Bich Minh Nguyen's enthralling second novel, Pioneer Girl, offers a version of the immigrant experience that's different from the one we usually read about: the Middle America Asian-American experience. Our interview with Nguyen about Pioneer Girl highlights the fascinating inspiration behind the book, also offering a peek into her creative process.
We were curious about the books Nguyen has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
Happiness, Like Water
By Chinelo Okparanta
I love the distilled experience of reading short stories, and Okparanta’s debut collection is powerful and heartbreaking in the best way. Set in Nigeria and the United States, the stories follow characters struggling in their relationships, families, and social and political circumstances. The question of identity, especially for women, is always at the forefront, as in two of my favorite stories here, “On Ohaeto Street,” about a couple’s doomed marriage, and “America,” about a woman whose decision to emigrate creates hope but also signals the loss of family heritage.
Son of a Gun
By Justin St. Germain
I recently taught this memoir, which is as clear-eyed, beautiful and intense as one could hope for in a work of nonfiction. While St. Germain focuses the narrative on his search for understanding in the years after his mother’s murder, he also reflects on the landscape of Tombstone, Arizona, and its culture of myth-making and violence. With restraint and care, St. Germain weaves together ideas about past and present, rage and stillness, loss and reinvention.
By Natalie Baszile
I just started this lovely and absorbing novel about a mother and daughter who move from Los Angeles to Louisiana, drawn by an inheritance of 800 acres of sugarcane land. The farming life and the Southern country life are completely unfamiliar to Charley Bordelon and her daughter Micah, and they have to learn quickly. Much is on the line here, as Charley feels like this is her one big chance to start over and make a life for herself and Micah. And there’s a tantalizing mystery, too: Who was Charley’s father? Why did he leave all this land to her? I can’t wait to see how the stories and secrets unfold.
What do you think, readers? Will you be adding Pioneer Girl—or any of Nguyen's recommended books—to your TBR list?
The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh
Crown • $25 • ISBN 9780307461605
On sale March 4, 2014
In her second novel, Therese Walsh explores the tumultuous, yet fiercely loyal bond between two young sisters, Jazz and Olivia Moon. After their mother dies of an apparent suicide, Olivia, whose synesthesia causes her to see sounds and taste sights, is determined to chase their mother's dream of seeing a fabled ghost light in the bogs of West Virginia. A resentful Jazz is cajoled into helping Olivia reach her destination, but there's plenty of trouble along the way. When their borrowed vintage bus breaks down, Olivia tries to shake Jazz loose and acts on her first impulse—she hops a train and forges a fragile alliance with some fellow travelers.
Readers who love a good road trip story will want to check this one out, and Walsh taps into a family's grieving process with sincerity. Here's the opening of the first chapter, told from Jazz's perspective:
My sister began staring at the sun after our mother died, because she swore it smelled like her. For me, it would always be the scent of oven gas, since that’s how Mama went—fumes pouring out, her breathing them in. Like Sylvia Plath, my father said, because Mama was a tortured writer, too.
Olivia’s actions were just as purposeful. Burned her retinas out over a period of months, made it so she couldn’t drive or even read. Well, she could’ve, if she’d used the glasses the doctor gave her—those big things that look like telescopes on her face—but she wouldn’t. So no reading. No driving. Instead, she lived with her head always tilted to the side, with an oil smudge in the center of everything she might want to see.
My sister’s reality had always been bizarre, though, with her ability to taste words and see sounds and smell a person on the sun. So when she decided to toss our dead mother’s ashes into a suitcase and go off to the setting of our dead mother’s story to find a ghost light, I wasn’t all that surprised. She’d never been the poster child for sense.
Will you check out The Moon Sisters? What are you reading this week?
Alice Hoffman, the best-selling author of The Dovekeepers, has delivered another historical novel, brightened by her talent for magical realism, and it's out today. Set in New York City in the 1900s, The Museum of Extraordinary Things presents a city in flux—sidewalks are quickly covering the remaining green space, overcrowded tenements stand in juxtaposition to well-appointed mansions and child labor is all too common in the factories.
Coralie Sarder's father runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island where he displays "freaks and oddities." But when Coralie meets young photographer Eddie Cohen in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, they begin a liberating love affair.
Lovely sephia photographs of New York open a window into Hoffman's dreamlike world in this trailer for The Museum of Extraordinary Things:
What do you think, readers? Will you pick up a copy of this book?
Good news, Stephen King fans: There'll be double the thrills from the best-selling author this year. We've already told you about Mr. Mercedes, the noir detective story scheduled for June 3—yesterday, the author announced that 2014 would also bring Revival, the story of a charismatic preacher who takes a small New England town by storm in the mid-20th century. Reverend Jacobs creates a special bond with Jamie Morton, a young boy who shares the pastor's "secret obsession." Here's more from King's site:
When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, this charismatic preacher curses God, mocks all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town.
