Pity the quiet novel about family life. In an era when novelists are taught to write killer openings and the line between literary and genre fiction is increasingly blurred, it seems as if there’s no room for a contemplative novel that finds drama in quiet moments. Fortunately, such books are still being published, and one of the better examples is The Children’s Crusade, the new novel by Ann Packer (The Dive from Clausen’s Pier).
In her first collection of stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (2012), Megan Mayhew Bergman focused on the relationships between humans and animals. In her new collection, Almost Famous Women, Bergman focuses on the lives of real women who have been marginalized (or mythologized) in history. They include Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins at odds in life but not in body; Marion “Joe” Carstairs, a womanizing power boat racer; Allegra Byron, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont; and many other women whose stories are as captivating as they are obscure.
Reading Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl is a bit like listening to an older relative tell stories at Thanksgiving—and that’s a good thing. Because Addie Baum, the book’s 85-year-old narrator (who is telling her tales to her college-age granddaughter throughout the book), is one entertaining older relative.
In Anthony Doerr’s riveting novel, All the Light We Cannot See, we meet 16-year-old blind girl Marie-Laure and 17-year-old Nazi soldier Werner as they are hunkered down in separate corners of the French seaside town of Saint-Malo during the American liberation of the Nazi occupied city. Through alternating chapters that jump back and forth in time between 1934 and 1944, Doerr beautifully tells the story of two children doomed by the war and destined to meet.
Stephen King is really good at acknowledging the human grief that underlies so much horror, and how that grief can twist a person into something monstrous—Pet Sematary, anyone? This is one of the themes of his new hair-raiser, Revival.
Three books following unconventional lives make great picks for reading groups this month.
Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, never strays from the quiet, deceptive simplicity of its storytelling, and yet this persuasive portrait of a compelling woman blossoms into something greater than the sum of its parts. Set in a small town in County Wexford, Ireland, in the early 1970s, it is the story of a mother navigating the first, tentative days and months of a premature widowhood.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a novel that is both highly celebrated and much hated. Termed “diffuse” and “pretentious” by the likes of Virginia Woolf, the dense book is the subject of much debate within the literary community, with some dismissing it and others embracing it (but very few fully understanding it). Either way, it’s inarguable that Ulysses has made an indelible cultural mark since its publication in 1922. And the release of Maya Lang’s debut novel, The Sixteenth of June, provides more evidence of its lasting influence.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, March 2014
Alice Hoffman’s latest novel has the word “extraordinary” in the title for good reason: The best-selling author of The Dovekeepers has served up another historical novel that will dazzle readers until the last page.
Oak Park, Illinois, lies at the center of journalist and NPR contributor Rachel Louise Snyder’s riveting debut novel, What We've Lost Is Nothing. This community, situated on the border between Chicago’s declining, predominantly black west side and the affluent suburbs, precariously bridges those two enclaves, with all their racial, monetary and cultural disparities. The story opens just after one quiet cul-de-sac of homes—Ilios Lane—is shocked by an afternoon of home invasions, all eight families affected to varying degrees, from a single cell phone taken, to the loss of multiple electronic devices, to one house completely trashed.