BookPage Fiction Top Pick, April 2014
The title of Maggie Shipstead’s second novel, Astonish Me, is a fitting one indeed. It’s a request, a demand, a dare, all wrapped up in two little words, heavy with promise.
Julia Glass’ fifth novel borrows for its title a lyric from “What a Wonderful World,” the song made famous by Louis Armstrong. In Glass’ book, the reference comes up when Fenno McLeod, the Scottish expat introduced in Three Junes, is at a therapy session with his boyfriend. “The past is like the night: dark yet sacred,” the therapist says, neatly summing up the crux of this big-hearted story of family ties.
Australian-born author Evie Wyld’s novels ask tough questions without seeking easy answers. In her debut, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, she explored the impact of World War II and the Vietnam War on a single Australian family. Her new book, All the Birds, Singing, follows Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on a remote sheep farm on an island off the coast of England. When someone—or something—attacks her sheep, Jake is plunged into paranoia, brought on in part by her isolation, but also because of the secrets she carries about her childhood.
It has been 20 years since Julia MacDonnell wrote her first novel, A Year of Favor. But readers will find her highly entertaining and heartfelt second novel, Mimi Malloy, at Last!, well worth the wait.
Ayelet Waldman (Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits) has written about personal tragedy numerous times: failed marriages, the struggles of motherhood, divided families. Her latest novel, Love & Treasure, deals with a larger human tragedy: the true story of the Hungarian Gold Train during World War II. It is a slight departure from her previous work, and yet, it remains just as powerful and inspiring.
Who risks the most when a literary lion well into his ninth decade writes a novel? The legend, who is putting his legacy on the line, or the longtime reader, who shoulders the load of vicarious shame in the event the book is a mess?
With In Paradise, readers can rest assured the risk is worthwhile.
It’s good to know that a female protagonist doesn’t have to be “nice” in order to be compelling. In Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, returning Iraqi war vet Lauren Clay is anything but nice. Indeed, the reader might be tempted, at first, to call her hateful. But as you read on, it dawns on you that the Lauren who enlisted as a soldier because of the fat signing bonus that would keep the wolves away from the door of her impoverished family isn’t the Lauren who has returned. The word that kept going through this reviewer’s head was “revenant.”
To marry their daughters off, four social-climbing men in 1790s London hatch a plot: Buy a pianoforte (the au courant instrument of the late 18th century) and have them give a concert that will have noblemen lined up for their hands in marriage.
The ladies are as varied as their fathers are ambitious: emaciated Georgiana; Everina with her unfortunate false teeth; mysterious Alathea; and the Brass sisters, practical Harriet and lumpy Marianne.
Leah Hager Cohen’s new novel, No Book but the World, takes its title from a quote by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ava and her younger brother, Fred, were raised by progressive parents who followed Rousseau’s “free” education and parenting model, letting their children discover the world on their own and without inhibitions or formal constrictions. Memories of their imaginative childhood in the woods flood forth as an adult Ava visits the town where her brother is now in jail.
The story of the once-successful novelist trapped in the throes of writer’s block, personal woes and emotional contemplation is a favorite of many novelists, from Stephen King to Michael Chabon, but lesser versions of the tale often veer into the realm of plodding semi-autobiographical navel-gazing and serve the writer more than the book itself. With her latest novel, Tatiana de Rosnay not only avoids the pitfalls of the struggling-novelist story, but also obliterates them with a lush, beautifully rendered saga layered with secrets, scandal and, yes, an exploration of what it means to be a writer who’s terrified of having nothing left to say.