4

‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams ****

I have wanted to read Eley Willams’ debut short story collection, Attrib., since it was first published, but have been unable to find a copy. I was delighted, therefore, when I was able to find her first novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, in my local library.

The Liar’s Dictionary tells two parallel stories, which revolve around the creation and revision of an unfinished dictionary, Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. The first of these stories takes place in 1899, where Peter Winceworth is ‘toiling away’, and has reached the letter ‘S’. He is feeling somewhat threatened by his colleagues, who are intent only upon the ‘regiment facts’, and decides to insert a series of mountweazels, completely fictitious words, into the dictionary.

Such mountweazels are often used to prevent copyright infringement, but Winceworth finds them fascinating, and begins to invent slews of his own; ‘fourteenth-century dignitaries from Constantinople and a small religious sect living in the volcanic Japanese Alps. More often that not, however, these false entries allowed him to plug a lexical gap, create a word for a sensation or a reality where no word in current circulation seemed to fit the bill. This ranged from waxing poetical about a disappointing novel – susposset (n.)… [to] larch (v.), to allot time to daydreaming.’

The present story takes place in the same physical office building which Winceworth once worked within. Here, we follow a young intern named Mallory, who is, in fact, the only member of staff in the office, aside from David Swansby, a relative of the original dictionary creator. Her job is to locate all of the mountweazels in the text, and remove them for the revised edition. As she finds more and more invented words, she ‘has access to their creator’s motivations, hopes and desires.’ She is entirely forbidden from adding modern words into the dictionary, too. Mallory’s narrative begins in a manner which amused and intrigued me: ‘David spoke to me for three minutes without realising I had a whole egg in my mouth.’

Mallory and Winceworth are both fully-formed and fascinating. Winceworth decided, in childhood, to cultivate a lisp, which his mother found ‘endearing’ and his father ‘ridiculous’; this has followed him into his adult life. Mallory is complex, coming to terms with her life, and nervous about whether she should reveal the existence of her girlfriend, Pip, to her boss.

I thoroughly enjoyed the observations which Williams made throughout the novel; David Swansby, for instance, ‘looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved.’ As Mallory begins to learn of Winceworth’s story, she reflects: ‘The more I thought about it at work, the more I liked the close-but-unreachable sound of 1900 and its neologisms, the words that entered mouths and ears and inkwells that year. Teabag, come-hither, razzmatazz. 1900 sounds like a lot more fun than 1899, and its note-taking lexicographers.’

The novel’s preface muses about what makes the ‘perfect dictionary’, which would, of course, be tailored to the individual reader. It comments that ‘a dictionary’s preface can act like an introduction to someone you have no interest in meeting’. I found this section relatively humorous, and felt that it nicely paved the way for the two stories to unfold. I very much liked the structural approach which Williams took, too; The Liar’s Dictionary follows the patterns and directives of a real dictionary: it ranges from the chapter heading ‘A is for artful (adj.)’ to ‘Y is for yes (exclam.)’.

Williams’ novel ‘celebrates the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language’, and she does this so well. It is clear that the author gets such joy from wordplay, and this was one of my favourite elements throughout the entire novel. There are moments of real brilliance here, and a lot of curious observances to be found. The Liar’s Dictionary is a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and playful read, which I had so much fun with.

4

‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’ by Mizuki Tsujimura

Lonely Castle in the Mirror (かがみの孤城), written by the Japanese author Mizuki Tsujimura and translated to English by Philip Gabriel, is a magical and moving coming-of-age story that was published by Doubleday only a couple of weeks ago. The novel won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 and has been lauded and praised by many since. I was planning on reading it as soon as I heard about it, so when the English translation was announced I was over the moon with joy.

English version published by Doubleday on April 22nd, 2021.

Before we get on with the story and my thoughts on it, it’s worth mentioning that this is a YA novel and its protagonists are junior high schoolers and not adults. It has already been likened with the quirky tales of Sayaka Murata (author of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings), while the Guardian has called it “the offspring of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and The Virgin Suicides” (cannot find a link, but this quote is all over the internet), but I feel both those comparisons don’t do the book any justice and only serve to mislead and possibly disappoint the reader who comes expecting something along the lines of the aforementioned books. As long as you know what sort of story this is, you will be able to truly enjoy it for what it is.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror borrows many western fairy tale elements and creates a whimsical and enchanting story that will certainly tag the heartstrings of many readers. If I had to compare it to another novel, that would definitely be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, although Lonely Castle goes in an entirely different direction.

