There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but for Anna Benz there is only one way to meet your lover…and that's by train. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, watches Anna’s downward spiral as she grasps at physical intimacies in an attempt to fill the gaping emotional void of her life.
Anna, an American living in a hamlet in Switzerland, is profoundly unhappy. She finds the Swiss — including her banker husband Bruno — remote, and her few friendships with expats are unfulfilling. Her struggles with the local Schwiizerdütsch dialect increase her feelings of alienation, even from her three children. The train leaving the village beckons Anna with an escape. She enrolls in a German class, but quickly finds herself in an extramarital affair with a classmate. Soon after, she drifts into another sexual relationship with a family friend.
Essbaum writes Anna as a passive woman with little will, or does she? Anna enters into liaisons readily, yet resists female friendship. Frustrated with her sadness, her husband suggests psychotherapy. As her Jungian analyst probes Anna’s psyche and interprets her dreams and her language teacher parses grammar, Anna holds back, refusing to fully participate in the very activities she’s chosen to allay her distress. Essbaum’s use of language is precise as she slowly reveals Anna’s story by cycling between past and present, illuminating the nature of her discontent as her decisions become increasingly reckless and self-destructive. Doktor Messerli tells Anna in a therapy session, “…there’s no need to seek out those mistakes. For now it is they who seek you.” Intense and disconcerting, Hausfrau is an unforgettable portrait of a desperate woman.
Meghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.
Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.
Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.
Sally Hepworth’s new novel The Secrets of Midwives is realistic fiction set in present day Rhode Island with periodic glimpses of 1950s rural England. This novel is a heartfelt look at the relationships of mothers and daughters while at the same time giving a general glimpse at the profession of midwifery. While not Sally Hepworth’s debut novel, it is her first to be published in the U.S.
This charming novel looks at three generations of women who have all chosen to pursue the career of midwife, each pursuing the profession in a different way. Floss, the matriarch of the family, is a bit late in years to practice so she has taken to teaching. Gloss, her daughter, prefers to provide midwife services for home births while Gloss’s daughter Neva practices at a birthing center housed in a hospital.
Midwifery isn’t the only thing these women share. All three carry the heavy weight of a life altering-secret. When Neva learns she is pregnant, she pretends that there is no father. Her mother Grace is challenged by the board of nursing and her mystery could cost her license. Then there is Floss, who carries the heaviest burden of them all…because what she is hiding affects them all.
Hepworth skillfully uncovers each woman’s secret little by little, culminating in an emotional final few chapters. If the novel leaves you longing for something similar, Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah is another read about uncovering secrets and the relationships of mother and daughter.
Short stories are usually read in a single sitting. Pick up either of these new collections, This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. Osondu or Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, and find that sitting stretching out as one story leads to the next.
This House Is Not for Sale is set in a nameless African village. The main character of each story lives in Grandpa’s grand family house and so falls under his powerful, and perhaps corrupt, domain. Some of the stories feature ordinary problems, like Abule and his serially cheating wife or Uncle Currency’s workplace embezzlement. Other problems are more closely tied to African folklore, such as the soul-stealer who prevents Tata from carrying pregnancies to term. Conflicts are illuminated by anonymous villagers’ gossipy commentary reminiscent of a fragmented Greek chorus, and when necessary, the godfather-like Grandpa steps in to deliver a final judgment. Esondu, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, captures both the joy and pain of everyday life in these thoughtful vignettes.
