A lame orphan, an incompetent grifter and London’s Blitz might comprise a fairly grim story. Instead, author Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart: A Novel is darkly comedic and heartwarming as it focuses on the incongruous pairing of a posh city child and his conniving country mouse foster parent.
Meet Mrs. Vee Sedge: resident of rural St. Albans, lives with her indolent adult son and disabled mother who writes motivational letters to Winston Churchill regarding homefront morale and offering friendly advice (“I saw your picture in the paper last week and I hope you don’t mind me saying that I wonder if you’re getting enough fresh air.”) Vee is so desperate for money that she’s taken out a life insurance policy on an elderly neighbor, who foils Vee’s plans by failing to die, and she goes door to door collecting money for the war effort which she keeps for herself. When Vee sees Noel limping through her village as part of a parade of children evacuated from London to evade Hitler’s bombs, she volunteers to care for the little boy, not out of patriotic duty, but as a prop to a con.
Noel is the child who never fits in. Precocious, pale and unathletic, he is also bereft since the death of his beloved godmother. Farmed out to the putative safety of the Sedge’s shabby quarters, Noel perks up when he realizes he can be the brains behind Vee’s ill-conceived swindles. World War II’s privations were harsh and Evans frames the duo’s petty frauds in a landscape where the common folk of England must scheme to survive. Nominated for a Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, Crooked Heart’s clever writing, multifaceted characters and thoughtful story make this an engaging read and a winning book club pick.
Nikesh Shukla’s second novel Meatspace is what happens when the fractals of a man’s loneliness are traced through social media and reassembled into a spectre of depression. Tweets, status updates and blog posts are the 2015 equivalent of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, and the characters in Meatspace are all very expressive. Cut through the gristly irony and melodrama, and the remaining sinew shows readers how Shukla’s cast of aimless authors are feeling at any given moment of their days — except when they’re on the Tube.
Kitab Balasubramanyam was fired from his job in London for writing a novel in a secret Google doc instead of earning his pay. Now he’s holed up in a bachelor pad with his brother Aziz and a fridge full of chutney that his ex-girlfriend Rach left behind. Every minute of every day he’s online, randomly liking his relatives’ status updates and photos on Facebook or deleting and rephrasing a tweet to sound more authorial as he checks the nonexistent sales figures of his now-published book. Living off his mother’s life insurance policy is only going to get him so far, so he’s trying to make the author thing work out by doing readings at local pubs, which is going as fantastically as it sounds.
Dawdling in the bar bathroom after his latest stint at the mic, Kitab Balasubramanyam meets another guy who is also floating through life: Kitab Balasubramanyam. A second Indian guy at the same exact London pub book reading with the same exact name. Weirdness ensues.
Every chapter starts with a glimpse at Kitab’s browser history and is permeated with hashtags and blog posts and stored tweet drafts, all of which jigsaw together to illustrate how not-okay he is. Meatspace is brimming with pop culture references so relevant it’s like Nikesh Shukla has found a way to make ninja edits to the print copies, as if it wasn’t already impressive enough.
Jonathan Evison’s new novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! introduces our heroine Harriet on the day she is born, and through shifting narration and flashbacks, tells us of her life story. Using the format of the popular 1950s game show This Is Your Life, we meet all the characters and memories that have shaped Harriet’s existence. By all appearances, she has played it safe: a husband, housework, children and a couple of close friends. So when she discovers that her late husband bid on and won an Alaskan cruise at a silent auction, she decides to go ahead and have the adventure on her own at age 78.
On the cruise, she gets much more than she bargained for: the reappearing ghost of her husband, her estranged daughter showing up to share her cabin and a letter that reveals that so many parts of her life were never what they seemed to be.
The lighthearted and shifting narration isn’t just a fun ride of a novel (at parts, it really is), it is a complex and deeply moving look at a flawed, earnest character finally trying to come to terms with what has been her life. Even though one chapter is set in present day and the next may be set in 1954, Harriet is very much a product of her age. She gives up on her dream of being a lawyer to settle down with her husband, Bernard. She spends all her time and energy on the house and their children. She becomes Bernard’s sole caregiver as he battles Alzheimer’s at the end of his life. She makes many mistakes in the process. Through the replay of the good times (which are few) and the not-so-good times (which are many), it is impressive that Harriet is still searching for a positive outcome.
At its heart, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a novel about relationships and the choices we make to keep those relationships going, especially our relationship with ourselves. A great choice for book clubs, this novel will resonate with fans of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.
I got a revolver to protect us…and I soon had a use for it.” –The New York Times, June 3, 1915.
In 1915 suburban New Jersey, women were expected to behave as ladies and rely on the protection of a man. Instead, Constance Kopp and her two sisters go on the offensive in Amy Stewart’s lively novel, Girl Waits with Gun. Stewart was inspired by the true story of Constance, who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States after her fiery battles with thuggish silk mill owner Henry Kauffman and his gang captured America’s attention.
