In this riveting historical novel based on true events, political tensions in a Scottish mission in 19th-century Calcutta, India, give rise to a sexual scandal.
Mary Pigot has been the superintendent of the Ladies’ Association Female Mission in Calcutta for 10 years before the Rev. William Hastie arrives in 1879. Hastie, the principal of the Scottish College, quickly finds fault with Pigot’s policies, practices, and mannerisms; for example, he feels that the orphanage that she manages isn’t up to Scottish standards of cleanliness. Hastie and his comrades also don’t agree with her proselytizing approach: “educate first, convert later—if ever.” Nor does Pigot share Hastie’s resentment toward members of the Free Church, which broke away from the Church of Scotland in 1843. She’s quick to assist anyone who needs help—even members of the local community whom Hastie finds questionable. The growing friction between Pigot and Hastie culminates in a formal investigation of the superintendent followed by libelous claims that she’s abusive, neglectful, incompetent, and immoral. Due to her casual demeanor with male colleagues, her enemies accuse her of “fornication” with an Indian man and a fellow missionary. To clear her name and take back her position, Pigot takes Hastie to court, leading to an unpredictable, sensational trial. Although the book is set in the 1800s, its approach to political, religious, cultural, and gender-related issues is surprisingly relevant. Wagner-Wright (Rama’s Labyrinth, 2015, etc.) paints India’s culture and climate in stunning detail: “March comes on like a slow fire. Another week, and we’ll have the humidity.” The realistic, intricate characters take turns narrating the tale, panoramically revealing themselves through their perceptions. At one point, for example, Hastie narrates, “I stop and take a breath, composing myself for this audience of fools.” The plot’s first half proceeds at an unhurried pace, but when the trial starts, its momentum resembles that of a competitive sporting event. Wagner-Wright’s extensive research allows her to stay remarkably true to history while her creativity brings an outstanding story of courage and fortitude to life.
A powerful story with a vivid setting, compelling plot, and multifaceted characters.
A homeless man comes tantalizingly close to his old life and happiness only to question that joy.
In this novel, Wright (The Sky Is Far Away, 2018, etc.) gives readers a homeless, nameless man trying to survive after the mother of all housing bubbles has burst. He is somewhere in Florida, breaking into foreclosed houses in search of food. He has bottomed out: He’s lost his job and his family and even spent a year in prison. He has also lost all hope and wants only to be left alone. Then he comes upon a little girl—as hungry and thirsty as he is—in an abandoned house. Try as he might, he cannot bring himself to desert her. He finds an abandoned cabin and a job with a guy who is scrapping a nearby defunct amusement park, Fun-O-Rama (a wonderful metaphor). The girl, whose name readers finally learn is Jessie, is severely traumatized and mute. Ever so slowly, she begins to trust the man (her first words to him: “Are you Jesus?”). When she falls sick, he gets her to a hospital. She recovers, but now the police are very interested in his relationship with this kid and in his past. Many more things happen, but it is his need for Jessie that drives it all. The ending is artistically risky but truer than the conclusion readers will probably crave. Wright is a flat-out wonderful writer. The prose is crisp (“Unhappy should be a weather forecast like rain or snow”), the details spot-on, and the slow development meticulous. The nameless man—the first-person narrator—is an unforgettable character, always talking about the stories in life, like the “I Work Out and Exercise” and “Never Feed a Stray Animal” tales. He is in love with his bitterness but, try as he might, can’t excise his basic decency. This painful novel delivers heartbreak—but no sentimentality—and consummate thaumaturgy or, in the narrator’s words, “I’m both the magician and the trick.”
This tale of two survivors should move you, cajole you, upset you, and seduce you.
Sixteen tales span about 1,000 years as a New England town emerges, becomes an art colony and tourist destination, and faces a dark age.
This collection returns to Murphy’s (Assumption City, 2012) fictional community of Egg Rock on Massachusetts’ North Shore. In an elegiac tone that brings to mind Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, the tales follow characters as they make important decisions and show the ramifications of their actions. The book opens with Vikings arriving at a “magical” paradise—the future Egg Rock. The stories then sail on to address the town’s early-1800s ice trade with the Caribbean; the impact of prejudice on Boston’s Irish community during a cholera epidemic; New England’s abolition and pacifist movements before the Civil War; the dangers of 1880s lighthouse-keeping; mental health care in the early 20th century; U-boat spying during World War II; the agony of veterans following various wars; and the rise of feminism. The book breaks the narrative flow with a compelling literary experiment, as “John’s Peril I” and “John’s Peril II” offer different outcomes for the same character. It’s reminiscent of author Jack Finney’s twig-in-a-stream concept in Time and Again (1970), showing how small occurrences bump into one another to alter history. Indeed, the idea of cause and effect forms a strong undercurrent in this collection—one that results in intriguing effects. In “Shore Leave,” for example, a lighthouse keeper’s wife teaches her son, Ben, everything she knows about the heavens (“She made sure Ben saw moonrises and moonsets and the morning and evening stars”), and, by doing so, she inadvertently sets in motion Ben’s undoing in “Bottoms Up.” Readers may wish that the author provided a map of the many characters in these tales, but they’ll still find it fun to track their connections.
In DelVecchio’s debut, an adopted teenage girl haunted by her past finds solace in the pages of a classic novel.
