A pair of college best friends—one born with everything; the other starting from nothing—become post-college rivals, intent on success no matter the cost.
Stella Bradley is rich and blonde and beautiful, a monied Manhattanite, irresponsible and razor-sharp. Violet Trapp is a hardworking kid from Florida with no money and no family support. Their connection is instant. “It wasn’t that my personality changed when I met Stella,” Violet reflects. “It was that it became….I didn’t just want the friendship of this dazzling girl. I wanted the world that had made her so dazzling in the first place.” Violet is determined to overcome her own roots; by studying the Bradleys, she imagines, she might become one of them. After college, Stella flits across the globe, and Violet, the “responsible one,” stays in New York—living in the Bradleys' apartment, intended for Stella—gets an internship in cable news, falls in love with the job, is promoted, and then is promoted again. She excels in production, behind the scenes, cultivating sources, engrossed in the work. When Stella returns, though, the relationship can’t quite pick up as before: Violet has an identity now, separate from Stella; the power between them has shifted. And then Stella pulls a few strings—family connections, natural charm—and begins encroaching on Violet’s new turf. She, too, gets a job at the network and begins climbing the ranks. And her newfound ambitions are not behind the scenes but in front of the camera, once again eclipsing Violet, restoring the balance between them: invisible, hardworking, talented Violet and Stella, the star. But this time, Violet is fighting back—by any means necessary. If the pivotal event of the book—and its sinister aftermath—seems slightly far-fetched given the relative grounding of the first two-thirds of the novel, who cares? It’s a trivial quibble given the sheer pleasure of reading this book. Pitoniak (The Futures, 2017) is an astute social observer, and the novel—a literary thriller about class aspiration and young female ambition—is a twisting delight with a haunting punch.
Deceptively nuanced, and impossible to put down, this is escapism with substance.
Someone told Vivian Morris in her youth that she would never be an interesting person. Good thing they didn't put money on it.
The delightful narrator of Gilbert's (Big Magic, 2015, etc.) fourth novel begins the story of her life in the summer of 1940. At 19, she has just been sent home from Vassar. "I cannot fully recall what I'd been doing with my time during those many hours that I ought to have spent in class, but—knowing me—I suppose I was terribly preoccupied with my appearance." Vivian is very pretty, and she is a talented seamstress, but other than that, she is a silly, naïve girl who doesn't know anything about anything. That phase of her life comes to a swift end when her parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg. Peg is the proprietor of the Lily Playhouse, a grandiose, crumbing theater in midtown that caters to the tastes and wallets of the locals with week after week of original "revues" that inevitably feature a sweet young couple, a villain, a floozy, a drunken hobo, and a horde of showgirls and dancers kicking up a storm. "There were limits to the scope of the stories that we could tell," Vivian explains, “given that the Lily Playhouse only had three backdrops”: 19th-century street corner, elegant parlor, and ocean liner. Vivian makes a close friend in Celia Ray, a showgirl so smolderingly beautiful she nearly scorches the pages on which she appears. "I wanted Celia to teach me everything," says Vivian, "about men, about sex, about New York, about life"—and she gets her wish, and then some. The story is jammed with terrific characters, gorgeous clothing, great one-liners, convincing wartime atmosphere, and excellent descriptions of sex, one of which can only be described (in Vivian's signature italics) as transcendent. There are still many readers who know Gilbert only as a memoirist. Whatever Eat Pray Love did or did not do for you, please don't miss out on her wonderful novels any longer.
A big old banana split of a book, surely the cure for what ails you.
Cep’s debut recounts how a series of rural Alabama murders inspired Harper Lee to write again, years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Death surrounded the Rev. Willie Maxwell. Following his wife’s mysterious murder in 1970, four more of Maxwell’s family members were inexplicably found dead within seven years. Locals blamed voodoo, but a deeper investigation pointed to fraud: Maxwell, said Lee, “had a profound and abiding belief in insurance,” and he collected thousands in death benefits. He was a suspect in his wife’s case (charged and curiously acquitted), but years later, before the police could make another arrest, he was killed in a public fit of vigilante justice. In a further twist, the same lawyer who helped clear Maxwell’s name decided to represent his killer. Lee, still uncomfortable over the embellishments of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, wondered “whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the far-bending accounts of her contemporaries.” In this effortlessly immersive narrative, Cep engagingly traces how Lee found the case and began—and ultimately abandoned—a project she called The Reverend. Cep writes with the accessible erudition of podcast-style journalism; she breathes not only life, but style into her exhaustive, impressively researched narrative. She relies heavily on the backstories of each of her narrative threads, which transforms her book into a collection of connected preambles. Short histories of fraud, Southern politics, and urban development take shape alongside a condensed biography of Lee. This kind of storytelling may feel disjointed, but there’s a reason for it: By fully detailing the crimes before Lee even appears, Cep allows readers to see the case through Lee’s eyes and recognize its nascent literary potential. Above all, this is a book about inspiration and how a passion for the mysteries of humanity can cause an undeniable creative spark.
