A novel plunges a newly acquainted grandfather and granddaughter into adventures on the French canals.
Colin Aylesford of Bath, England, hasn’t seen his son, Michael, in almost 10 years. One day, he receives a letter from his boy stating that Charlotte, his wife, has died in an accident. Delphine, Michael and Charlotte’s 9-year-old daughter, is “coping as well as possible.” More than a month later, Colin learns from the police that Michael has been arrested in France in connection with his wife’s lethal trip down a flight of stairs. He’s also confessed to pushing her. Colin takes the small fishing boat he’s built—the Dragonfly—south, into the French canals. By special arrangement with Charlotte’s mother, Delphine joins him for the summer. The coupling proves exceptionally awkward, because Colin himself is a widower and has lived for years as a bachelor. Delphine is a precocious young lady who requires entertainment and careful attention paid to Amandine, her sock monkey. In prison, meanwhile, Michael reflects on a life spent without his own father after a deep estrangement sundered his parents decades ago. Later on the canals, Colin and Delphine meet Tyler, an American woman traveling alone who soon becomes instrumental in the relationship between Colin and his granddaughter. In this novel of quietly revealed passions, Dunn (Rebecca’s Children, 2016, etc.) gives audiences an experience that resists categorization. It reads like a special sort of coming-of-age tale for parents with either an empty nest or damaged families, in that Colin feels “stranded on the shore of his son’s life.” The pain of not raising his son returns with Delphine, who shares with Michael “the set of her jaw...her wide mouth, and her slightly crooked teeth.” While a good deal of levity is present, especially when Delphine utters her starchy catchphrase, “It is not possible,” Dunn’s story features dense layers of melancholy (Colin “felt sadness like a sharp blade drawn along the length of him”). Sunlight reaches the canals, but not before a gasp-inducing finale.
This emotional high-wire act should have readers racing to the end.
A niece sets out on a quest to better understand an enigmatic aunt in this novel.
When readers first encounter Franniemarie Hanks, she is plagued with problems and uncertainties. For one, she’s engaged in a combustible relationship with her husband, Cricket. “I could kill him,” she muses, “might be worth it to never hear another country western whine.” Her one source of sanity is drawn from staring out into Nebraska’s prairie—an uncluttered expanse of possibility. When Franniemarie receives a call from the Oakland Welfare Department regarding her Aunt Dorien, who has been branded as “strictly loony tunes” and is living in a house worthy of being condemned, it appears like yet more bad news. What in fact transpires is a journey of self-discovery. Franniemarie grabs the car keys and heads “pedal to metal” into the Nebraska landscape, eager to learn more about her aunt, her family, and herself. She quickly discovers that Aunt Dorien has been committed but also that she was a prolific writer, albeit never published. Filling a wheelbarrow with notebooks from her aunt’s dilapidated bungalow, Franniemarie is delighted to discover Aunt Dorien’s undiscovered talent and begins piecing together family memories. Many classic road novels, like Kerouac’s On the Road, employ a male protagonist. Here, a daring heroine seizes the trajectory of the road, and the refreshing result is a tender exploration of the self. On her heart-rending odyssey, Franniemarie faces up to her own fraught past; yet finding solace in a creative endeavor, namely the art of writing, also becomes a key theme. Elliott (Songs of Bernie Bjorn, 2016, etc.), who’s also an accomplished poet, appears to have effortless access to a wealth of rich, beautiful imagery: “In the park, the flowering acacia bleeds scarlet, thru every break in foliage, a scarlet banner raised especially for me.” She also displays a shrewd understanding of the role of writing in catharsis and memory. The result is a rare thing: a clever, well-crafted novel that has both an absorbing storyline and the artful poignancy of an elegantly composed collection of poetry.
An emotionally intuitive and impeccably written tale focusing on a female adventurer.
Miller’s (Indigo Rose, 2005) novel tells a tale of survival and growth in a war-torn land.
Twenty-five-year-old Raissa lives with her family in a small African town marked by strife between the “Old People” and “New People.” When the Old People enact a plan to wipe all the New People out, Raissa’s family flees, but she stubbornly refuses to leave. She later hides under sheets of metal behind the house as a family of Old People—a soldier, Henri; his wife, Jacqueline; his sister, Giza; and his infant son, Olite—take over the space. After hearing that the new family needs a servant, Raissa disguises herself as a Muslim and gets hired by the family at a nearby market. Thus she becomes the caretaker of her own house, cooking and cleaning for the new residents and lovingly taking care of the child. But after the soldier’s cousin discovers her true identity, she chooses to run away rather than submit to his domination. She makes a little home for herself in a nearby forest and learns how to live on her own. But she’s haunted by the memory of Olite, and, against her better judgment, she returns to her house and kidnaps the child. She renames him “DoGood,” and they live at one with nature. The second half of the novel effectively traces the difficulties that Raissa and DoGood have in readjusting to the world—especially DoGood, who must confront his own lineage. Throughout, Miller’s prose is crisp and powerful, with evocative imagery and metaphors that are often stunning: “Her mind lets things slide in and out and does not catch them, as if she were a coral through which the sea’s waters flow.” As she develops her expertly crafted characters, she beautifully and compellingly considers pressing human questions regarding evil, motherhood, and the possibility of redemption.