Jamie has demons of his own. Wed to his guitar from the age of 13, he plays in bands across the country, living the nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll while fleeing from his family’s horrific loss. In his mid-thirties—addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate—Jamie meets Charles Jacobs again, with profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings.
Sounds appropriately ominous to me. Look for the book on November 11.
A Girl Walks into a Bar: Your Fantasy, Your Rules by Helena S. Paige
Morrow • $14.99 • ISBN 9780062291974
published February 4, 2014
I had a Pavlovian response when I first saw this book. Like so many other kids growing up (way) back in the '80s, I regularly devoured "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, so holding one written for grown-up women about an adventurous single gal's night on the town . . . well, it sure sounded like a lot of fun to me! Author Helena S. Paige (actually a pseudonym for three writers: Helen Moffett, Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick) opens the book with you getting ready to meet a friend at a bar—your first choice will be what kind of undies you'll put on (which reminded me of the "absolutely enormous" knickers scene from Bridget Jones's Diary). Which of the four options you choose will set you on your way to an unforgettable adventure.
The book is described by the publisher as a "choose-your-own-erotic-destiny novel." There are indeed erotic parts, but they're balanced with plenty of fun and humor. Fans of Maya Banks, Sylvia Day and the Fifty Shades series will most enjoy this one—particularly if they gather with friends and a bottle of wine, and read it aloud.
Here's a scene to draw you into the adventure:
A taxi pulls up in front of you, interrupting your thoughts, and the driver gets out and leans over the roof of the car.
"Finally! That must have been the world's longest five minutes!" you say to him, hands on your hips.
He looks at a piece of paper he's holding, his face confused. "Mr. Cornetto?" he aske.
"No!" you snap. "I called you almost half an hour ago. Your guy said you'd be five minutes!"
"I'm afraid this taxi is for a Mr. Cornetto."
"I think you must mean me," says a voice from behind. You whirl around, ready to confront whoever is trying to steal your taxi, and you're taken aback when you see the sexy salt-and-pepper guy who rescued you from Chest Wig earlier. Mr. Intense. The guy who smells like a blend of cedar and leather. The one who could give George Clooney a run for his money. Miles, was it?
"Oh, it's you," you say. Then redden with embarrassment. At this rate, you're going to slay him with your wit.
"Is everything all right?" he asks, looking from you to the taxi driver.
"Everything's fine. I was just waiting for a taxi, but this isn't it."
"Well, there's no reason it couldn't be," he says. "Why don't we share it?"
"No, I wouldn't want to impose—it's fine, really. He offered me a ride, too," you say, indicating the bodyguard on the corner, who's having some kind of altercation with whoever's on the phone. "And anyway, you already helped me out once tonight."
"Are you sure? Your friend looks like he's got his hands full."
He's so attractive that you struggle not to stare. Dropping your head, you notice you're still clutching the "Immaculata" invitation. Your thoughts buzz as you try to decide what to do next.
• If you go to the art exhibition, go to page 52.
• If you share a taxi with the George Clooney look-alike, go to page 105.
• If you take a ride home in the sports car with the bodyguard, go to page 162.
What are you reading this Valentine's Day week?
Our Top Pick in fiction this month is Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People, and it's in stores today!
In what our reviewer, Elisabeth Atwood, calls a "marvelously creepy page-turner," McMahon tells the story of two families in the seemingly quiet town of West Hall, Vermont.
Sara Harrison Shea and her husband Martin lost their young daughter Gertie in 1908. Now, more than 100 years later, two sisters move into the Shea's farmhouse with their mother Alice. But when Alice mysteriously disappears, it seems that Sara's old diaries hold all of the answers.
Check out the trailer for this spooky, evocative story from Doubleday:
What do you think, readers? Will you read this mystery-horror crossover?
Quesadillas: A Novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos
FSG Originals • $14 • ISBN 9780374533953
On sale February 11, 2014
In Juan Pablo Villalobos' highly hilarious second novel, Quesadillas, the 38-year-old narrator recounts being a teenager growing up in the 1980s in the small Mexican town of Lagos de Moreno. Orestes (“Oreo") is one of seven children—all named after infamous Greeks—born to a high school civics teacher with anger management issues and his homemaker wife, who seems to spend most of her time making quesadillas for her large family and trying to calm her husband down. Money is tight; political upheaval is in the air; and rumors of alien abductions swirl. All of this adds up to a wildly funny farce that's also surprisingly moving.
Here's the opening of the book, which features one of the most memorable first sentences I've ever read. F-bombs (authentic—not the condensed ones below) abound, but they're there to make a point (swiftly and deftly illustrating the character of the narrator's father)—and even the narrator is apologetic for it.
“Go and f— your f—ing mother, you bastard, f— off!”
