When you pick up a copy of Saving Alex: When I Was 15 I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began, you do so already knowing that author Alexandra Cooper grew up Mormon, that she came out to her parents at a young age and that the results were disastrous. What you might not realize is how profound, life-changing, community-changing and uplifting the journey Alex took after her “nightmare” was, and what a powerful effect this young woman has had over one of the most complicated and tightly knit communities in our country.
One of the final strongholds that has continued to uphold discrimination against gay Americans, and gay youth in particular, has been the establishment of the Church of Latter Day Saints. According to Mormon doctrine, which includes but goes beyond the Old Testament, gay individuals cannot belong to sacred family units, or the Church, or reach Heaven. Certain belief in this is what frightened Alex’s parents to hysterics when, at 15, rebellious and strong-willed, she told them that she was dating another girl, and that she was a lesbian. They had taken action to discipline their “problem” child before, but this time their choices were devastating. They sent Alex away from their home in California to live with a family in St. George, Utah —a family that promised to help “cure” Alex of the sin of homosexuality. Alex found herself isolated from her friends, unable to use any methods of communication outside the strangers’ house, and, when she acted out in desperation for freedom, beaten, enslaved and made to carry heavy burdens and stare at a wall for weeks at a time without rest.
Alex tells her story with such love and tenderness that it’s mortifying to realize what cruelties she endured. Despite her trauma, Alex speaks with clear-headed empathy for her family as well as the culture she was raised in. She expresses an understanding for the fear and anxiety that led her abusers to treat her the way they did, even if she now knows they were wrong for trying to change her. Alex’s case made very recent history in Utah in 2011 by overturning legislation that enforced a parent’s right to try to change or reform a child’s sexuality against their will. Saving Alex is a hard book to read, but is ultimately a triumph, ending as reality often does — broken but hopeful, with some things lost and some things gained. Alex did not lose her life, family or rights, as so many before her did. She hopes to gain the same for the youth of the future.
Tessa Hadley’s new novel The Past is a beautifully written story capturing the complex relationships of families — both with each other and with their own past — as the characters find themselves tangled in patterns of behavior they don’t know how to break.
The story begins with a summer holiday. One by one, the grown siblings arrive at Kington House with children, groceries and even an unexpected guest. Harriet has arrived first, but immediately slipped off to the woods for a walk. When Alice arrives without her key, she must sit on the stoop and wait. That would have been fine if she hadn’t inexplicably invited her ex-boyfriend’s son Kashim, a chronically bored college student. As they peer into the house like strangers, Alice grows embarrassed of her typical forgetfulness. Fran and her children show up with their car packed full of groceries and let the others in. The sisters immediately begin pouring drinks and speculating about their brother Roland’s newest wife, Pilar, whom they haven’t yet met. And, as easily as that, they all slip into the family roles they know so well: the distant one, the flighty one, the responsible one.
Kington House is the vicarage where their grandparents lived and their mother grew up. The pleasantly dilapidated house has no cell phone service, cable TV or even a decent store, but it is full of memories. Every chipped tea cup and desk drawer holds a story, a part of their family’s past. On this vacation, the siblings must decide whether they will continue to hang on to the house, which needs a great deal of repair, or let go.
This lovely isolation creates a perfect setting for us to be enveloped in this chaotic family. We become one of them, feeling empathy for them even when they frustrate us beyond belief.
There is a grace to Hadley’s writing as she slips from one character’s innermost thoughts to the next. Even without an action-packed plot, this work is hard to put down. This family, their struggles and secrets, are so well written they become like people we have known, and they will linger with readers.
Readers who enjoy The Past will be interested in Hadley's previous books. It is easy to see why she is being called one of our greatest contemporary authors.
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.
With the reconstruction of the set for BBC One’s hit show Sherlock now underway, some fans may be fine living in anticipation until January 2017, when Season 4 is slated for release. But for those who are impatient for the detective’s next adventure, there’s Steve Tribe’s comprehensive Sherlock: Chronicles to ease the wait.
The book overflows with facts about the production process of Sherlock and includes interviews from cast and crew alike, giving a broader perspective into how the episodes were created from start to finish. Going in order from Season One’s A Study in Pink, each chapter focuses on one episode at a time, allowing for a depth of detail that would please even Sherlock Holmes himself. The chapters also include other fan treats, including deleted scenes, actor biographies and lots of production photographs. Notorious Holmes fanboys themselves, show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are known for including little references to various Holmes stories; Sherlock: Chronicles pairs some of these Easter eggs with the corresponding Conan Doyle story title and quote.
It’s not just the televised episodes that get scrutinized; there’s a recounting of Holmes’ appearances in print and on screen, a chapter on the televised teaser released before Season 3, references to the in-character blogs and references to the ever-expanding Sherlock fandom.
There’s enough information here to keep even the most casual Sherlockian fan happy, and it's a good refresher for the lead-up to Season 4. Fans looking for more Sherlock trivia should also check out The Sherlock Files by Guy Adams.
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.
April is National Poetry Month! Check out the work of these local poets.
Black Seeds is the work of poet and activist Tariq Toure, who takes a personal approach as he reflects on the circumstances of the Freddie Grey protests and the discord that followed. You may recognize some of the poems, which were previously published in the Baltimore City Paper. Toure is keenly aware of the societal rifts that caused the incident and seeks to bridge these striations with his writing. The intensity of his call to action is honed with intimate details drawn from Toure’s everyday life, occasionally diverting into simple reveries akin to William Carlos Williams’ work, which drives home how much personal impact such events hold. The poems are interspersed with photos of Toure’s community that are so candid they seem like they belong in a family photo album.
It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful is the latest chapbook from Lia Purpura, a writer in residence at the University of Maryland. Purpura’s poems are intimate reflections on the poignancy of nature and how new technologies have only increased the sensation of ephemerality in life. There is a very scientific approach taken to describing her subjects, honing in on the microscopic details of her impressions like a lepidopterist examining their collection. She revels in introspection, transforming the quotidian details into transcendental experiences.
If you are a prose lover apprehensive of taking on the wilds of poetry, Poetic Meter and Form by Octavia Wynne is a helpful crash course in the medium. Wynne explains the fundamental elements of poetry in two pages and then breaks down how these elements are manipulated with different poetic devices and styles. It is easy to skip to a particular section if you’re looking for information on a specific device or to look up a definition in the glossary. The text is peppered with numerous examples of the terms described, including many works from one of the greatest of poets of all time, Dr. Seuss.