A well-tempered blend of true crime and literary lore.
An exploration of the little-visited realms of the Earth, from deep caves to bunkers, trenches to Bronze Age burial chambers, courtesy of an accomplished Virgil.
Macfarlane (The Lost Words, 2018, etc.), who has pretty well revived single-handedly the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing, can usually be found atop mountains. In his latest, he heads in the opposite direction, probing the depths of the Earth to find the places in which humans have invested considerable imaginative attention yet fear to tread. He opens with a cave network discovered in China’s Chongqing province only a few years ago that “was found to possess its own weather system,” with layers of dank cold mist that never see sunlight. From there, the author moves on to other places that require us to “go low,” into places that humans usually venture only to hide things—treasure, sacred texts, bodies. Now that many such places are making themselves known, exposed during construction excavations and unveiled by melting permafrost, “things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden”—treasure sometimes, more often just bodies. All of this is occasion for Macfarlane, a gifted storyteller and poetic writer, to ponder what historians have called “deep time,” the time that is measured in geological rather than human terms and against which the existence of our kind is but a blip. Even places well known or celebrated in antiquity—from the underworld of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iron Age mines of the Mendip Hills of southwestern England—are recent points on the map of that ancient landscape. As he moves from continent to continent, Macfarlane instructs us on how to see those places, laced with secrets and mysteries (“all taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin”). Wherever he travels, he enhances our sense of wonder‚ which, after all, is the whole point of storytelling.
A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.
An island off the coast of Maine: Let's buy it, dear.
"Handsome, tanned, Kitty and Ogden Milton stood ramrod straight and smiling into the camera on the afternoon in 1936 when they had chartered a sloop, sailed out into Penobscot Bay, and bought Crockett's Island." This photo is clipped to a clothesline in the office of professor Evie Milton in the history department at NYU; she found it while cleaning out her mother's apartment after her death. "Since the afternoon in the photograph, four generations of her family had eaten round the table on Crockett's Island, clinked the same glasses, fallen between the same sheets, and heard the foghorn night after night." Evie jokes with an African-American colleague that the photograph represents "the Twilight of the WASPs," then finds herself snappishly defending them. Blake's (The Postmistress, 2010, etc.) third novel studies the unfolding of several storylines over the generations of this family: deaths and losses shrouded in secrecy, terrible errors in judgment, thwarted love—much of it related to or caused by the family's attitudes toward blacks and Jews. While patriarch Ogden Milton presided unflinchingly over his firm's involvement with the Nazis, his granddaughter Evie Milton is married to a Jewish man—who, like any person of his background who has visited Crockett's Island, complains that there's not a comfortable chair in the place. Kitty Milton, the matriarch, twisted by social mores into repressing her tragedies and ignoring her conscience, is a fascinating character, appealing in some ways, pitiable and repugnant in others. Through Kitty and her daughters, Blake renders the details of anti-Semitic prejudice as felt by this particular type of person. Reminiscent of the novels of Julia Glass, the story of the Miltons engages not just with history and politics, but with the poetry of the physical world. "The year wheeled round on its colors. Summer's full green spun to gold then slipping gray and resting, resting white at the bottom of the year...then one day the green whisper, the lightest green, soft and growing into the next day...suddenly, impossibly, it was spring again."
This novel sets out to be more than a juicy family saga—it aims to depict the moral evolution of a part of American society. Its convincing characters and muscular narrative succeed on both counts.
On the brink of World War I, three women fight internal battles on the homefront.
