Since its publication in 2009, Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine) has sold 1.3 million copies. That's some debut!
Well, Ford is finally following up on his success: Songs of Willow Frost will be published September 10. Like Hotel, Songs of Willow Frost is historical fiction and features a Chinese-American character and a childhood friendship. This time, though, the story is set in the 1920s and 1930s, where a lonely young boy looks for the mother he longs for. From the publisher description:
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.
Did you read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? Will you be looking for Songs of Willow Frost?
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Morrow • $14.99 • ISBN 9780061950728
published April 2013
Was anyone else obsessed with Joan Lowery Nixon's Orphan Train series as a child? It surprises me that there have been so few novels published about this fascinating historical event. From the 1850s up through 1929, children from orphanages on the East Coast were shipped en masse to the Midwest, where they were taken in by strangers. These journeys would incorporate several stops, and at each, the children would be lined up and inspected by strangers. Those not chosen would reboard the train and continue to the next city, to endure that hope and humiliation again. At best, the adopted children became members of the family. At worst, they were treated as virtual slaves—abused, overworked and kept out of school.
In her fifth novel, Christina Baker Kline takes on this little-known slice of American history. Orphan Train intertwines the story of one of these children—Vivian Daly—with that of Molly, a modern young woman who is also an orphan and an outsider. As the two develop a friendship, Vivian shares her story with Molly, finding some sort of healing along the way.
"Get a good night's rest," Mrs. Scratcherd calls from the front of the car. "In the morning you will need to be at your very best. It is vital that you make a good impression. Your drowsiness might well be construed as laziness."
"What if nobody wants me?" one boy asks, and the entire car seems to hold its breath. It is the question on everyone's mind, the question none of us is sure we want the answer to.
Mrs. Scratcherd looks down at Mr. Curran as if she's been waiting for this. "If it happens that you are not chosen at the first stop, you will have several additional opportunities. I cannot think of an instance . . ." She pauses and purses her lips. "It is uncommon for a child to be with us on the return trip to New York."
What are you reading this week?
Z by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250028655
Published March 26, 2013
Why are we so obsessed with the writers of the '20s and '30s? Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris—it seems we can't get enough of our darling drunk writers of the Jazz Age.
This is just one of the few things I chatted about with Therese Anne Fowler, author of the upcoming Zelda Fitzgerald novel, Z, for an interview for the April issue of BookPage. Fowler, who started working on Z before our Jazz Age resurgence, called it "radio waves in the zeitgeist."
If you're looking for dishy tales of crazy Zelda and drunken Scott, this isn't your book. You get some of that, certainly, but Fowler, through meticulous research, has crafted a Zelda you might not expect: She's complex, confused, ambitious, impulsive—and naive. You'll have to wait till April to hear more!
To tide you over, here's an excerpt from a contentious moment between Scott and Zelda in the early 1920s:
Scott walked in just as I was hanging up the phone.
I said, "Griffith had his secretary phone to say you just don't have what it takes for the job. Looks like you're out of luck."
He stripped off his gloves nonchalantly, then his coat, then let all of it drop to the floor behind him. His hat remained on his head. "You should choose your pronouns more carefully," he said. His voice was loose. "We are out of lucky. We're ruined, in fact."
"What are you saying? You're drunk."
"I'm drunk, and we're broke. Aren't pronouns fun?" Then he pulled his pockets inside out for effect. "I can't even buy us lunch."
"Go to the bank, then."
"No, I mean we have no money at all. Not in my pockets, not in my wallet, not in the bank. In fact, I had to borrow to pay for your coat."
"Borrow from who?"
"The Bank of Scribner, in this case, although sometimes I use the Bank of Ober."
I was confused. "Max and Harold lend you money?""Against royalties, or future earnings—it's all money I'm going to get eventually; just, eventually doesn't always arrive as quickly as I need it to."
I went to the closet, pulled the coat from its hanger, and shoved it at him. "Send it back!"
"Don't be ridiculous." He plopped down on the sofa. "You look fantastic in this coat. In fact, I think you should take off everything you're wearing and then put the coat on." His eyelids were drooping as he said this, and then they closed.
I watched him for a moment, thinking he'd fallen asleep. Then, without opening his eyes he said, "Don't hate me. I'm sorry. It's all for you."
Scott went on the wagon and finished his novel, The Beautiful and Damned, a story of a young society couple so indolent and overindulgent that they ruin themselves. His self-discipline impressed me, so much so that I was pregnant by February.
Are you looking forward to Z?
Well, it looks like our 2010 "Three years to Gabaldon" post was just about on target. Delacorte will release the eighth book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander saga, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, on December 10, 2013. Gabaldon will be speaking at this year's BEA author breakfast to support the book—and she's already posted a few excerpts on her website.