Set in modern day Tokyo, the novel recounts the story of Kokoro (meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese) Anzai, a 13 year-old girl who, after a rather traumatic event that has left her unwilling to go to school, one day discovers that the mirror in her room is shining in a peculiar way. Upon examining the mirror, she gets transported through it to a castle, where she meets six more children around her age, as well as the Wolf Queen, who seems to be the person in charge. The Wolf Queen gives them about a year to find a key which will grant only one of them a wish. However, after the wish is granted, all of them will forget about the castle, the moments they have spent there and one another. The children can enter the castle through their mirrors at any moment they want, but they are forbidden to spend the night there, although they each have their own rooms in the castle. If they overstay, then the wolf will come out and devour them.

As the story progresses, we learn more about each teenager, all of whom refuse to go to school for their own reasons, and we follow them as they get to know one another and discover that they are not alone in whatever they are going through. The narration is in third person, but we follow Kokoro’s point of view as she reveals more and more about the incidents that made her unable to go to school, and as she unravels the mystery of the castle along with her new friends.

I really loved the fairy tale elements and the magical atmosphere that Tsujimura creates, as well as the way she uses those fantastic elements to talk about real-life problems that many of us will have also experienced as teenagers. Through the themes of friendship, bullying, losing people close to you, social insecurity etc., Tsujimura explores what it is like to be an outsider, to not be able to fit it and to find friendship and meaningful connections even when you least expect it.

Japanese cover of the novel, originally published in May 2017.

There is also the underlying mystery of the castle and its goings-on, which I also found quite interesting (can never resist a good mystery!), although I was able to figure out most of its solution pretty early on. It definitely gave the novel a unique flair, though, engaging the reader and keeping them eager to uncover the mystery. I also really liked the seven teenagers, I thought they were all unique and I was eager to know more about their specific circumstances and what led them to be invited to the castle.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is almost a 400-page novel, and I have to admit that it does drag on at times, especially during the middle. The writing is simple, as is the case with many Japanese novels, so if you’re looking for flowery and poetic language, this book is not for you. The translation is very well done (as is to be expected by a renowned translator like Gabriel), but there are still some nuances and cultural differences that readers may need to be aware of when reading. For example, in many scenes we see Kokoro or the other children staying silent and not talking back when scolded or reprimanded, even if they are not in the wrong. Although this attitude isn’t very common in the western world, it is quite common in Japan.

According to the Publisher’s Note at the end of the book, Japanese children’s mental health is second to last among 38 developed and emerging countries, a fact that is shocking and alarming, yet one that makes this book even more important for all the teenagers and young adults that are going through difficult times for one reason or another. No wonder, then, that Tsujimura’s novel resonated with so many young Japanese people, and I’m certain it’s going to equally resonate with many young people outside Japan as well.

Literature has the power to pull you out of the darkness, even momentarily, offer you consolation and company, and show you that most problems have solutions. The castle in the mirror was a much-needed escape for Kokoro and the other six teenagers, a way out of their gloomy daily lives and unbearable circumstances, much like what literature and even more so fantasy literature is to all of us. However, while providing this escapist quality, the castle (and fantasy) equips the children with the necessary means to pluck up their courage, face their fears and dispel what makes their reality unbearable. In the end, this is exactly what this book does, too – it works as an anchor, as a speck of light, as a warm hug that gives its readers the necessary courage to fight their own battles and face their own unpleasant realities, creating their own path in life.

Overall, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a wonderful and magical tale, deeply rooted in reality despite its fairy tale and fantasy elements. It’s a heart-warming and touching novel that will resonate with many, regardless of their age, as we can all see a part of ourselves in Kokoro, Aki, Rion, Masamune, Ureshino, Subaru or Fuka, the seven students.