Novelist Kelly (The Lilac Girls, 2016), who offered the perspectives of three women during World War II in her bestselling debut novel, turns back the clock to examine the lives of another female trio as the world enters the Great War. Connecting the two novels is Eliza Ferriday, the New York socialite with a heart for social justice, who is the mother of real-life Lilac heroine Caroline Ferriday. The book is a prequel, though it is a silk thread that binds the two stories. Eliza is enjoying the high life with her Manhattan and Southampton social set, making regular visits to Paris and St. Petersburg to sightsee with close friend and confidante Sofya Streshnayva as the world buzzes with talk of impending war. Eliza takes the threat more seriously than beautiful Sofya, a cousin of the Romanovs who, like most of her ilk, is living in a bubble of denial about the danger that lies ahead. When Sofya’s stepmother hires Varinka Kozlov, the daughter of a local fortuneteller, she unwittingly brings trouble into their home. Although young Varinka is a kind soul, her family is closely connected to a pair of local thugs leading Bolshevik uprisings against the bourgeoisie White Russians. Soon, Sofya’s family is caught in the crosshairs of a revolution, Eliza is powerless to help from New York, and Varinka must make a choice about where her loyalties lie. Though the writing is rich and vivid with detail about the period, the storytelling is quite a bit slower than in Kelly’s captivating debut, and both the plot and relationship development feel secondary to the historical scene-setting.
A nuanced tale that speaks to the strength of women.
Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.
Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”
Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.
A remarkable World War II story of an American within the French Resistance.
Guiet teams up with former Fortune senior features editor Smith to tell the story of Guiet’s father, Jean Claude Guiet (1924-2013). At the outbreak of war, Jean Claude and his brother, Pierre, got stuck in France for a year, giving them valuable experience in French life. Fluent in idiomatic French, they were prime targets for recruitment by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. OSS head Bill Donovan drew up the plan for American spy services with Britain’s Special Operations Executive. Both brothers were sent to England, Pierre to a desk job and Jean Claude to rigorous training in codes, wireless operations, parachuting, and unconventional warfare. Then he was assigned to an operations group named “Salesman II,” along with three others: Violette the messenger, Philippe the leader, and Bob the explosives expert (last names were never used). The authors make it absolutely clear that they were not spies but rather secret agents, trained for mayhem. Their job was to organize and galvanize the “maquisards,” the guerrilla army, to create havoc, and to prevent Nazi troops and materiel from reaching the D-Day landing sites. Though poor weather delayed their arrival in Limoges until the day after D-Day, they wasted no time finding the maquisards. The problem was to convince them all to work together. Communists, socialists, and anarchists all disagreed and often trusted no one. Philippe managed to pull everyone together, which left the matter of getting Allied equipment where it was needed. Those drops were epic in their volume, one involving 72 plane loads; another featured tricolor parachutes, which incurred Nazi wrath. In this page-turning, exciting book, the authors demonstrate an eye for significant details and a strong feel for the players.
Any World War II buff will love this tale of heroism.
Seventeen-year-old Afro-Boricua Emoni Santiago hones her gift for cooking and makes important decisions about her future.
Emoni’s ’Buela says she’s had a gift for cooking since she was small. Now Emoni has her own toddler, Emma (“The kind of name that doesn’t tell you too much before you meet her, the way mine does”), nicknamed Babygirl. Emoni’s first day of senior year at her Philadelphia high school is also Babygirl’s first day of day care, leaving Emoni saddened about missing parts of her life. Emoni’s a classic example of the school system’s failure to harness many students’ creativity and interests, but thankfully she discovers and enrolls in a new class called “Culinary Arts: Spain Immersion.” Though the teacher, Chef Ayden, respects her, he’s strict, and Emoni nearly drops the class, but eventually she gathers the ingredients—connections and skills—she’ll need for success. A romance that doesn’t fit the usual mold and a class trip to Spain round out this flavorful tale. Emoni occasionally breaks from first-person narration to address readers directly, and her voice and story feel fresh and contemporary. Diversity in representation is primarily racial and ethnic; however, Emoni’s best friend Angelica is a lesbian. The short, precise prose chapters will draw in even reluctant readers, and the inclusion of several recipes adds to the appeal. Current pop-culture references and cultural relevance will attract both window and mirror readers.
A Mexican-American family in Texas finds their home turned into a way station for immigrants smuggled across the border.