Bitingly irreverent wit, an unsentimental use of aging protagonists and unpredictable plots mark the wonderful Stone Mattress. The first three stories form a sort of trilogy. In “Alphinland,” widowed Constance, author of a cult classic fantasy series, is guided through a blizzard by the blow-by-blow verbal instructions issued by her dead husband. At the same time, she is also remembering her first love, the pompous and ever-randy poet Gavin, who betrayed Constance with another woman. “Revenent” features Gavin, now an impotent curmudgeon married to his third, much younger wife who is heavily invested in preserving Gavin’s legacy, if not necessarily Gavin himself. Finally, in “Dark Lady,” all the players — including the “other woman” — meet again. Other stories revisit the friends from “The Robber Bride,” find a predatory widow meeting up with her rapist prom date of 50 years ago or track a one-trick pony author determined to snuff out old friends living off his royalties. Atwood is a master wordsmith and excels when revealing her characters’ internal dialogue. The only disappointment here is that by their nature, these stories are short so the pleasure of reading them ends too quickly.
Katie’s having a rough time in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds. Her restaurant just keeps getting farther and farther behind, her ex-boyfriend has started showing up at her job and, in one phenomenally disastrous evening, one of her waitresses gets burned — and it’s her fault. She gets lucky, though. In a small box in the back of her dresser, she finds a mushroom and a notepad that allow her to rewrite a day that went wrong. Things improve so much that she ignores the rule about only making one wish. That’s when things start to get weird.
O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series was one of the biggest comics of the past decade, a rampaging tour-de-force that fused relationships, video game mechanics, a Toronto setting and indie music. Seconds is a quieter story, more focused on the tail end of one’s 20s. Reality may warp, but this is a story about homes, families and making a place in the world, not just falling into one. When Katie uses a mushroom to undo all the time apart from her boyfriend, she winds up in a relationship that doesn’t work because she hasn’t been present for it. Homes need to be built, not cheated into.
When O’Malley created Scott Pilgrim, he published in black and white, creating art that went for dynamism over nuance. Seconds is a full-color print in soft reds and pinks, navy blues and ochres. Even though Seconds is set during a Canadian winter, this is a warm book. Scott Pilgrim made fighting a metaphor for personal history. Seconds toys more with security and running away, using that soft palette to shade in the nuances of what it means to both screw up a home and grow up enough to fix your mistakes.
When composed by a gifted writer, creative nonfiction can be a magical vessel capable of alchemizing the mundane into the enthralling. Lifelong-Chicagoan Peggy Shinner is one such sorceress; in her collection You Feel So Mortal, she reflects on the elemental aesthetics and feelings of the human body, touching on the ideas of awkward feet, poor posture, proper fit and even plastic surgery.
In “The Fitting(s),” Shinner recounts a harrowing trip to an upscale department store to purchase new bras with the aid of a professional fitter. Her tale is laced with memories of shopping with her mother, and her own ponderings on the implications of choosing the alluring over the practical as a sort of gratuity to the fitter’s expertise. Shinner chronicles her experiences training as an advanced martial artist in “The Knife,” an essay about the myriad reciprocities between our bodies and the tools we use. “Elective” is a soul-bearing debate on the merits of plastic surgery: Does the empowerment of perceived beauty outweigh the emotional strain born from the defilement of one’s natural state?
Blended with sentimental storytelling in a lighter literary voice, Shinner’s factual anecdotes help characterize her worldly observations. She treasures her rare vantage and shares her assembled insights in nine accessible essays brimming with equal parts nostalgia and profundity. You Feel So Mortal is perfect for literary essay enthusiasts, for nonfiction lovers looking for something endearing and sentimental, or for readers interested in a Jewish or lesbian perspective.
Julia London and Julia Quinn are bestselling, award-winning novelists with devoted followings. So readers have hit the jackpot with delightful new novels from each that are sure to please those looking for engaging characters and compelling stories rich with romance.
Grace Cabot has run out of ideas to save her family from disgrace in London’s The Devil Takes a Bride. Marriage to a wealthy man is her only option and she sets out to trap one of her favorite flirts. But her plan goes amiss when she accidently seduces the wrong man — the not-to-be-trifled-with Jeffrey, Earl of Merryton. The sizzling duo at the heart of this second title in the Cabot Stepsisters series will captivate readers. Jeffrey is rational, a control freak and a planner whose plans do not include a wife. Grace is scattered, spontaneous and impulsive. But these opposites are attracted to one another as they enter into a marriage in name only, fully intending on burying their secrets forever. Fans will relish this Regency with flawed and realistic characters who share an emotional journey of discovery on their way to happily ever after.