This also serves as my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, the month-long event that runs through May, celebrating fantasy and the fantastic. If you’d like to learn more about it and sign up, head over to this post.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

3

‘Liminal’ by Bee Lewis *****

I was not planning on breaking my book buying ban (again…), but I ended up ordering a copy of Bee Lewis’ Liminal, along with Eleanor Anstruther’s fascinating A Perfect Explanation.  The publisher of both novels, Salt Books, was asking for everyone to buy one book during the pandemic, as their business was suffering.  I set out to just choose one, but could not decide which I would rather read, so both novels landed on my doorstep a week or so later.

37810194._sx318_I was immediately drawn to Liminal when I started to read its Gothic-sounding blurb.  I very much enjoy reading deliberately unsettling books, and had not picked one up in quite some time.  Liminal, therefore, sounded perfect.  It focuses on Esther, a pregnant woman whose leg was amputated after a childhood accident, and her husband, Dan.  The pair are travelling from their former home in Bristol to start a new life in the remote Scottish Highlands, restoring a former train station, which has been abandoned for decades.

We follow Esther ‘as her marriage, life and body begin to dramatically change’.  Due to her disability, she often feels isolated; this is exacerbated by the rough and uneven terrain around their new home, and its remote position.  A deep snowfall, which arrives soon after the couple do, also makes movement more difficult to Esther.  Early in the novel, she thinks back to her home in Bristol, uncertain about having left everything which she is so comfortable with behind: ‘The city was her touchstone, its roads were rooted in her veins, its houses in her cells.  Yet she’d agreed to leave her sanctuary, trading the strident city streets for the cool mountain air and yawning expanse.  She’d heard her rational self trotting out the reasons why: new life, fresh start, fantastic opportunity, support for Dan.  But she couldn’t just ignore the small voice deep inside her that invaded her dreams and called her out for the coward she was.’

Lewis’ beautiful prose highlights all that is bleak around Esther: ‘The bone-numbing wind tried to breathe new life into the ancient landscape, but Spring was not yet ready to be roused and instead pulled a cloak of frost around her.’  One of my favourite parts of the entire novel was the way in which the landscape is personified; it is a character in itself, and it lives and adapts throughout the novel.  Lewis’ writing is continuously dark, descriptive, and haunting, but never does it feel repetitive or overdone.

Even the elements of magical realism – ‘Gothic fantasia’, as they are termed in the novel’s blurb – blend in seamlessly with the realistic.  Esther awakes one morning, for instance, naked and outside, ‘on a bed of bracken’.  Lewis describes the experience, with striking imagery, as follows: ‘The metal shaft of her right leg was cold against her skin…  This was bad.  She had to get back home, back to Dan, back to safety, but nothing looked familiar to her and a growing dread burrowed into her stomach.  She ran her hands over her body, checking for injuries as she stood up, hunching her shoulders and stooping low to the ground, conscious of her nakedness.  Her moth tasted of iron as the fear she felt fused with her blood.  The trees loomed in towards her, closing ranks, surrounding her on every side.’

The span of Liminal, which takes place over a single week, works wonderfully.  The atmosphere and pressure grow exponentially.  We learn early on that something is not right within Esther and Dan’s marriage, and that it has not been so for a long time.  They are grieving both the death of a friend and a miscarriage, and Esther cannot quite believe that she has been given another chance to become a mother.

From the outset, Liminal felt like a novel which I would love.  This feeling grew stronger as I continued to read it, and I quickly got to the stage where I could not bear to put it down. I sank into the writing; I was totally absorbed within it.  For a debut novel, Liminal is nothing short of a masterpiece.  There are so many elements here which soar.  Lewis has such an understanding of Esther, and focuses on her strengths whilst also being continually aware of her limitations as a disabled woman.  I am so looking forward to reading whatever Lewis publishes next, and am almost certain that whatever her main subject is, it will be handled with finesse and compassion.

2

Two Novels: ‘Dancing Backwards’ and ‘The Word for Woman is Wilderness’

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers ****

I cannot help but feel that British author Salley Vickers is somewhat underrated.   I have not seen many reviews of her work online, or on platforms like BookTube, and her works tend to have rather low overall ratings on Goodreads.  However, she is an author whose work I have very much enjoyed since first picking up Miss Garnet’s Angel back in 2012.

