Grab your afghan, a cup of tea, and A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy for a delightfully cozy transport to the west coast of the Emerald Isle. Binchy, the grand storyteller of Éire, returns with another fabulous cast of characters. Hailing from far and wide, their paths cross at the Stone House, a hotel in a remote town on the coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr was raised in Stoneybridge, but left for America to follow the man of her dreams. Her family was disappointed and predicted disaster, so even though the romance quickly fizzled, Chicky pretended the two had married and were living the good life. When her niece wants to visit New York, Chicky has to think fast and sadly tells her family that her “husband” was killed in an accident and she is returning to her home town. Chicky decides to take a decaying cliffside mansion, Stone House, and turn it into a holiday hotel offering weekly vacations. Although the residents think she’s crazy, she finds help for this project in her childhood friend’s troubled son, Rigger and her niece Orla. Their hard work pays off as the building is returned its former grandeur and the first week’s guests arrive, including an aging American movie star, a psychic librarian, and a Swedish accountant who yearns to be a musician.
Chicky, her staff, and all of the guests are dealing with varying degrees of disappointment, doubt, and unhappiness. After a week of bracing sea walks and newfound relationships however, nearly all have found peace and rejuvenation. In her final novel, the beloved Binchy again provides a beautiful tale of rediscovery, friendship, and love peppered with characters from past novels in a sparkling setting.
Two new collections of thrilling and even horrific tales are waiting to send shivers down the spine. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa is a twisted series of interlocking short stories which tighten as you delve deeper into its pages. A beauty sorting dirty lab coats, a curator of a torture museum whose collection consists solely of used items, a reporter covering a dolphin-themed resort--the unlikely connections between these and other seemingly isolated characters are dexterously exposed in escalating tension.
Each desperate life has an unrelenting passion, from the man skilled in the art of designing specialty bags who receives an unusual request from a lounge singer, to the woman patiently waiting for a pair of perfect strawberry cupcakes in an unattended bakery. Although each tale is an enthralling standalone, it also subtly reveals the indirect truths of its companion stories. Throughout the book, aggrieved lives gradually become both the architect and the victim of emotions like jealousy, grief, and infatuation. Eerie scenes such as a garden of carrots shaped like hands, a street covered with ripe tomatoes, and an abandoned post office filled with kiwis create a world that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. Stephen Snyder’s exquisite new translation of Ogawa’s 1998 Japanese work, Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, is fragile yet cuts like a knife.
Another mesmerizing collection comes from British novelist Sarah Hall with The Beautiful Indifference: Stories, which explores the grace and the agony of the modern woman. In “Butcher’s Perfume”, a young English girl befriends the schoolyard bully, Mary Slessors, and becomes enthralled with her mysterious family of horse trainers. In the “Agency”, a woman is referred by an acquaintance to an unusual business that provides a tempting yet undefinable service. These stories are engrossing and sensual, investigating the rich complexities of the female psyche in a way that only Hall can.
In the novel The Child’s Child, Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) creates a novel within a novel that looks at two very different issues. In the present day we meet Andrew and Grace Easton, brother and sister, who are sharing a London home they call Dinmont house. Grace is working on her doctoral thesis, writing about the plight of single mothers throughout history. She has recently acquired the manuscript of a lost novel written in 1951, The Child’s Child, chronicling the story of a brother and sister in the 1920’s. In this manuscript, John is a closeted homosexual hiding an illegal relationship with a man and living in constant fear of the law. His sister Maud is fifteen and finds herself with child, only to be cast out of her home when the truth is revealed. These details coincide with many in Grace’s own life. Her brother Andrew is also homosexual and has found love with a rather handsome young man. When one of Andrew’s friends is murdered outside a London nightclub, his boyfriend begins to fall apart. What follows is an event that will change Grace’s life forever.