A striking, searing work that will linger long in readers’ memories.
A debut novel explores the complex story of an old house and those connected to it.
In 1894, local businessman Wilhelm Winkler purchases an impressive new property on Summit Avenue as his family home. His wife, Sophie, and daughter, Ellen, marvel at the house’s state-of-the-art facilities, including electric lighting and a flushing toilet. Fast-forward to the modern day, and Carole Browning, an attorney, learns that she has inherited a century-old property from an estranged great-grandfather, Henry Winkler. Along with her husband, Carlos, a cartoonist, she visits the house to find it in a state of dire disrepair (“It looked, Carole thought, like a cartoon haunted house, something Carlos would draw. Compared to the beautiful homes around it, it was like an ugly bruise”). For Carole, adopted at the age of 2 and with no knowledge of her ancestral line by birth, the house is a powerful reminder of the family she never knew. Her initial reaction is to distance herself from this emotional burden. Carlos, however, is eager to begin renovations, and, in doing so, all manner of secrets are revealed. The skillful layering of narratives, comprising the stories of the four generations of Winklers who have called the dwelling home, reflects vividly how a property can be inscribed and reinscribed by the lives of its inhabitants. For Carole, coming to know the house on Summit Avenue may lead her to better understand herself. This compelling novel creatively imagines the microhistory of a family in an unnamed Midwestern city. Through what is essentially a history of everyday life charted across several generations, it is possible to sense America as a changing nation. Morlock is acutely aware of this perpetual state of decay and renewal in his writing: “Like people, old houses wear down, and like people too, it seems, fall out of favor with age. In the sixties and seventies especially, Summit Avenue was abandoned by the well-off in favor of the newer suburbs sprouting like weeds in all directions.” This strong grasp of history is further bolstered by the author’s consistently sharp, elegant prose and a spellbinding ability to craft realistic flesh-and-blood characters, the fates of whom truly matter to the reader.
Warmly nostalgic without giving in to saccharine oversentimentality, this intricate tale chronicles an absorbing and affecting family journey across generations.
A mother and her daughters reunite to dredge up old traumas in this tension-wracked drama.
Frances Rafferty has her normally cantankerous 84-year-old spirits lifted when her favorite daughter, Kathy, an off-Broadway actress with a rich second husband, decides to come home from New York to visit the family home in Brown County, Indiana. Also attending are Frances’ daughter Edie, a doormat housewife, and her dyspeptic husband, Sam, who actually inhabit the family home, having exiled Frances to a mother-in-law trailer in the backyard; and third daughter Rosie, a psychologist who is bitterly estranged from Frances and is bringing her disabled son in tow. The narrative unfolds over a three-day weekend of dinners, Scrabble games, church, and squabbles, told through ruminative soliloquies by each of the women probing her present feelings and past resentments from times when the family almost disintegrated in madness and poverty. Each woman’s soul and secrets are laid bare: Kathy, a domineering diva who puts up a front of ebullient cheer while denying the reality that her life’s stability is about to collapse; Edie, perpetually striving to please everyone around her and guilt-stricken when she can’t, who harbors a hidden passion for an old flame; Rosie, seething with bitterness toward Frances over a childhood wound her sisters know nothing about. Thomas (Blessed Transgression, 2015, etc.) creates vibrant, sharply etched characters who come with plenty of rancorous baggage but manage to unpack enough of it to regain sympathy for one another and themselves. They come alive through the author’s gift for crafting distinctive voices in well-observed dialogue, emerging through their own reflections and the refracted perspectives of their loved ones. Thomas writes in a relaxed, understated prose that conveys the heavy emotional impact of family conflicts without histrionics and melodrama. (Frances in a rare moment of contentment: “I woke up all of a sudden. And the sweetest feelin’ come over me. Like an angel of the Lord done passed through the room. And I couldn’t help but call out in the darkness, ‘God is good.’ Yup, that’s all I could think to say. God is good.”) Readers should root for Frances and her daughters as they fitfully knit their family ties back together.
A cleareyed but warm family saga of buried recriminations and the struggle for reconciliation.
Barlow’s (Between the Eagle or the Dragon, 2013, etc.) debut novel provides a farcical look at the pursuit of junk science in the hallowed halls of the academy.
