The 100th anniversary of the War to End All Wars has created a proliferation of popular fiction set during World War I. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd is Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.
Agatha Kent has a well-ordered life as the wife of a British diplomat. She has travelled the world, and resides contentedly in the coastal Sussex town of Rye. Agatha is confident that her husband will succeed in his efforts to quell the quarrel in the Balkans and looks forward to a visit from her two nephews. Hugh is a brilliant young surgeon just finishing his studies. Daniel, the apple of his aunt’s eye, is a burgeoning poet of great promise. The only potential tempest on the horizon is Agatha’s arrangement to hire a female Latin instructor for the local school.
Beatrice Nash has lost her beloved father and must find a way to support herself. Her inheritance has been tied up in a trust controlled by relatives who do not believe a single woman should be without the protection of a man. Fleeing their plans to marry her off, she has accepted the position of Latin instructor in an insular English village. The daughter of a respected writer, Beatrice is well-traveled and highly educated. Her new role, as well as her independence of spirit, presents a challenge to the rigid hierarchy of the town. As the summer deepens, everyone must face a far greater threat to their way of life; the German invasion of Belgium brings reality as well as refugees.
Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an international bestseller. The Summer Before the War is an insightful, witty, haunting portrait that will surely captivate its readers.
Dawn Tripp’s Georgia is an arresting, sensual novel that offers a startling and realistic picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, inspirations and influences.
The novel is mostly a close examination of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, noted photographer and curator who was an early champion of her art. As each period of her art passes, and their relationship develops, we feel her frustration with how others perceive her deeply personal work as an extension of Stieglitz’s art: how the photos he’s taken of her are linked in critics’ minds to her work itself. This imbalance threatens their marriage and, more importantly, O’Keeffe’s ability to create.
It's when O’Keeffe is on her own on her self-directed retreats that we feel her freedom to take her work in an entirely different direction. “When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt,” she said.
Georgia is a work of fiction and, while the rich descriptions of O’Keeffe’s art are well-written, reading about them will inspire you to look up O’Keeffe’s actual works. Georgia O’Keeffe: An Eternal Spirit by Susan Wright offers a great overview and pictures of her most famous paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction by Barbara Haskell and E. Bruce Robertson is a great companion to the novel as it focuses on some of her often-overlooked art. Also worth watching is this brief video about her life and work from the O’Keeffe Museum.
Brash. Gritty. Laugh-out-loud funny. Just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe Richard Fifield’s debut novel The Flood Girls. An irresistible tale of redemption, understanding and acceptance which I guarantee will make you laugh, cry and muse about life until the very last word.
In 1990, 20-something Rachel Flood returns to her hometown of Quinn, Montana, after a nine-year absence to make amends for her outlandish teen behavior. Having destroyed numerous marriages and relationships, she is certainly not welcomed by the townsfolk, including her own mother Laverna, the 40-something outlandish, brazen owner of the aptly named bar, Dirty Shame. But why does she despise Rachel? Will they reconcile? Can they be mother and daughter more than in name only?
Luckily for Rachel, she finds an ally in her 12-year-old neighbor, Jake. With his love of vintage clothes, Madonna’s music and Jackie Collins novels, he is an outcast in his own right. A teen determined to stay true to himself no matter how much it sets him apart from everyone else, much to the chagrin of his disapproving stepfather and the close-minded townsfolk. Jake and Rachel find support to be their true selves in each other, but will the townsfolk forgive Rachel? Will they accept Jake? Will either of them find happiness?
Capturing both the ugly underbelly and the heart of small town life, The Flood Girls will be one of your favorite reads. Fifield’s witty prose, sassy characters and rollercoaster ride of a story will have you feverishly reading into the wee hours of the night. Small town life has never been so much fun! You can learn more about Fifield on his website. Those looking for a similar read should try Ryan Stradel’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
There are books with racist subtext, and then there are the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Although his books defined the horror genre, Lovecraft was also an unrepentant racist who made xenophobia a major theme of his work. As time goes by, this has become harder for readers to tolerate, and his image was recently removed from the World Fantasy award trophies for this reason. But Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country explores Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the perspective of the people Lovecraft deplored, creating a moving story about race and the supernatural in one unforgettable novel.
