughout your career, but you’re probably best known for your rich historical romances. What about the Regency era inspires you most? Do you find yourself researching less now or does each book and its characters demand its own research?
MJP: The Regency was a time of change, a transition from the old regime world into what has become our modern world. The industrial age was shattering the old feudal/agricultural structure, the ideas of the enlightenment were leading to better education, more equality and individualism and reform moves like abolition and eventually women's rights. There was also the creative Romantic revolution in writing, painting, music and other areas of life. Plus, a great war against a continental tyrant: Napoleon. It gives writers so much to work with!
The amount of research varies. By now, I've developed a fairly broad foundation of Regency knowledge, but every book will have some new topics to research. For example, in Not Quite a Wife I was looking at things like Bristol's historic role in the slave trade and the development of steamship service on the Thames as well as studying maps of London's dockyards. That's part of what makes writing historical novels so interesting.
BTC: What’s a typical work day like for you? Is there such a thing as a typical work day?
MJP: Days can vary enormously! I'm more owl than lark. After breakfast, I sip coffee and check email. Three mornings a week, I go to Curves to exercise, since sitting at a computer too long is hard on the body and I need to stretch. I spend time on blogging — I'm part of a long running blog, the Word Wenches, and we all contribute regularly. (They're a great group, both as writers and as friends.)
I also spend a fair amount of time working at re-publishing my older books. I love that it's now possible to make all those backlist stories available as e-books. But the closer a deadline is, the more time I spend actually writing new work. Everything else gets pushed out!
BTC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
MJP: Read, read, read! You need to thoroughly understand the genre you want to write in, and what you love to read and to write. You also need to work on the craft of writing. No matter how good a natural storyteller you are, you must also have enough writing skill to tell that story well. For romance writers, I recommend joining the Romance Writers of America. It's a large group with a lot of classes and opportunities to find critique. The local chapter is Maryland Romance Writers, and I've been a member since two months after I started my first book.
BTC: What are your favorite things about living in Baltimore?
MJP: I love the variety and history of Baltimore and Maryland. The people are nice, the weather provides four distinct and generally pleasant seasons, and there's lots of social and historical texture. Since I didn't grow up here, there are still things I'm learning despite having lived in Baltimore for many years.
BTC: What can readers look forward to from you next?
MJP: I've been writing a Regency historical series called the Lost Lords. All the heroes attended a school for boys of "good birth and bad behavior." Basically, as kids they were square pegs in round holes, and the school not only taught them how to adapt to society without losing their souls, but how to build deep friendships as well.
The sixth book in the series, Not Quite a Wife, has just been released, and I'm working on the book for next year, Not Always a Saint. Though the different characters show up in different stories, basically each book stands alone by focusing on the romance of just one couple.
Thanks for having me here! Since BCPL is my local library, this is a particular pleasure.
Stuck. That's what Nora Webster is since her beloved husband Maurice died. With four children, the 40-year-old widow is mindful of the hole in their lives while trying to eke out their existence in the small Irish town where everyone knows your business. Set 40 years ago amidst Ireland’s religious unrest, Colm Tóibín’s newest novel, Nora Webster, is a quiet and eloquent study of the power of transformative grief and the new way of living that only Nora and her family can define.
Protective and no nonsense, Nora knows it's now her role to run a household that includes two growing boys and two daughters on the brink of adulthood. Through the careful, keen observations of family and friends, we get to know and sympathize with Tóibín's stubborn and private protagonist. While people swirl around her, Nora can only ponder the course her life has taken, the decisions she has made, the actions she has regretted. She is not the only one grieving. All the while her children, especially her boys, Conor and Donal, wait with unmet needs. When she does unwittingly nudge toward a passion that stirs her, contentment is slow to insert itself.
A recurring Man Booker Prize finalist, Tóibín is the author of six previous novels including the provocative Testament of Mary. Here he offers up the richest of character portraits in Nora and her family while smoothly glancing the social, religious and political issues of the day. Complicated and contemplative, reflective and fluent, Tóibín probes Nora's mind with a subtle psychological deftness until we, too, feel as intimate with her as those in her orbit. It is confident, undramatic prose that takes us to Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s birthplace, and to the solitary effort of learning to live again. Fans of this highly regarded contemporary writer will not have to wait too long for his next book; On Elizabeth Bishop is due out next April.
Once, Bell Elkins dreamed of escaping her West Virginia hometown of Ackers Gap, with its looming mountains and desperate poverty. But after living in the highest corporate echelons of Washington, D.C., Bell realizes that pursuing justice for the rich and powerful provides little professional satisfaction. Instead, she returns home to become the county prosecutor for Rathune County. Bell is forced to deal with the aftermath of her traumatic upbringing in Julia Keller’s latest novel, Summer of the Dead.
Bell’s older sister, Shirley, has been paroled from prison after serving a 30-year sentence for killing their father to prevent him from sexually molesting Bell. Through one horrifically violent act, Shirley gives Bell a chance at a decent life. Bell knows she owes Shirley, but her sister is angry and out of control.
While trying to heal her damaged relationship with her sister, Bell has two murders to solve. In one, an old man everyone liked was inexplicably bludgeoned to death in his driveway. In the other, a middle-aged man was killed while walking in the woods at night. There are few clues, and no obvious reasons. What little information is available leads Bell to the home of a retired coal miner and his daughter, Lindy. Lindy struggles to protect her damaged, sometimes violent parent by re-creating the mine her dad finds so familiar and comforting in the basement of their ramshackle home. As her father descends ever-deeper into dementia, Lindy discovers long-held secrets that reach into surprising places, proving that while everyone may know your name in a small town, that doesn’t mean they know you.