6918121I picked up one of her novels, Dancing Backwards, when my library first reopened for browsing, having been shut for four months due to the pandemic.  Stuck in one place, with little opportunity to travel, I decided that I wanted to read as many books about journeys as was possible.  Dancing Backwards, therefore, seemed perfect.  The protagonist of the piece, a woman named Violet Hetherington, is travelling to New York by ship, to meet an old acquaintance.  Her journey is as much an inner one as a physical one; thus, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s early masterpiece, The Voyage Out.

As ever, Vickers’ prose is remarkably vivid from the outset.  Her writing is intelligent, and it has a lot of depth to it.  She never loses the focus of Violet, but is astute at writing about her surroundings, and of the other characters who are taking the same journey.  Violet feels wholly realistic; we learn about her past and present, and her hopes for the future, through the many vignettes which make up the novel’s structure.  She can be rather an acerbic woman, and I enjoyed her dark humour.  Vickers wonderfully charts Violet’s relationships, and deftly handles the way in which the narrative moves back and forth in time.  Dancing Backwards is a wonderful novel about taking chances, and being true to oneself.

 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews ****

I also picked up Abi Andrews’ novel, The Word for Woman is Wilderness, on the same library visit.  It has been on my radar for quite some time, and I was so interested in the plot and somewhat unconventional structure.  The novel takes as its focus a nineteen-year-old woman named Erin, who has never strayed too far from her Midlands home.  She decides, however, to take an epic journey to the wilds of Alaska, travelling via Iceland, Greenland, and Canada to do so.

Throughout, Erin details her experiences of travelling and living in rather hostile 36279988._sy475_environments, and those who help her along the way.  Inspired on her journey by the rather infamous Chris McCandless, she comments: ‘Travelling by sea and land will be an Odyssean epic, only with me, a girl, on a female quest for authenticity.’  She films her own documentary as she goes too, which was an authentic-feeling way for Andrews to shoehorn in a lot of cultural commentary.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness is a fascinating and thought-provoking piece of ecofiction, which held my attention from its very beginning.  I loved the numerous different approaches used here, from transcripts from the documentary, to philosophical musings.  Erin is a wonderful character, who comes to rely entirely upon herself, and does so with a great deal of realism.  There are many moments of profundity throughout, and the originality which Andrews has managed to create in this, her debut, is quite astounding.

5

‘All the Beggars Riding’ by Lucy Caldwell ****

I have been blown away by Irish author Lucy Caldwell’s short stories in the past, and have been keen to pick up one of her novels, to see how the form compares.  All the Beggars Riding was the first which I picked up, as I was kindly gifted a copy for my birthday.  The novel is Caldwell’s third, and was first published in 2013.18164399

All the Beggars Riding focuses upon Lara Moorhouse and her younger brother Alfie, who grew up in London during the 1970s and 1980s.  Their father worked as a plastic surgeon in Northern Ireland for part of each week, helping to reconstruct the faces of those injured in bombing attacks during the Troubles.  He then spent a day or two in an exclusive Harley Street practice.  When Lara’s father passes away in a helicopter crash, the truth about his life is revealed; he had another family, a wife and children, who lived in Belfast.  Lara’s mother ‘was, in fact, his mistress’.

The novel marks Lara’s attempts to confront her past, in which she makes herself revisit ‘troubling memories of her childhood to piece together the story of her parents’ hidden relationship.’  In the present day story, Lara is thirty-nine years old, and is grieving following the death of her mother.  Of this, she comments on the turmoil which she feels: ‘… inside, I was alternately blank and lurching with grief, thick and oily, like waves, that would rise up and threaten to swamp me utterly…  People kept saying, time will heal, and in a terrible, clichéd way, it does: every day life pastes its dull routines over the rawness, although the rawness is still there.’

The novel begins, rather specifically, on a Thursday morning in May 1972, with one of Lara’s memories: ‘Early morning, say six, or half six, but the sunlight is already pouring in, through the curtainless window set high in the slope of the roof…  You are standing, face upturned to the window, breathing in the sun.  I can see you, almost: if I close my eyes I can almost see you.’  I liked the way in which Lara occasionally addresses her childhood self, longing as she does to retain some memory of who she was.

