It isn’t unusual for readers to have special books, favorites kept close to our hearts which entertain, inspire and, sometimes, offer an escape. In Ann Hood’s newest novel, The Book That Matters Most, a mother and daughter both seek refuge in the world of the written word.
Ava Tucker’s life is falling apart. Her loving husband just left her for a ridiculous woman known as the yarn bomber, her father has dementia and her wild child daughter Maggie is incommunicado while supposedly in Italy on a college semester abroad program. A coveted spot in the neighborhood library’s book club opens up and even that goes sour; Ava tries to impress the group by blurting out that the author of her book choice has agreed to visit the club, when in reality she has no idea if the woman is even alive. Mother and daughter are both struggling; as Ava deals with the unraveling of life as she knows it, Maggie’s ditched her school program and instead is descending into heroin addiction while being “kept” by an older married man in Paris, who is both alienating her from her family and facilitating her drug abuse.
The book club’s theme is, actually, the book that matters most. Most members choose hoary classics like The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, but Ava’s choice, From Clare to Here, is an obscure title gifted to her as a child after a tragedy ripped her family apart and is a title she reread incessantly for comfort. As Hood alternates telling the stories of Ava and Maggie, she gradually reveals the secret of the real “book that matters most” and its pivotal role in the Tucker family. To explore more books about books, try Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop or The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.
A tale of human trafficking and refugees masquerades convincingly as an L.A. noir thriller in Dr. Knox, the latest novel from Shamus Award-winning author Peter Spiegelman. In three previous books featuring banker-turned-detective John March, Spiegelman pretty much created the genre of “Wall Street noir.” Now, he takes that same grim sensibility and applies it to Dr. Adam Knox, a man whose apparent death wish is constantly at war with his desire to save the world. These conflicting goals lead to lots of trouble, not only for Knox, but for his employees and the few friends he has.
In Dr. Knox, a woman fleeing Russian mobsters leaves her little boy at Knox’s shabby clinic in L.A.’s Skid Row. Rather than turn the child over to Social Services, Knox becomes convinced he can save both child and mother. He sets out to do so with the help of his buddy Ben Sutter, a former Special Forces operative. The vibe between these two was very reminiscent of the relationship between Robert Parker's detective, Spenser, and his sidekick, Hawk.
Like that master of L.A. noir, Raymond Chandler, Spiegelman keeps much of the real story bobbing just below the surface throughout this tale. As Knox searches for the boy’s missing mother and runs afoul of mobsters and corrupt American business tycoons, readers get unsettling glimpses into Knox’s own messy backstory. It becomes clear that while the doctor’s heart is in the right place, his penchant for self-destruction could hurt the very people he seeks to help.
Fans of classic noir fiction and old-fashioned “hard-boiled” detective stories should enjoy Dr. Knox.
Delia Ephron is best-known for her humorous writing and for lighthearted screenplays like You’ve Got Mail and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But her latest novel, Siracusa, displays a decidedly more cynical view of relationships.
Siracusa begins with Lizzie, who thinks a vacation in Italy is just what she and her husband David need to revive their flagging writing careers and their dwindling passion for one another. They’re joined on the trip by another couple — Finn, Lizzie’s fun-loving old flame from college, and his uptight wife Taylor. Dragged along for the fun is Snow, Finn and Taylor’s sullen preteen daughter. If bringing an old boyfriend and his family along for a vacation sounds like a bad idea to you, you’d be right. In fact, few vacation disasters can rival the nightmarish results when this group makes its way to the ancient island of Siracusa.
Each main character takes a turn recounting the trip’s gradual descent into tragedy. Without exception, all of them are breathtakingly self-involved or delusional (or both). Thus none of them can see what the reader sees — the huge disaster heading straight for them.
Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, Siracusa presents readers with difficult to like protagonists who never tell the whole truth. The crumbling city of Siracusa provides an excellent symbolic backdrop for Ephron’s well-written blend of dark domestic drama and deadly suspense.