The sisters are on their way to Paterson for a shopping trip when a speeding motor car upends their horse and buggy, injuring young Fleurette and damaging the buggy. Driver Kauffman and his crew of miscreants take umbrage at Constance’s request for reimbursement for repairs, and begin a campaign of harassment and kidnapping threats aimed at the women, which escalates into violence. Constance refuses to be cowed by Kauffman’s machinations and ends up uncovering a second reprehensible and exploitive deed committed by Kauffman.
Girl Waits with Gun is a colorful piece of historical fiction. Stewart’s droll writing marries perfectly with Constance Kopp’s audacious story. Descriptions of the silk mill industry and its laborers, along with excerpts from the newspaper articles which covered the Kopp vs. Kauffman conflict, ground this narrative in the context of its time. Readers charmed by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows or Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries will take great pleasure in spending time with the Kopps. To learn more about Constance, Norma and Fleurette, visit AmyStewart.com.
Who recognizes this story? A young orphan lives with relatives who make her feel like a burden. To escape, she takes a job as a nanny to a little girl and falls in love with the child’s father. She flees that relationship to find herself in a second romantic entanglement but can’t forget about her first love. Yes, debut author Patricia Park freely admits that Re Jane was inspired by the Jane Eyre, but Park’s version is freshly minted and modern and anything but redundant.
Park’s Jane has a Korean mother and an American father, both of whom died when Jane was an infant. Jane has been raised in America by her traditional Korean uncle and his family, and works in his grocery in Queens. After a promising job offer in the financial sector falls through, Jane starts working as a live-in sitter for Devon, the adopted Chinese daughter of Beth and Bill Farley-Mazer. Gentrified Mazer family life opens a sophisticated new world for Jane, far from her familiar working class neighborhood of immigrants, and passion blooms between Jane and Bill. Just like the original heroine, Jane Re takes a trip to relieve her tap-tap-hai (an overwhelming discomfort), but her journey takes her to Korea to reconnect with extended family and explore her roots.
Park says the title Re Jane refers not only to her readaptation of the Bronte classic, but to Jane’s mixed heritage; Re is an Americanized version of the common Korean surname Ee, often pronounced in the United States as Lee. The cultural concept of nunchi, which Park describes as an expected social conduct combining anticipation and foresight, influences Jane as she struggles to find her footing as a Korean, an American, an adult and a woman. Sharply observant as well as endearing, readers will be pleased with this contemporary Jane.
Sarah Gerard’s unnamed narrator in Binary Star is channeled from a place most of us will never visit in our lifetimes. It’s a wonder that Gerard is capable of emerging from this place only to return again for the sake of siphoning creative energies, and her trial blurs the story in Binary Star into an unsettling reality.
The nameless protagonist in Binary Star is a young woman studying astronomy at Adelphi University in New York. She is anorexic and bulimic. Her boyfriend John lives in Chicago and is an alcoholic and an abuser of prescribed medication. The narrator is at a point in her life where she feels completely directionless. Though she’s intelligent enough to realize the cause of her misery is her failing health — she weighs just a hair over 90 pounds — she refuses to break the cycle she’s trapped in. John denies his condition with boisterous, masculine assertions, often leading to broken bones and bruised egos. Together, the two are a pathetic spectacle — but at least they’re something.
Gerard illustrates in Binary Star that sometimes people need each other in order to exist. Splashes of science parallel this tumultuous relationship:
A binary star is a system containing two stars that orbit their common center of mass. The relative brightness of stars in a binary system is important. Glare from a bright star can make detecting a fainter companion difficult.
They embark on a road trip with no real destination, which necessitates visits with old acquaintances and frequent stops at convenience stores. Through vegan literature collected during their journey, the couple becomes devoted to anarchy-fueled ecoterrorism. Will this new cause balance their orbit, or cause them to violently burn out?
Readers who enjoyed the classic anonymously written and narrated novel Go Ask Alice will find a lot of similarities in Binary Star. For more literary work on the topic of eating disorders, readers should look for How to Disappear Completely by Kelsey Osgood.
Emma Woodhouse is a 20-something young woman who believes her mission in life is to straighten out other people’s lives. Pretty, wealthy and well-intentioned, naïve Emma starts to play matchmaker to her loved ones only to discover that acting as Cupid is much more complicated than she imagined. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Jane Austen wrote Emma in 1815 and, 200 years later, Alexander McCall Smith has updated the story in Emma: A Modern Retelling. All of the beloved characters are there: dashing Mr. Knightley, tedious Miss Bates, silly Harriet and the insufferable Mr. Elton — they've just been given a 21st century makeover.