Elektra Koutros was renamed Kathryn and nicknamed Kit Kat when she was adopted from Greece and sent to live with her new mother in Queens, New York. She has been looking for her true identity ever since. Her adoptive mother, Evangelia “Ann,” is a single Greek-American woman with no children of her own and a cold disposition. Her birth mother, Athanasia, was a prostitute. With the contrasting archetypes of the virgin and the whore for guardians, what Kit Kat longs for is a true mother figure. Instead, she finds Jane Eyre, the classic work of literature whose heroine becomes her confidante and role model. Via diary entries recounting her childhood through her college years, Kit Kat tells her story in an earnest—and very strong—narrative voice as she confesses her darkest secrets. Although Ann is a vast improvement over Athanasia, who used to beat Kit Kat, her denial of her adoptive daughter’s past creates a palpable distance between them. In one scene, Kit Kat sits at the dinner table so quietly she can hear Ann’s stomach digesting her food: “The silences between us are now immeasurable, but the sounds of her fill every crack, every possible place unoccupied by words.” Told from the teenager’s perspective, the story leaves Ann’s innermost thoughts unsaid, and the effect is haunting. Did she truly believe Kit Kat was lying about her past, or did she feel in over her head because the social worker had told her the situation was better than it was? Some of Kit Kat’s siblings—Maria, Nicholas, and Stavros—spent time in orphanages, the homes of relatives, and with Athanasia and her boyfriend, Kristos, but none of them followed her to America. She’s alone, angry, and, at one point, locked in the bathroom with a pair of scissors pointed at her own body. If her mother can’t break the silence, she’ll have to do it for herself.
With sophisticated prose, this gritty coming-of-age story blends the familiar and the unthinkable as the lead learns to use her voice.
When poet Vittoria Colonna meets Michelangelo, they discover a deep and profound connection in this historical novel.
Michelangelo is revered for his sculptures and paintings, and by 1534, his reputation is unparalleled. Summoned to Rome by Pope Clement VII, the artist prepares to work on the pontiff’s legacy, the Last Judgment, a fresco depicting the second coming of Jesus. One afternoon, Michelangelo encounters a woman with a face that “suggests an intimacy with anguish.” The striking woman is Colonna, a poet and widow of military leader Ferrante Francesco d’Avalos. Thoughtful and brilliant, she was raised on the island of Ischia by Ferrante’s aunt, Costanza d’Avalos. Colonna’s marriage to Ferrante cemented a political alliance between her family and King Ferdinand of Spain. Since Ferrante’s death, Colonna has lived in seclusion, writing poetry and preserving her husband’s legacy. She is reluctant to rejoin society until a monk asks her to travel to Rome and advocate for the Capuchin order. Michelangelo admires Colonna and her poetry, and he asks for her advice interpreting the imagery in the Last Judgment. From this collaboration, an enduring and loving bond develops between Colonna and Michelangelo that sustains them through ongoing political and religious conflicts and personal tragedy. Cardillo’s (Island Legacy, 2017, etc.) latest book is a sweeping historical epic and a sensitively observed exploration of the passionate friendship between Colonna and Michelangelo. At one point the poet muses: “Michelangelo’s conversational style is like that of a surgeon with a knife about to slit open my chest to observe my beating heart. I am both fascinated and terrified by his questions.” Ambitious in scope, the narrative covers 1500 to 1547, shifting between their relationship and Colonna’s childhood and adolescence on the island of Ischia, her marriage to Ferrante and his betrayal of her trust, and her development as a poet. While Colonna and Michelangelo’s friendship forms the emotional center of the novel, the poet’s story and her journey as a woman and a writer are dynamic and multilayered. The author also does a fine job exploring the religious views that inform Colonna’s and Michelangelo’s lives and works as well as the tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the writers and clergy who seek to reform it.
A stirring and emotionally resonant portrait of a pivotal relationship in the life of Michelangelo.
A short story collection recounts significant episodes in a young Michigan woman’s life.
In this book, which won the 2016 Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, Aitken (Writing/Univ. of Minnesota) gathers both new and previously published short stories into a singular anthology. The work centers on one character: Mary, a spirited writer and artist born in 1960s Detroit. Although each piece can stand entirely on its own, together these brief glimpses weave a rich tapestry of a life, incorporating themes of family and romance, work and destitution, inspiration and addiction, determination and loss. Even the simplest moments have a sense of gravitas and quiet beauty; for example, while remembering picking raspberries with her grandfather, Mary comments, “As with the seasons before, I had only to look his way and consider how his pale, steady hand coaxed the berries away from their inevitable fall.” Indeed, Mary’s complexity as a protagonist will make it easy for readers to forget the work’s fictional nature. Whether she’s struggling to find fulfillment in a career or attempting to navigate a romantic landscape full of bittersweet choices, her emotions resonate with aching familiarity. What makes her exceptional is the strength that she demonstrates in the face of adversity, including a partner who’s addicted to heroin, a family member succumbing to cancer, and her sobering realization, as a child, of the abductions and murders that plague the streets of her city. Aitken doesn’t shy away from difficult topics in these snapshots; instead, she thrusts them boldly into view: “When you reached Brooklyn via Detroit, you had other stories, ones of yearning, of forging ahead, of seizing and tasting every drop you had left. You fought, with everything, to live.” Overall, the author delivers these stories with poetic grace, resulting in a book that will linger in the reader’s mind long after the final page.
A moving work that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the human condition.