What would you do to help your suffering child? For most parents, the answer is probably “damn near anything.” Carolyn Parkhurst’s new novel, Harmony, follows a family’s tumble down a rabbit hole in search of an elusive fix for their autistic child.
The Hammond parents have reached the end of their collective rope. Their tween daughter Tilly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, and socially inept behaviors which were confounding when she was little are frightening with adolescence looming. After being asked to leave yet again another school, Tilly’s parents seek help from an unorthodox source: a man whose charisma and promises lead the family down the primrose path to Camp Harmony. An internet shaman for the neurodevelopmentally challenged, Scott Bean promises salvation, if not outright cures, to desperate parents willing to fork over their assets and live the communal lifestyle at Bean’s utopian retreat in the backwoods of New Hampshire. Is Bean a savior, just another exploitative quack, or something else entirely?
Harmony offers the reader three points of view: younger sister Iris, who loves Tilly but is struggling to find her place in a family focused on its weakest link; mother Alexandra, whose relentless examination of Tilly’s issues propels the family to the camp; and, occasionally, Tilly’s own poignant and imaginative voice which reminds us that behind labels lie unique human beings who actually aren’t so different after all. As Parkhurst writes, we are “exceptional and ordinary, all at the same time.”
Music and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.
Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.
McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Looking forward to meeting her fellow book lover and American pen-pal Amy for the first time, Swede Sara Lindqvist arrives in Amy’s hometown of Broken Wheel, Iowa — just in time to meet the mourners leaving Amy’s funeral. Sara had planned for a two-month vacation of reading and talking about her favorite books with Amy; now she has no friend, no real plans and no one to talk books with.
Broken Wheel isn’t what she expected from Amy’s letters, and the people who still live in the dying Midwestern town definitely don’t know what to expect from its first tourist. They don’t expect her to stay for the two months, and they certainly don’t expect her to open a book shop stocked with Amy’s vast collection. But in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, that is exactly what Sara does when she decides that what the townspeople need most is books.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a love song to books and booklovers everywhere, with no judgments passed on what is read. Sara’s plan focuses more on engendering a similar level of affection that she feels towards books in the townspeople. In addition to celebrating books, readers will fall for the quirky characters themselves, from Sara to the members of the town. The book is lighthearted and genuine without ever becoming saccharine, and Bivald slips some funny moments as the townspeople come to accept Sara and she starts to take charge of her life.
Part chick lit, part book review and all heart, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend lets us remember not only how books change and stay with us but also how they can connect us to each other, even across oceans or differences in experience. Fans of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop may enjoy the time they spend in Broken Wheel.
Evie Boyd is that lady — the one who was a member of the hippie cult that committed those horrific murders. Acquired as part of a three book deal for a rumored two million dollars, Emma Cline’s hotly anticipated debut, The Girls, focuses on a 14-year-old drawn into a charismatic cult. It’s no secret that the fictional leader of the group, Russell, is a stand-in for the notorious Charles Manson.
The novel begins as current day Evie looks back on that transformative summer of 1969. Cline shines at illuminating the dark, sullen corners of the adolescent experience and, in her hands, readers have no doubt as to why plain, ordinary Evie eagerly follows the enigmatic young women she first spies at the park. She wants to be noticed, to belong, to be rescued from boredom.
The girls from the park are titillating in their openness. Evie is invited to the solstice celebration at their dilapidated ranch in the hills, a party with a banquet culled from a back alley dumpster and plenty of drugs and drink. Suzanne lends her a flowing dress, reeking of rodent droppings, from a community clothing rack. And when Russell finally appears, beaming and barefoot in filthy jeans and buckskin, Evie struggles to see to see the brilliance they all assure is behind the intensity of his stare. Later that night, she’s presented to him as an offering. Russell specializes in sad girls like Evie, willing to do anything for attention.