It has been more than 20 years since Gabaldon published the novel that started it all, The Outlander. The seven published novels have sold more than 20 million copies, and the universe has expanded to include three generations: the star-crossed, time-traveling lovers Claire and Jamie; their daughter Brianna, who was born in the 18th century but returned to the late 20th century with her husband; and their grandchildren Jem and Amanda. Then there are the dozens of peripheral characters, who "crop up in one book, disappear, and then return two or three books later. Someone barely mentioned in an early book may become pivotal in a later one," as our interviewer Rebecca Bain noted in her 2009 chat with Gabaldon. So it's certain that surprises are in store.
In other Gabaldon news, it looks as though opponents of Katherine Heigl as Claire can breathe easier. The Outlander series has recently been optioned for a TV series, not a film, as was previously reported. Showrunner Ron Moore, who has worked on Star Trek films and the TV series "Roswell," will helm the project, and the Starz cable network has signed on to develop the series, which means that seeing an actual pilot sometime this year is quite likely. (Gabaldon has an extensive FAQ section on this topic on her site.) Move over, "Game of Thrones."
ETA: Though BEA's website continues to list a pub date of December 10, Diana Gabaldon has informed us that the pub date is "still fluid." Updates to come!
Our readers chose M.L. Stedman's August debut, The Light Between Oceans, as their #2 book of 2012. We understand why. Set just after World War I, it's the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, who, after several failed attempts to have a child of their own, claim a baby that washes up on the island's shore. Stedman combines a complicated moral dilemma and an exotic Australian setting to create a compelling narrative—a story that is more interested in exploring "why" and "who" than "right" and "wrong." It's the sort of novel to inspire debate in your heart—or in your book club!
If you're one of the readers who voted for The Light Between Oceans and are looking for something to read next, here are some ideas.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan. Like Oceans, this is one of our favorite 2012 debuts, and like Oceans, it is a psychologically acute look at a very thorny moral dilemma. Dozens of survivors of a 1912 steamer sinking are adrift in one tiny boat. Who will survive—and what will they have to do to achieve that goal?
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. When the Sherbournes decide to adopt the child they find as their own, that one action drastically affects the residents of their small town. In Tom Franklin's atmospheric third novel, another missing girl sets the residents of a rural Mississippi town buzzing, bringing back memories of a similar case 20 years earlier and forcing two former friends to work together to uncover the culprit. It's a haunting story of secrets, regret and friendship.
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville. If the vivid descriptions of Australia captured your imagination, this Booker Prize shortlisted novel about the country's colorful beginnings would be a good book to try next. Following the unlikely friendship between British explorer Daniel Rooke and a young aboriginal girl, it's based on a real-life story.
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. This debut novel was a word-of-mouth hit when it was published in the summer of 2005, and it also deals with a morally complicated situation: Dr. David Henry's decision to put one of his twin daughters in an asylum. After all, it's 1964, and children with Down syndrome are not considered able to be productive members of society. To spare his wife pain, he tells her that the child died at birth—but the wounds linger, haunting the family, even as the twins grow up unaware of each other's existence.
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Though this novel, Shriver's acclaimed follow-up to We Need to Talk About Kevin, is set in modern times, its thought-provoking structure should please fans of The Light Between Oceans. It's the story of Irina, who is presented with a choice on a night out in London: does she betray her partner of several years and kiss another man? From that moment, the novel is divided into two realities: one where Irina leaves staid Lawrence and embarks on a relationship with a charismatic snooker player, and one where she does not. Which is the better choice? It's up to the reader to decide.
Faith by Jennifer Haigh. Is there a more morally complex issue than the sexual abuse scandal that continues to rock the Catholic church? Haigh's sensitive, beautifully written fourth novel explores the fallout of this issue from a side not often seen: That of the accused abuser, Art, part of the close-knit McGann clan. Like Stedman, Haigh presents her characters without judgment, proving to the reader that nothing is black and white.
Readers, got any recs for fans of The Light Between Oceans? Find more "What to read next" posts here.
Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood
Europa Editions • $16 • ISBN 9781609450915
on sale March 2013
The debut novel from Kate Southwood is set in the 1920s Midwest, and opens just as a devastating tornado strikes a small town. As the residents of Marah, Illinois, sort through the wreckage, it becomes clear that only one family has escaped the storm's wrath. But the resulting hostility and anger focused on Paul Graves and his wife and children by their suffering neighbors may have even fiercer consequences.
Southwood's prose is vibrant and clear, and Falling to Earth's thrilling opening immediately draws in the reader with its brutal depiction of the power of nature.
Running the length of his own mutilated street, Paul tries to look straight ahead at what he's running toward. He can't make any sense of the nightmare vision, but neither can he look away. The cloud has been capricious: the houses on one side of the street have been knocked into piles of sticks, the bricks blown out of the sidewalks and trees snatched out of the ground like hanks of hair. On the other side, the houses are still standing, some shoved over sideways or twisted. Their roofs are mostly gone and the first fires have been touched off by the snapped electrical lines and cookstoves lying in the wreckage. A few of the people he passes walk naked, crazed, calling out names. An arm rests in the crotch of a tree. Paul tries again to shut out the grotesques, running toward home, running through the searing of his lungs, desperately afraid of arriving.