Most of The Child’s Child consists of this novel within a novel and really encapsulates life in the 1920’s for two types of minorities. A three-time Edgar Award winner, Barbara Vine is known for psychological thrillers, and her latest falls into this category. It is not an easy read, as John and Maud had a difficult life and the novel highlights some of the difficulties that people in their situations may have faced. The addition of Grace and Andrew in the present day adds a nice comparison, and there are some thrilling moments housed within their story as well. Barbara Vine continues to create memorable characters in this readable and suspenseful story.
Her husband left her for a newer model and now he’s lost his job, which means no more child support. This leaves Molly Hagan up a financial creek and emotionally still at sea in Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature and Love, a debut from Megan Caldwell, a regular blogger for the popular romance site Heroes and Heartbreakers. When an old friend offers her a freelance project writing marketing materials for a new bakery headed up by British celeb pastry chef Simon, Molly jumps at the chance. Thus begins the familiar balancing act between work, her son, Aidan – a six year old still dealing with the fallout from his parents’ split, and her financially strapped mother who has moved in with her.
Out of the workforce since Aidan was born, her lack of experience increases her self-doubt as she tackles this creative assignment. But her fears are assuaged as she comes up with a unique idea playing on the proximity of the main branch of the New York Public Library to the new storefront. She creates stories tying each scintillating treat to a great work of literature and even comes up with the bakery’s name – Vanity Fare. Her self-confidence is further boosted when the sexy Simon shines his romantic spotlight on her. Unfortunately, she must deal with his business partner, Nick, who is suspicious of Molly’s abilities, but does show a softer side when Aidan is around.
The clever marketing copy opens each chapter and readers will find themselves longing for "A Room of One’s Scone" or a "Tart of Darkness". For the more adventurous, the epilogue includes select recipes to bake at home. While the mouth-watering descriptions create a framework for this story, it is ultimately the realistic, yet still humorous, story of one young mother trying to start over again professionally and find lasting love.
How do you think you would respond in the face of something truly strange? With horror? With amusement? With speed, by running as fast as possible in the other direction? Or would you adapt, until what once was so strange is now just a new way of being? In his collection of wonderfully imaginative short stories, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, Manuel Gonzales and his very human characters take the latter course, exploring the incredible malleability of the human psyche.
In tales ranging from just a few pages to nearly thirty, bizarre, often frightening, and occasionally gruesome events and people make appearances. A musical genius is physically crippled by his gift to the point that he must develop a way to speak through his ears to communicate. A zombie adept at hiding from discovery convinces himself to give into his homicidal urges because of a secret workplace crush. And in the title story, a scientist accidentally miniaturizes his wife and must then deal with the increasingly violent consequences to his marriage and his life. Often mysteries are unearthed, but never completely explained. Gonzales focuses on the internal dialogues of his characters, who respond to the weirdness around them with painfully human emotions and according to familiar--often petty and selfish--motivations.
At times tender, disturbing, amusing, and eerie, The Miniature Wife is perfect for cold, wild, stormy nights filled with hints of thunder and an air of possibility. Fans of gothic literature, the paranormal, and the short story format will devour this compilation of oddities and enigmas.
The bonds of family are strong, built out of intense love, and sometimes equally intense resentment and hatred. The Dinner by Herman Koch is less a meal than a psychological dissection of a family. The entire novel takes place during the course of an evening meal between two well-to-do brothers and their wives. Each member of the dinner party is trying to control the others and the unnamed “situation” with their children. Various scenarios play out in the minds of the diners, each more shocking and brutal than the last, as they attempt to sway the group toward the best solution. Best for whom remains to be seen.
Dutch author Koch takes a look inside a seemingly harmless gathering and answers the question “What are you really thinking?” Relationships—Parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother—all are put under the microscope with satirical wit and brutal honesty. Already an international best-seller, The Dinner has received advance praise from like-minded psychological thriller writers such as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and S. J. Watson (Before I Go to Sleep). Come to The Dinner and ask yourself, which way does your moral compass point?
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.
Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.