Julia Keller was a reporter and editor for the Chicago Tribune for 12 years, where she won the Pulitzer Prize. She was born and raised in West Virginia, and her immediate experience brings authenticity to her sense of place and characters. The first Bell Elkins novel, A Killing in the Hills won the Barry Award for best first novel. Readers who enjoy strong female characters or a rural setting will especially enjoy this series.
Two young women connected through a painting and distanced by time are at the heart of Kristy Cambron's debut historical novel, The Butterfly and the Violin. In 1942, Adele Von Bron is the darling of Vienna society, an accomplished violinist and the doted-upon daughter of a high-ranking military officer. Her privileged upbringing keeps her removed from the Nazi killing squads until she meets Vladimir, a fellow musician and merchant's son. Eventually the couple's sympathies toward the Jews land them in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Adele is imprisoned to be "reeducated," and her beloved violin becomes her lifeline when she is conscripted to play in the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz.
Seventy years later, Manhattan art gallery owner Sera James is haunted by the one last link to her father. It is a painting she remembers from childhood of a beautiful Auschwitz prisoner, violin in hand. Escaping her own disappointing past, she embarks on a singular quest to find the girl with the penetrating blue eyes and learn her story. When Sera's journey takes her to California to the one other person equally absorbed with finding the painting, her life is about to change. The wealthy, handsome William Hanover may be just the person Sera needs to realize more than just one dream.
Cambron, who admits to being fascinated with World War II, brings to bear the human need to create art even among the battered landscape of war. With a double narrative and shifting points of view, she captures the historical breadth of the time period with an inspirational tone. Her research included a moving interview with an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. "The experience added such a note of realism to Adele's story that I almost felt as if she was real, that she'd actually been there and fought to survive alongside the rest of the souls in that horrible place," Cambron recalled. Her second book in the new Hidden Masterpiece series, A Sparrow in Terezin, is due out next April.
Acclaimed novelist and short story writer J. California Cooper has died at the age of 82. The award-winning writer’s well-known works include the novels Family and Some People, Some Other Place and the short story collection Homemade Love.
Cooper led a storied life herself which included a variety of jobs such as manicurist and Alaskan pipeline teamster before realizing her dream of being a professional writer. Throughout her varied employment, she was constantly writing and achieved success initially as a playwright. But it wasn’t until Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker attended one of her plays and encouraged Cooper to try her hand at novels and short stories that Cooper’s writing path changed course.
Walker was a catalyst in Cooper’s career but her unpretentious and informal storytelling style helped her develop legions of devoted fans including new readers who continue to find her work relevant and enjoyable. One such aficionado is National Book Award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni, who has called Cooper "my favorite storyteller." Cooper was also critically praised and awards bestowed upon her include the James Baldwin Writing Award and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association.
Maryland author Laura Kaye’s new novella Hard to Hold On To recently hit both The New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists. The novella gives readers a time-out from the pulse-pounding action and suspense found in the rest of her Hard Ink series. This story really delves into the heart of this band of brothers and focuses on the emotional trauma caused on the horrific day when their special forces team was ambushed, leaving only five survivors. Edward “Easy” Cantrell is silently dealing with the life-threatening emotional fallout of their experiences. He bonds with Jenna Dean, a young woman who has recently faced a trauma herself, and they begin to help each other heal, finding that each is stronger when they are together.
Kaye recently took the time to answer some questions for our Between the Covers readers. Learn more about the important issue that she wants to raise awareness about and where you can see her at the Baltimore Book Festival this weekend.
Between the Covers: Tell us about your Hard Ink series in one sentence.
Laura Kaye: Hard Ink is a sexy, suspenseful series about the surviving members of an Army Special Forces unit fighting to regain their stolen honor after being kicked out of the military under suspicious circumstances.
BTC: Edward “Easy” Cantrell, the hero of your new novella Hard to Hold On To, is dealing with some very serious issues, including PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Why did you feel that this story needed to be told? What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers so far?
LK: Easy’s story needed to be told because it reflects the very real experiences with which so many veterans are grappling. Twenty-two veterans die of suicide every day. That’s a mind-boggling statistic. Here’s another: Forty-five percent of veterans say they know another vet who has attempted or died from suicide. The feedback to the book has been amazing and overwhelming—I have been honored to have been contacted by so many people who have had an Edward “Easy” Cantrell in their real lives. The fact that they’ve shared those very personal and often heart-breaking stories with me and said how much it meant to them to have awareness brought to the issue is one of the most meaningful things I’ve experienced as a writer.
BTC: You chose to donate the proceeds from the first two weeks’ sales of this novella to the Wounded Warrior Project. Why is this issue so important to you?
LK: It’s important to me because I just felt like I needed to do more than raise awareness. Suicide is a little-discussed epidemic among veterans, and that absolutely breaks my heart. I worked for the military for eight years as associate professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, so I hold a real fondness for the men and women who serve our country.
BTC: Hard to Come By will be published in November. What can readers expect for the Hard Ink guys?
LK: In Hard to Come By, the Hard Ink men face their greatest challenges and losses yet! Things will really come to a head in the suspense storyline, alone with a super sexy romance between Derek “Marz” DiMarzio and his heroine, Emilie Garza.
BTC: As a reader, what book can’t you wait to get your hands on?
LK: The answer to that question is almost always the next Black Dagger Brotherhood book by J.R. Ward. Also, almost anything by Tessa Bailey.
BTC: You’ll be at the Baltimore Book Festival this weekend. What are you looking forward to the most either as an author or a reader?
LK: Yes! I will appear on multiple discussion panels at the Maryland Romance Writers stage at this year’s BBF! I absolutely love getting to meet readers, answer their questions and spend time with my writer friends. A whole weekend devoted to books—what could be better?