Sandra Hidecock, a distinguished legal professor at Harvard, plunges to her death from a campus window. Her demise is ruled a suicide and followed by a celebration of the central theme of her work: the tyranny constituted by the immutable laws of nature, the chief barrier to the achievement of human autonomy. Harvard scientist Duronimus Karlof generally considers her work to be faddish nonsense based on a puerile misunderstanding of even the most basic science. But Hidecock left him a letter imploring him to consider her research, a solicitation he finds surprisingly moving. As a result, Karlof decides to put together a team of underachieving academics—he calls them “gloominaries”—to pursue an ambitious project inspired by Hidecock, the contravention of the laws of nature. After the consideration of utterly outrageous possibilities, the “Harvard Six” decide to create a machine—the “Ooala Reactor”—which can slow an object down even after it becomes stationary, achieving a condition they call “sub-stationary.” Of course, this is scientifically meaningless, but apparently that’s an unimportant concern. When one of the scientists expresses anxiety over the coherence of the project, Amelia, the group’s legal adviser and a devotee of Hidecock, responds: “You mustn’t worry about that. If people understood modern physics, nobody would ever fund it. Our greatest advantage will be that nobody understands what we’re doing—not even us.” They manage to raise over a billion dollars in funding commitments and attract the enthusiastic attention of academic and governmental organizations alike. A gifted satirist, Barlow impressively lampoons higher education’s obsession with novelty at the expense of rigor and common sense. The dialogue is memorably funny, and the author avoids the most common trap of satire, which is to adopt a sententiously knowing tone. The story intelligently raises provocative questions about the historically stormy relationship between science and public opinion, and it wryly exposes the vanity and ideological blindness of even the most heralded intellectuals. This is a rare book—hilarious, thoughtful, and culturally relevant all at once.
A cheekily ironic takedown of academic adventures in absurdity.
This debut novel about a young man’s quest for his father gives glimpses of Beethoven in his prime as well as in his final months.
At age 11, George Thompson learns that he’s the illegitimate son of Beethoven, once his Bavarian-born mother Hannah Bekker’s piano teacher. In 1826, George, having lost his sweetheart and his job as a printer’s apprentice, leaves Virginia for Europe to find his real father. Posing as an English nobleman writing for the Williamsburg Post, he is conned into staying at a Vienna “whoretel” (brothel) and finally gains admittance to Herr Beethoven, who is just months from death. As George conducts a meandering interview through questions written in a notebook and steels himself to announce the true reason for his visit, he learns more about the deaf, irascible composer—everything from the four marriage proposals he made to his public contest with French pianist Daniel Steibelt and the triumphant premiere of his Ninth Symphony: the audience “rose as one, row after row, like a rhythmic wave. Hats and handkerchiefs waved in the air, hands clapped high above heads, all exploding with adoration for their deaf Lion of Vienna. With his eyes, Ludwig heard their joy.” Jones gracefully switches between George’s first-person account of the interview process and vivid third-person flashbacks to Beethoven’s earlier life. She is careful to show all sides of the maestro’s identity: his erratic behavior and penchant for making enemies but also his musical genius and perseverance in spite of his disability—just as George vows to Beethoven, “I’ll neither deify nor damn you.” The plot nimbly blends the historical record—with brief appearances from Beethoven’s sister-in-law Johanna and nephew Karl—and invented elements, like George’s relationship with the prostitute Gabrielle and the surprise consequences of his impersonation of a “Sir.” Although there’s been a misunderstanding about the nature of Hannah’s relationship with Beethoven, George nevertheless learns of the high regard in which the composer holds her—she inspired Leonore, the heroine of his only opera, Fidelio. The short Book 3, set in the United States after Beethoven’s death, feels mostly unnecessary, but it doesn’t detract from the overall quality of this charming picaresque.
The protagonist lovingly describes Beethoven as “an honest soul, lined with deep fissures and clumsy mendings”—which is just how he comes across in this deeply researched, accomplished work of historical fiction.
After losing her father, a Finnish-Irish girl slowly comes to understand her family and personal history in Fuller’s debutnovel.
In 1973, 7-year-old Rose Virkkunen is blind—a psychological reaction to her father’s unexplained disappearance. A therapist helps to cure her, but Rose continues her quest to see things more clearly, especially through the art of photography. (Illustrator Anderson(Vector, 2011, etc.)provides Rose’s artworks, which nicely bolster the story.) Rose slowly pieces together information and stories from both the Finnish and Irish sides of her family: “She was interested in history, but not the history her teachers taught. She was interested in the histories of people she knew.” The place that she loves most is Summer Hall (aka Camp Karelia), where Finnish families come for the summer season; there, they stay in cabins, enjoy traditional saunas, and preserve their heritage by telling stories from TheKalevala, Finland’s national epic. As she nears adulthood, Rose struggles with her sexuality and gets drawn into a destructive relationship. Meanwhile, she comes to understand the struggles of an older generation of immigrants, including the hard work that they did in quarries and shipyards. By the novel’s end, she gains fresh insights about her father and herself. Fuller writes lyrically about a seemingly ghost-haunted world, often depicted in Rose’s photographs, which sometimes combine phantomlike images. The book’s opening is full of allusions whose meanings are initially obscure; for example, in an early therapy session, Fuller writes that Rose “felt them collecting in her mouth, the pieces of cedar bark. Her mouth flooded….And the white reindeer flew up, and the white reindeer flew down. Time wobbled and stretched out behind it like a rubber band, until time snapped.” The meanings, however, are effectively revealed bit by bit as part of a mystery that readers investigate alongside Rose. Along the way, every line and image demands and rewards readers’ full attention.
A rich, multilayered, and slowly unfolding literary work.