Keeping family secrets is at the root of Quinn’s The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy. In picking a wife, Sir Richard can’t be choosy, as he only has one month to tie the knot in order to hide his teenage sister’s soon-to-be teenage mom status from society. When he spots Iris Smythe-Smith at her family’s annual musicale, he is instantly taken with her unassuming nature and quiet charm. Iris is not used to being the center of anyone’s attention, so when Richard demands an introduction, she is stunned, and when he starts relentlessly courting her, she is pleasantly surprised. His quick proposal heightens her suspicions, although she agrees to be his wife. In the end, Iris must face her fears and decide whether to follow her heart or her head in this perfect, passionate finale to Quinn’s Smythe-Smith quartet series.
One of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.
Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.
Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.
Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!
It seems innocent enough in the beginning, the budding friendship between Nina and Emma in Harriet Lane's new psychological thriller Her. Nina is the well-heeled 40-something artist who outwardly seems to have it all. The pregnant Emma, on the other hand, has an understandably chaotic and messy life with a demanding toddler in tow. So when Nina takes a soothing interest in the harried Emma, the young mother is smitten and even a little flattered.
Lane wants readers to get nervous about this one-sided friendship that seems to take hold when the sophisticated Nina spots Emma on a London street one day. She recognizes the younger woman, but Emma doesn't recognize her. And the pursuit is on. What happens next is difficult to figure, as Nina deftly worms her way into the nucleus of Emma's life. When the complicated Nina lures Emma's small son away from his mother in a park, she instigates a parent's worst nightmare, but why does she do it? For sure, Nina's subtle and sinister cruelties hint of the Hitchcockian drama to unfold.
British author Lane, whose first novel was Alys, Always, seems keen on manipulative protagonists. In Her, she uses restraint in shifting the story from the alternating perspectives of the two women. With a simmering plot and plenty of questions to answer, the ending will sneak up on you and accomplish what a psychological thriller is meant to do: stay with you. Readers of Gone Girl and also-new The Girl on the Train will want to sit down with this tautly written gem that will also hit the spot.
Famous for her taut, gripping, forensic thrillers, Tess Gerritsen once again leads us to the edge in Die Again.
Seeing a dog in the window of a home with a human finger in his mouth, a mailman immediately contacts the police. Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzolli and forensic pathologist Moira Isles discover the body of a big-game hunter, trussed hanging upside down, and ultimately the victim of a large cat. Leon Gott has hunted big game and is considered the finest taxidermist in the business, but it looks like the animal kingdom has decided to redress the difference. Isles believes this case is tied to a series of suspicious incidents involving hikers in remote areas. All of those killings involved big cat attacks, and some were dismissed as unfortunate encounters with nature. The investigation leads to a link between the taxidermist and a group on safari in Africa victimized by a leopard.
Six years previously, a group of vacationers seeking a unique African experience joined a safari. Expecting exotic adventures, fabulous sights and romantic evenings by the fire, they instead fought for their lives in a world that was ruled by “eat or be eaten.” Told through the eyes of Millie Jacobson, a London bookstore owner, we travel alternately between the murder investigation in Boston and the growing horror in Botswana, as each vacationer is attacked and dragged away, one by one.
Gerritsen is a master at weaving grisly details into her forensic science, and the result is a suspense-filled trip through terror. The writer is also ably adept at drawing believable, deeply human characters who struggle with the normalcy of daily life while facing the worst human nature can provide. The complex relationships among the investigating team as they struggle to unearth the truth and unmask a killer add to the realistic portrayal.
Fans of Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffery Deaver will find this a deeply satisfying read. There is also a television series featuring Rizzoli and Isles. Just remember, this trip is not for the faint of heart.