The book begins in 1950’s Chicago, where Atticus and his Uncle George report for the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a book with real historical roots that guides black travelers through areas of the Jim Crow south where they’re likely to be harassed. The two men also share a mutual love of science fiction that the rest of their family finds hard to understand. But when Atticus’ father Montrose sends him a mysterious letter, they find themselves pulled into a fantasy of their own, a conspiracy of magic and elder gods that reaches far back into their family history.
Never before has a horror book engaged with race in such a thoughtful way, with supernatural evils serving as metaphors for social ones. But none of it would land if Ruff hadn’t crafted characters of such depth and complexity. I could go on about the family’s rich interpersonal relationships, like young Horace who sweetly draws his mother her own comic book series because she wants to read a story about a black woman for once, or the book club discussions between Atticus and George which could’ve filled the entire novel and been perfectly satisfying. These are characters to root for, who never back down from a challenge, whether they’re being chased by a sheriff or a shoggoth (which, believe me, are creepy). Fans of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series will enjoy this similarly pulpy piece of historical fiction.
The dysfunctional Plumb family is at the center of The Nest by debut author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. When we first meet Leo Plumb, the eldest and most successful sibling, he is drunk, high and speeding away from his cousin’s wedding. Leo's intoxicated state and speed result in an accident which necessitates his going into rehab. We meet the rest of the Plumb siblings as they gather to meet with Leo, who is just out of rehab. The topic of this family gathering is The Nest, their joint trust fund, which they are scheduled to receive when Melody, the youngest, turns 40. They all eagerly anticipate receiving their portion of The Nest, as they all need the money.
Melody has two teenage daughters who are on their way to college. She has always wanted the best for them — a house in an area they couldn't afford, private schools and Ivy League colleges. Jack Plumb runs a failing antique shop and is in debt. He also has a mortgage on the vacation home he owns with his partner of more than 20 years, Walker. Then there is Beatrice, who once was a promising writer but now works at a literary magazine. Soon, they discover The Nest is all but gone. They are all counting on Leo to get them out the financial woes they have gotten themselves into, but can he? More importantly, will he?
The story is told from multiple points of view, so you get insight into how each sibling feels and what secrets they are keeping from one another. If you enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you will definitely want to meet the Plumb family.
A foreboding manor house is the centerpiece of Eve Chase’s new novel, Black Rabbit Hall. Readers will instantly be sucked into the dual narratives of two women living decades apart, whose fates are tied to the titular hall.
Amber Alton and her family retreat to the house in the Cornish countryside as a respite from the world. The Alton children run wild in the woods and play on their little private beach without a care. Despite the lack of modern conveniences, their parents always seem happiest here as well. One stormy afternoon a tragic accident irrevocably changes the Alton family, and the house seems to change as well. It is less like an idyllic sanctuary and more like a menacing prison.
Thirty years later, the eerie gravity of the house draws Lorna, a modern bride-to-be searching for the perfect wedding venue. While a crumbling estate seems like an odd choice, something about the house captivates her in a way she cannot explain.
She can feel some inexplicable connection to the place and the buried secrets and betrayals. Unraveling the mysteries of the house and the family who once lived there quickly devolve into her primary obsession.
It is rare to find a book with dual plots featuring equally gripping storylines. There is this delicious sense of impending doom throughout the book that makes it impossible to put down. As soon as readers think they know what will happen next, the story turns sharply in another direction. While Chase has woven some complex affairs spanning a great deal of time, she never loses us for a moment. Her attention to details makes Black Rabbit Hall a tangible place as we lose ourselves in the plot.
This book is great for readers who love gothic tales with crumbling estates and dark family secrets, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca or the works of Kate Morton like The House at Riverton.