Smith’s book is the third to be released as part of The Austen Project, which “pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.” The first two, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, have met with mixed reviews by Austen fans and the general public. Smith’s text is perhaps the best attempt to modernize Austen’s plot while still retaining the original feel of her work. Smith has an excellent sense of character and dialogue and manages to capture the quirky individuals that inhabit Emma’s world.
Smith is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he is a prolific writer whose credits include over 50 novels, including three other series: Corduroy Mansions, Isabel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street. Smith uses his ability to encapsulate a character’s personality concisely through carefully crafted dialogue and descriptions quite effectively in this updated version of Emma. Interestingly, Austen referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yet, 200 years later, readers are still enthralled with Austen’s heroine. Smith’s “modern retelling” is definitely worth a read.
Fans of Toni Morrison will find the new and not-so-new in her latest novel, God Help the Child. The new: This is Morrison's first book to be set in present day instead of the historical past. The not-so-new are the issues Morrison is known for tackling, such as sexual abuse, betrayal and race perceptions. Each is accounted for in this slim, spare novel about the ways in which people revive themselves from life's early trauma and rejection.
This story of a mother and her daughter stares down a heartrending path, punctuated by cruelty and denial. Sweetness, the mother, is a light-skinned African-American woman who is repulsed by the midnight blackness of her own daughter, Lula Ann. “She was so black she scared me,” says Sweetness, who calls herself “high yellow.” For Lula Ann, growing up with a distant mother meant that she would do just about anything to gain her attention, including telling a devastating lie that will haunt her. As an adult, Lula Ann changes her name to Bride. Successful, with a soon-to-be-launched cosmetic line, the stunningly beautiful young woman embraces her fashionable blue-blackness, dressing in accentuating white. She falls apart when her lover leaves her. Her search for him leads to more discoveries about herself and the man she may not know at all.
Told from shifting points-of-view, God Help the Child exudes characteristic Morrison prose with its powerful imagery and subtle emotional probing. There is also a bow to the author's canon of previous works, including a spell of magical realism that readers may recognize. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison is widely considered one of the world’s superb storytellers. And while the length of her novels may be shortening (this is her 11th and one of the leanest at 178 pages), the 84-year-old continues to mine the black American experience for lessons from the past. In her latest work, a breach of trust in childhood becomes the conduit that shapes all that comes later, making forgiveness and reconciliation necessary but daunting.
Detroit: in its heyday, it was the bustling host to Motown and the "Big Three" auto manufacturers. The city also served as a mecca for African Americans escaping Jim Crow and taking advantage of the jobs available in its thriving economy. Set in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, tells the story of husband and wife Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children while exploring their ties to their family home in Detroit.
Oldest sibling Cha-Cha is the Turner family patriarch by default. At 62 years old, he is both accustomed to and tired of assuming the role of leader to his younger siblings. With his father’s passing and his mother’s deteriorating health, the family’s house on Yarrow Street, once an emblem of success in Black America, is vacant and crumbling and saddled with a mortgage 10 times the home’s current value. While the Turner children jockey with their differing views of what to do with the debt-ridden property, Cha-Cha is engaging in a mid-life retrospective, evaluating his relationships with his parents, his wife and his siblings. The narrative revealing how Francis and Viola each made their way to Michigan from rural Arkansas is especially poignant. Flournoy’s writing is gentle, pointed and witty as she explores if blood ties, shared memories or something else entirely creates family bonds. Fans of Anne Tyler or J. California Cooper will lose themselves in the thoughtful story of The Turner House.
Kate Atkinson’s powerhouse novel Life After Life garnered impressive reviews in 2013, landing it on many "Best Of" lists for that year. Now she delves back into the lives of the Todd family in her soaring new novel, A God in Ruins.
Where Life After Life focused on the time-bending reimagining of the life of Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins’ lead character is her brother Teddy. We see Teddy come of age and go off to war, but this isn’t just a war novel. We are treated to every aspect of Teddy’s life: his marriage to girl-next-door Nancy, raising his daughter Viola and even his interactions with his grandchildren. His multiple triumphs and disappointments make it easy to root for his happiness.
The story isn’t chronological — rather it is told back-and-forth between different points of Teddy’s life, leaving the reader to make connections and judgments about events, waiting to see if those predictions are realized. Thanks to the richly developed characters and winning style, the novel is an engaging read. It is a wistful letter to the Todd family, and overall, to what it means to be a part of a family and part of our collective humanity.
Atkinson has said that she doesn’t view this novel as a sequel, rather as a companion piece to her previous bestseller. Those who enjoyed Life After Life will be glad to dive into A God in Ruins to catch up with the characters they loved. Both of these novels are also an excellent fit for those who have just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and are looking for a similar great read.