Sarah Cornwell’s debut novel, What I Had Before I Had You, is a moving and authentic depiction of a family struggling to reconcile with the past. Olivia, mother of two, returns to Ocean Vista, her hometown on the Jersey Shore, after a 20-year absence. The visit brings back difficult memories of her childhood, which was spent in the care of her loving but eccentric mother, Myla, a professional psychic. Both Olivia and her 9-year-old son, Daniel, suffer from bipolar disorder. When Daniel disappears during the visit home, Olivia tries to find him, embarking on a search that forces her to face up to a family history that’s loaded with secrets. Myla, capricious, beautiful and forever mourning the stillborn twins she lost in 1971, lies at the heart of Olivia’s quest for redemption. Skillfully weaving the story of Olivia’s past together with her search for Daniel, Cornwell has crafted a luminous narrative that proves she’s a writer to watch.

Best-selling author and Oprah favorite Wally Lamb offers up a poignant, timely family story with his new novel, We Are Water. With 27 years of marriage behind her, artist Anna Oh has an ex-husband, three children and a new love interest: art dealer Viveca, the glamorous Manhattanite who launched her career. Plans for a wedding are soon brewing, but Anna’s family has a few misgivings about her decision to tie the knot again. The novel is narrated, in turns, by members of the Oh family, including Anna’s psychologist ex-husband, Orion, and their kids, Ariane, Andrew and Marissa, all of whom have lives of their own—and scarred psyches. As Anna’s wedding nears, unpleasant episodes from the family’s past come to light, causing the Oh clan to take stock of mistakes and heartaches. Lamb writes about delicate issues like child abuse and addiction with the openness and compassion his many fans have come to expect. His moving portrayal of a contemporary family drama is sure to resonate with readers.

Winner of the 2013 National Book Award for fiction, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is an inspired and slightly transgressive take on the story of abolitionist John Brown. The novel is narrated by 12-year-old Henry Shackleford, a Kansas slave Brown mistakes for a girl. When Brown shoots Henry’s owner, the boy joins his band of abolitionists and lives as a female. Brown and his crew cross the country trying to marshal support for their cause, and Henry tags along, bearing witness to meetings with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as well as the raid on Harpers Ferry. McBride, author of the acclaimed memoir The Color of Water as well as two previous novels, shows a remarkable flair for making events come alive and never shies away from the comic possibilities of the boy’s situation. A wonderfully imaginative retelling of history that’s been compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, McBride’s latest is a page-turner thanks to Henry’s unique voice and remarkable coming-of-age experiences.


This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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