I know this isn't an appropriate way to begin, but the story of me and my family is full of insults. If I'm really going to report everything that happened, I'm going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults. I swear there's no other way to do it, because the story unfolded in the place where I was born and grew up, Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico. Allow me to point out a few things about my town, for those of you who have not been there: there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.
“Bastards! They're sons of bitches! They must think we're f—ing stupid!”
The one shouting was my father, a professional insulter. He practised at all hours, but his most intense session, the one he seemed to have spent the day in training for, took place from nine to ten, dinnertime. And when the news was on. The nightly routine was an explosive mixture: quesadillas on the table and politicians on the TV.
“F—ing robbers! Corrupt bastards!”
Can you believe that my father was a high-school teacher?
With a mouth like that?
With a mouth like that.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Quesadillas? What are you reading this week?
Author Matthew Quick's 2008 debut, The Silver Linings Playbook became a critically adored bestseller and was later adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2012. With three YA novels under his belt since then, including 2013's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Quick finally has a second adult novel hitting shelves next week!
The Good Luck of Right Now is sure to please fans of Quick's writing style: it's witty, candid and a little eccentric, yet it's balanced by the relatable humanity running underneath it all.
Bartholomew Neil is almost 40. He's never really had friends, a girlfriend or lived anywhere other than with his mother. When he loses her to brain cancer, Bartholomew decides to step out of the nest; he sets some life goals and ventures out into the world, befriending another misfit in group therapy and taking in his priest. Told in the form of Bartholomew's letters to Richard Gere and culminating in a big road trip, there is a near-guarantee that this book will bring some refreshing quirk to your TBR stack.
Watch Quick talk about The Good Luck of Right Now in this trailer from Harper.
What do you think, readers? Does this sound like a novel for you?
British novelist Jacqueline Winspear made a name for herself with a best-selling series starring an unconventional detective. Maisie Dobbs, a former maid who served as a nurse in the Great War, returned home to England to deal with her nation's troubled post-war psyche—and the resulting crimes.
But this year, Winspear is trying something new: She's written a novel set during World War I instead of after it, one that doesn't star her now-famous detective. The Care and Management of Lies (Harper) will be published in June. Its heroine, Kezia Marchant marries her best friend Thea's brother Tom just before the war breaks out. While Tom heads off to war, Kezia and Thea are caught up in the women's rights movement and struggle to hold onto the family farm.
Winspear is a perceptive writer with a historian's knowledge of the era she writes about. Even minus Maisie, her work should take readers on a fascinating ride. Will you read it?
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE
Read our 2005 interview with Jacqueline Winspear.
Tiffany Baker's delightful debut, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, was met with critical and audience acclaim when it was published four years ago. Baker's just-published third book, Mercy Snow, tells the stories of two disparate families living in a small New Hampshire town. Our reviewer declares Baker as "an expert in placing the reader into the souls of her characters. Readers will be eager to see what’s next from this talented writer." (Read our full review of the book.)
We were curious about the books Tiffany has enjoyed reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites. She graciously agreed, giving us not three recommendations, but four!
I’m one of those people who always has a minimum of two books going at once and stacks of books by my bed. Usually, I’m reading something for fun, something for research and then something because someone has recommended it as useful. Oh, and cookbooks. I like to browse those, too. Here’s what’s in my pile right now:
Delicate Edible Birds
By Lauren Groff
This is a short story collection that came out in 2009 and that I periodically dip in and out of. I am a huge fan of Lauren Groff. Her writing is simultaneously dreamy and precise, spare and lush, and she is very, very smart. I don’t usually love short stories, but the tales in this collection feel so complete and each one is so interesting. She rewrites the story of Abelard and Heloise, imagines the downfall of a dictator’s wife, and the title story, set in World War II, is simply amazing.
I’m late to the party with this one, I realize, but this book is so completely amazing. Kushner absolutely pulls off making you feel immersed in the tropical confusion of Cuba right before the revolution. Also, without spoiling anything, I can’t believe some of the gutsy character moves she pulls off—and gets away with. I’m totally envious of and pleased with this book. It’s one of those novels that gives you ideas in the best possible way.
Quiet: The Power of the Introvert
By Susan Cain
When two of your three children’s teachers tell you to read this book, you do, and I’m so glad that I am. It’s so easy to overlook the more introverted child, or to try to push them to be different, and it’s also so easy to put those pressures on yourself. This book reminds me that it’s easier to paddle with the current than fight against it. You’ll go much farther much faster.
A dear friend gave this to me for Christmas, and it’s everything you’d want in a cookbook. Gorgeous photographs, friendly and engaging writing, and oh my goodness, the food is to die for. I can’t wait to cook everything in it over the course of 2014—the perfect break from writing.
What do you think, readers? Will Mercy Snow—or any of Baker's recommended books—be going on your TBR list?
(Author photo by Lauren Drever)