by Julie HaleAugust 2009
New paperback choices for reading groups
The Good Thief
By Hannah Tinti
Set in 19th-century New England, Tinti’s wonderfully readable debut novel features an unusual protagonist: a one-handed orphan named Ren. Abandoned as an infant, 12-year-old Ren is one of the unfortunate inhabitants of Saint Anthony’s, a Catholic home for forgotten children. When he’s adopted by Benjamin, a con artist and thief, Ren finds himself being used as an accessory for crime. Concocting outlandish stories to account for Ren’s affliction, Benjamin takes advantage of the boy’s handicap to filch money from the sympathetic. Ren has no choice but to follow Benjamin’s lead, and the pair eventually take up residence in a peculiar place called North Umbrage, where a mousetrap factory operated by a legion of young women is the major source of industry. Drawn to the town by its grave-robbing prospects, Benjamin is soon involved in the trafficking of dead bodies—work that Ren finds horrifying. Ren’s greatest desire is to be part of a family, and as the novel progresses, he does just that, joining a strange little tribe that consists of a giant, a dwarf and a deaf woman. But there’s more strangeness in store for Ren, as he comes close to solving the mystery of his own origins. Recalling the work of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a spirited, expertly crafted tale written by a gifted new novelist. A reading group guide is available online.
By Toni Morrison
The Nobel Prize-winning author returns with another masterwork, a brief novel set on the east coast of America during the 1600s. Florens, a young slave girl, is given to a sympathetic plantation owner named Jacob Vaark in order to pay off a debt incurred by her owner. Located in upstate New York, Jacob’s farm is home to a group of women who are struggling to make lives for themselves. Rebekka, Jacob’s wife, endures the deaths of her children from the harsh conditions of plantation living—a tragedy that makes her question her trust in God. Lina, a 14-year-old Native American who lost her family to smallpox, helps Jacob run the farm. She feels suspicious of a fellow servant named Sorrow—an odd young girl—and hopes to stave off loneliness by bonding with Florens. But when Jacob becomes sick, the women’s lives and the meager stability afforded by plantation existence are endangered. Narrated by each of the women in turn, the book offers a panoramic view of America during the 17th century. The hardships her characters experience—both physical and spiritual—are recounted in vivid and poetic detail by Morrison, who is unmatched when it comes to writing about America’s troubled history. Fierce and thrilling, this is an unflinching examination of our country’s coming-of-age and of the dynamics of slavery. A reading group guide is available online.
The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard
By Erin McGraw
Set in the 1920s, McGraw’s fifth book is a charming historical novel with an ambitious heroine at its center. Seventeen-year-old Nell Plat is an uncommonly gifted seamstress who makes dresses for the women of Grant Station, Kansas, where she lives with her husband and two infant daughters. Nell’s failure as a cook, however, has a damaging effect upon her marriage, and so she decides to take off for Hollywood and create a new identity for herself. Relying on a French grammar book and her own ingenuity, Nell adapts an exciting new persona—that of Madame Annelle, seamstress to the wealthy, an identity that opens unexpected doors. She eventually marries an oilman named George Curran and has a third daughter, Mary. But Nell’s break with her old life isn’t as clean as she’d hoped, and the past eventually comes back to haunt her. Her two daughters—full-grown, liberated flappers—track her down in California. Adopting an air of elegance and using the names Lisette and Aimée, they have big dreams of taking Hollywood by storm. Nell tries to play them off as her younger sisters, but the deceit soon fails—as do the rest of her lies. A richly detailed narrative about one woman’s quest to transform herself and find the happiness she craves, McGraw’s book brims with the joie de vivre of the Roaring ’20s. This is a fast-moving narrative that fans of literary fiction will love.