Soon she’s a part of the group, stealing from her mother’s purse to make offerings, frequently staying the night and hanging out with the famous musician who is sure to help make Russell a household name. She flits between home and the ranch, and all the while her distracted mother thinks she’s at a girlfriend’s house. The sadder and wiser adult Evie’s observations about her younger self make the reader ache. Lucky for Evie, she never gets pulled all the way in, and when Russell’s demands become increasingly dangerous, she’s left out. The Girls is as much a coming of age story as it is a sordid, cautionary tale and a study in cult psychology. Cline’s descriptive writing propels the story, and many of her observations beg to be read aloud. As a high concept literary page turner, The Girls delivers.
Louise Erdrich is the reigning queen of Native American fiction, author of award-winning books for adults and children which showcase her native heritage. Her newest novel, LaRose, reflects Anishinaabe traditions as she explores the rippling consequences of tragedy and how two families adapt in both traditional and modern ways.
Landreaux Iron is a good man. He’s a loving father, faithful husband and sensitive nurse to his home health care patients. Hunting at the edge of reservation land, he takes aim at a deer meant to feed his family and instead accidentally shoots his neighbor’s little boy, Dusty Ravich, who is also Landraux’s nephew. Dusty’s death devastates his own family with grief and the Iron family with guilt. Landraux then commits a second unthinkable act: seeking guidance from his Ojibwe customs, he and his wife Emmeline give their own little boy, LaRose, to the Ravich family as atonement.
Erdrich unfolds this story at a leisurely pace. The grief experienced by the Ravich and Iron clans cannot be neatly packaged, and Erdrich allows parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to wander down separate paths as each tries to accommodate this unique double loss. Woven into the scrim dividing this life and the afterlife are the mystical stories of LaRose’s ancestors and the societal ills, historic and current, which plague the indigenous North Americans.
Visit with Erdrich online at her blog at Birchbark Books site, which is also a purveyor of Native books, arts and jewelry. To enjoy more stories featuring contemporary Ojibwe culture, try the Cork O’Connor suspense series by William Kent Krueger.
Stephanie Danler’s impressive debut Sweetbitter is that rare literary novel that’s a perfect poolside read. It’s the sticky summer of 2006, and 22-year-old Tess has $166 to her name and the promise of a room to rent in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Naïve ambition and a need to pay the bills lead her to apply for a job at what her roommate tells her is the best restaurant in New York. Despite her lack of fine dining experience (she has a stint as a barista under her belt) and her utter ignorance when it comes to wine, the restaurant manager sees something in this bright young English major. As a back-waiter, she’ll ferry bottles from the wine cellar, deliver plates to the tables, prepare coffee drinks and support the servers.
Danler immerses Tess (and the reader) in the culture of fine dining, a world in which her coworkers are emotionally and intellectually invested. Everyone has a story, and most never expected they’d stay in the job as long as they have. She’s tutored by career server Simone, smart and driven with a personal life rife with secrets. Tess is immediately drawn to Jake, the enigmatic bartender with impossibly pale blue eyes and bad-boy charisma. But just what is Simone’s connection to Jake? The interpersonal politics at the restaurant are far more complicated than Tess realizes. Long hours at the restaurant are fueled by a passion for excellence, sexual tension and drugs, which stave off exhaustion. The staff works hard, and parties harder. As the story progresses, Tess gains confidence as an integral part of the restaurant team, even as she makes questionable relationship choices.
Readers will revel in the culinary details, from the hearty fare served at preservice family meal to the plates inspired by the seasonal ingredients collected at the Union Square Farmers Market. Tess expands her palate with the delight of a child and the seriousness of a scholar, savoring creamy, briny raw oysters even as she learns to identify myriad varieties by sight. She finds a personal preference for a rare, authentic dry sherry.
Sweetbitter is smart, compelling and compulsively readable. Danler’s characters are memorable and her writing cinematic, with the restaurant, food, wine and New York City itself in supporting roles. Danler’s debut is a succulent coming-of-age novel rich with descriptive prose and plot. Expect to be consumed by Sweetbitter from its opening pages.
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.