What are you reading this week?
I am so excited to share news of The Plum Tree with readers of The Book Case. This is a historical novel by debut author Ellen Marie Wiseman, a first-generation German American who was inspired by her mother's experiences in Germany during World War II. The book is on sale now.
In the novel, Christine lives in a German village and works for the Bauermans, a wealthy Jewish family. She falls in love with son Isaac Bauerman—but their lives are complicated in very painful ways when Isaac is arrested and sent to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany. But Christine is desperate to be with him as she's left on the home front.
Ellen's publicist shared with me why the author had to tell this story:
Ellen grew up listening to her German relatives tell tales of poverty, hunger, bombings, and constant fear—a time when the country was made up of women, children and the elderly struggling to stay alive while the men were drafted and sent off to fight. In writing the book, Ellen’s hope was to put a face on the countless destitute German women and children who lived and died under Hitler's regime, most often as victims of their government’s actions.
Here, you can see how the author's family history inspired the book. These are her own family photos and the captions and explanations are in her voice.
This photo was taken to send to Opa while he was off fighting on the Eastern Front. At one point during the four years Opa was gone, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. For two years my mother and her family had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day. Opa and his stories were the inspiration behind Christine’s father in The Plum Tree.
For years, Oma rang the bells every day to call the farmers in from the fields for Mittag Essen (the midday meal); every evening for prayer; and every Sunday morning for church service. During the war, the army took the bells down to be melted into bullets, a bomb hit the steeple, and the congregation, afraid to assemble without fear of being labeled traitors, met secretly in their homes. In The Plum Tree, this is the church were Christine attempts to expose an SS camp guard during the first service after the war was over.
My aunt’s face is bandaged because she tried to swallow fire after watching a fire-eater at a carnival. In The Plum Tree, Christine remembers her sister, Maria, doing the same thing.
My mother is wearing one of her best dresses; the rest were made from printed cotton sheets. The tall door behind them led to the goats’ indoor enclosure, which shared a wall with my great-grandparents’ first floor bedroom. The neighbor’s house (to the right of the tall door) shares a roof with my mother’s childhood home. This is the setting for Christine’s home in The Plum Tree.
Reader name: Larry
Hometown: Acton, MA
Favorite genres: historical fiction, history
Favorite books: Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks); Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosnay); Those Who Save Us (Jenna Blum); Truman (David McCullough); Mayflower (Nathaniel Philbrick)
Ah, historical fiction. There are so many wonderful choices! Chief among any list of recommendations should be the four historical novels written by Hilary Mantel—with a particular emphasis on Wolf Hall, a portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Both this novel and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker Prize. Read these books and be fully immersed in Henry VIII’s court.
Another good bet is The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, a novel set in France and Hungary during the 1930s and ’40s. Though a 600-plus-page story of the Holocaust may sound like difficult reading, Orringer’s old-fashioned epic is beautifully written and a powerful tale. We also loved The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, a story of trauma, love and hope set during the 1941 siege of Leningrad. In the story, a museum docent takes refuge in the Hermitage and creates a “memory palace” in her mind.
Finally, readers interested in American history should not miss two recent books about our third president. Master of the Mountain by Henry Wiencek confronts Jefferson’s relationship with slavery and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is an elegant biography by Jon Meacham. BookPage reviewer Roger Bishop wrote that it is “surely one of the best single volumes about him written in our time.”
For a chance at your own book fortune, email bookfortunes (at) bookpage (dot) com with your name, hometown and your favorite genre(s), author(s) and book(s). Also, visit bookpage.com/newsletters to sign up for Book of the Day, our daily book recommendation e-newsletter.
As part of our Best Books of 2012 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Part 12 Angry Men, part Lord of the Flies, Charlotte Rogan’s unforgettable debut is a haunting tale of survival. It’s 1914, and Grace Winter is sailing to America with her new husband in high style. But when the ocean liner sinks, she’s just one of many in an overcrowded lifeboat. How far will she go to survive? How far should one go? More than just a compelling “what would you do?” story, The Lifeboat is an acute psychological drama that fearlessly confronts existential questions without letting up on the suspense.
Read our review.
As part of our Best Books of 2012 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Hilary Mantel is a genius, full stop. Sequels often disappoint, but Bring Up the Bodies, which follows charismatic Thomas Cromwell through the waning years of Henry VIII’s ill-fated marriage to Anne Boleyn, is as spellbinding as its groundbreaking predecessor, Wolf Hall. In a remarkable act of literary ventriloquism, Mantel has created a singular hero: a man wholly of his time who is nonetheless relatable in ours.
BookPage's author page for Hilary Mantel.
The New Yorker profile of Mantel.