The 2013 Stonewall Book Awards were announced at this year’s American Library Association Midwinter meeting. The Stonewall Book Awards are given each year to exceptional books reflecting the gay, lesbian and transgender experience. Each year a fiction, nonfiction, and children's or young adult title is chosen for the award. Honor books are also chosen in each category. This year’s Barbara Gittings Literature Award went to The Last Nude by Ellis Avery. It tells the story of the passionate, tortured relationship between Tamara de Lempicka and her muse, Rafaela. The Last Nude is highly recommended to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the Lost Generation of Paris, learn more about twentieth century art or simply wants to read a fascinating, wholly engrossing love story.
The Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children's & Young Adult Literature Award went to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Aristotle and Dante, two Mexican-American teens, are trying to figure out where they fit in the universe and how to navigate their ever-evolving friendship. Aristotle and Dante walked away with multiple awards this year. In addition to the Stonewall Award, it was also the winner of the Pura Belpre’ Award, which goes to the work for children and youth that best represents the Latino cultural experience. The book also garnered a Printz honor award, which highlights teen books of excellent literary merit.
This year’s Israel Fishman Nonfiction Award was given to For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out and Coming Home, edited by Keith Boykin. For Colored Boys is a collection of over 40 essays and personal stories from gay and transgender people of color. The collection features essays on coming out in communities of color, religion, HIV/AIDS, family dynamics and finding love. A powerful and diverse collection, For Colored Boys gives voice to life stories that are rarely told.
A complete list of The Stonewall Winners and Honor Books can be found on the ALA website.
HBO and BBC have partnered to bring Parade’s End, based on Ford Madox Ford’s classic modernist tetralogy, to the screen in a new five-part miniseries that will premiere in the US on February 26th on HBO. Ford’s novels, published separately between 1924 and 1928, were first combined and reissued as Parade’s End in 1950. The story follows Christopher Tietjens, the wealthy heir to the estate of Groby, who is serving in the British army during World War I. Christopher’s personal life is complicated by a love triangle. He is torn between his socialite wife Sylvia, who Graham Greene called "surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel," and his suffragette mistress Valentine. Rather than focusing on the upstairs/downstairs themes of Downton Abbey, Parade’s End portrays a broader view of England and the English gentry around World War I. Parade’s End is a challenging but worthwhile read. The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch calls the novel “The Better Downton Abbey,” citing the characters’ sharper edges and the novel’s drama that excels where he feels Downton Abbey has begun to fall flat.
The miniseries was adapted for the small screen by Sir Tom Stoppard. Director Susanna White says that Parade’s End, which was commissioned before the Downton Abbey craze, is its own unique take on the time period. Get a sneak peak at this critically-acclaimed drama, featuring the BBC’s Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher, here.
Some reading experiences are meant to be savored. Jess Walter creates one in Beautiful Ruins, which begins in 1962 at Hotel Adequate View on the Italian coastline. Pasquale Tursi, who runs the hotel, is captivated by the blond woman who arrives at his hotel. She turns out to be a dying American actress, and thus begins a novel that sweeps over decades and contains a cast of captivating characters, all “beautiful ruins” in their own right. In the present day we meet Michael Dean, a film producer who has recently returned to favor with the popularity of a reality television show, and his long suffering assistant Claire Silver, who is in the process of discovering another line of work. Next comes Shane Wheeler who wants to make a pitch to Michael Dean with a screenplay about the Donner party. Other characters include a would-be novelist, a failed musician and a famous film actor. These lives are woven together in an unusual style that includes chapters of novels, film treatments and even a play.
The characters Jess Walter creates are completely realized and finely detailed. The story captures the imagination and you can’t help but care for this motley crew as they try to create something that matters, only to find themselves failing and falling and further affecting all the other lives around them. Although the characters seem separated at the beginning of the novel, the stories begin to intertwine and blend, leading to an incredible crescendo. Thoroughly discussable, this novel is perfect for book groups. Beautiful Ruins will pull you in, capture your heart and will make you reflect on your own life choices.