Cásares (Amigoland, 2009, etc.) returns to his hometown of Brownsville for a potent novel about the complexities of immigration and the lies we tell ourselves and our families. Twelve-year-old Orly is from Houston, has light skin, and speaks passable Spanish even though he strongly prefers English and sometimes denies knowing Spanish at all. After his mother’s sudden death, Orly is sent by his dad to spend the summer with his aunt Nina in Brownsville. Unbeknownst to him, Nina has a small, pink casita in her backyard being used by coyotes moving human cargo north. Neither Nina nor Orly quite knows how they got into their situations. Orly’s brother is at camp, his father is in Napa with a new girlfriend, and his mother’s absence is a gaping hole so big he can’t see the other side. Just when Nina thinks she’s rid of the smugglers for good, a young boy named Daniel knocks on her back door in the middle of the night after narrowly escaping Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nina puts him up in the casita and now has to hide her secret from Orly, her elderly mother, and her bossy brother. As Nina, Orly, and Daniel learn each other’s secrets, the reader is treated to a novel that addresses the complexity of immigration, identity, and assimilation while telling close, intimate stories. The novel is told in a roaming third person that turns each character, no matter how seemingly one-dimensional or minor, into a powerful presence. Each voice in this chorus has something urgent to say. Cásares devotes a page or so of italicized backstory to seemingly minor characters who would drift out of a different novel without a second glance: a raspas vendor, a coyote quickly arrested, a Brownsville police officer, Orly’s English teacher, and many more. Whether it’s the teacher about to be deported, a man who doesn’t concern himself with the fact that his own mother used to be undocumented, or the many people making the dangerous crossing who are beset by tragedy, these asides all reveal the sometimes-hidden yet always profound effects of immigration. Helping us learn the truth about who we are individually and as a society is the ultimate goal of this novel.
In some ways timely, this quiet, delicate book delivers a truly timeless emotional punch.
At a luxurious secret facility in the Hudson Valley of New York, women who need money bear children for wealthy would-be mothers with no time for pregnancy.
Golden Oaks is a division of a high-end luxury services company that has found a new way to meet the needs of its customer base. The company recruits healthy young women—the Hosts—implants them with fertilized eggs from the Clients, houses and feeds them, manages their pregnancies, and monitors their every move, breath, and heartbeat until delivery, at which point the Host receives a huge payout. The operation is run by Mae Yu, a Chinese-American Harvard Business School graduate whose insatiable ambition and moral turpitude conflict with—and keep winning out over—her sympathy for the women who work for her, mostly nonwhite immigrants. Central among them is Jane, a Filipina with a 6-month-old baby who is financially desperate after losing her job as a nanny. For Jane, Golden Oaks is a godsend, not to mention the nicest place she's ever lived, until she realizes that being separated from her daughter is unbearable. Even though there are many other Filipinas, she feels completely isolated until befriended by her roommate, Reagan McCarthy. Reagan is one of the few who represent "the holy trifecta of Premium Hosts": white, pretty, and cum laude from Duke. Reagan's anomie and desperate need to be of use motivate her as much as the need to be free of her financially controlling father. Lisa, the other white girl at Golden Oaks, is on her third assignment at what she calls "The Farm." She is the only one who sees the exploitative, Orwellian setup for what it is, and her ongoing efforts to game the system eventually lead to big trouble...for Jane. Perhaps the most powerful element of this debut novel by Ramos, who was born in Manila and moved to Wisconsin when she was 6, is its portrait of the world of Filipinas in New York. The three-page soliloquy of instructions for nannying delivered to Jane by her more experienced cousin is a work of art in itself.
Excellent, both as a reproductive dystopian narrative and as a social novel about women and class.
A Byzantine web of lies surrounds a fatal fire at an unusual treatment facility in this taut legal drama.
Kim, a former trial lawyer who turns 50 the same week her debut novel is published, does not make it easy on the reviewer charged with describing her book. This is a complicated and unusual story—though when you are reading it, it will all seem smooth as silk. The Yoos, an immigrant family from Korea, own a hyperbaric oxygen therapy tank in a town called Miracle Creek, Virginia. (In a characteristically wry aside, we learn that "Miracle Creek didn't look like a place where miracles took place, unless you counted the miracle of people living there for years without going insane from boredom.") HBOT treatment, which involves sitting in a chamber breathing pure, pressurized oxygen, is believed to be effective in remediating autism and male infertility, and those conditions are what define the group of people who are in the "submarine" when a fire, clearly set by an arsonist, causes it to explode. Two people are killed; others survive paralyzed or with amputations. The novel opens as the murder trial of the mother of a boy who died in the fire begins. As we come to understand the pressures she has been under as the single mother of a special needs child, it does not seem out of the question that she is responsible. But with all the other characters lying so desperately about what they were doing that evening, it can't be as simple as that. With so many complications and loose ends, one of the miracles of the novel is that the author ties it all together and arrives at a deeply satisfying—though not easy or sentimental—ending.
Intricate plotting and courtroom theatrics, combined with moving insight into parenting special needs children and the psychology of immigrants, make this book both a learning experience and a page-turner. Should be huge.