One of my favourite elements of All the Beggars Riding was the emphasis which Caldwell places on the unreliability of memory.  Our narrator comments: ‘… lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory…  We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.’  Later, she muses: ‘But it seems to me that in too many books people’s memories come in seamless waves, perfectly coherent and lyrical.  Recollections come like that one just did to me, searing, intense and jagged from nowhere, burning bright when before there was nothing.’

The author certainly has a recognisable style; as with her short stories, she searches for the essence of her characters throughout All the Beggars Riding.  One gets a real insight into Lara’s thoughts and feelings, and her discomfort with writing a memoir: ‘For one thing, it’s gruesome using real people’s lives, real people’s deaths, to try and explain something of mine, I know.  The scales of suffering are incomparable.’

There is a lot to connect with within Lara’s story.  She longs to capture a realistic picture of her past self in this, her exercise of memory.  She probes into the past, often uncomfortably, asking a great deal of questions in her desperation to make sense of things.  I admired the way in which Caldwell, through Lara, went in search of her mother’s story, piecing together the concrete facts and imagining her thoughts and feelings.

I am always drawn to stories about families, particularly those in which there is an element of dysfunction within the familial structure, and I am pleased to report that All the Beggars Riding did not disappoint.  I was not as enamoured with the story as I am with much of her shorter fiction; Caldwell’s stories are perfect, truly.   Here, as in her other work though, her prose is thoughtful, and her protagonist realistic.  I did feel for Lara and her situation, her uncertain memories, and her fraught relationships with others.  I must admit that to me, though, the ending of All the Beggars Riding felt too neat, and was not entirely satisfying.

6

Armchair Travel: The USA (Part One)

I have been lucky enough to visit the United States on a few occasions, but given the sheer vastness of the country, I’m sure that there will always be states and cities which I really want to visit! I have collected together books from two states here, all of which I really, really want to go to, as soon as it’s safe. Part Two of this post will follow next month; there were just far too many books to choose from!

Georgia

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

‘With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist,” Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the teenage girls caught in the middle. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families– the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake, and like the best writers, Jones portrays the fragility of her characers with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.’

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry

‘The place is the Deep South, the time 1948, just prior to the civil rights movement. Having recently demolished another car, Daisy Wertham, a rich, sharp-tongued Jewish widow of seventy-two, is informed by her son, Boolie, that henceforth she must rely on the services of a chauffeur. The person he hires for the job is a thoughtful, unemployed black man, Hoke, whom Miss Daisy immediately regards with disdain and who, in turn, is not impressed with his employer’s patronizing tone and, he believes, her latent prejudice. But, in a series of absorbing scenes spanning twenty-five years, the two, despite their mutual differences, grow ever closer to, and more dependent on, each other, until, eventually, they become almost a couple. Slowly and steadily the dignified, good-natured Hoke breaks down the stern defenses of the ornery old lady, as she teaches him to read and write and, in a gesture of good will and shared concern, invites him to join her at a banquet in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. As the play ends Hoke has a final visit with Miss Daisy, now ninety-seven and confined to a nursing home, and while it is evident that a vestige of her fierce independence and sense of position still remain, it is also movingly clear that they have both come to realize they have more in common than they ever believed possible-and that times and circumstances would ever allow them to publicly admit.’

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

‘A sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling Southern city has become a modern classic. Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman’s Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the “soul of pampered self-absorption”; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.’

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future.’

Cane by Jean Toomer

‘First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work-part drama, part poetry, part fiction-powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. This iconic work of American literature is published with a new afterword by Rudolph Byrd of Emory University and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University, who provide groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer, place his writing within the context of American modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, and examine his shifting claims about his own race and his pioneering critique of race as a scientific or biological concept.’

Washington

The Light on the Islands: Tales of a Lighthouse Keeper’s Family in the San Juan Islands by Helen Glidden

‘Readers can once again enjoy Helene Glidden’s classic The Light on the Island, as this 50th Anniversary Edition retells the touching story of a young girl growing up on Patos Island in the San Archipelago of Washington State. Her parents raised thirteen children while her father served as the Patos Island lighthouse keeper from 1905 – 1913. Helene reminisces about the adventure and heartbreak experienced on a beautiful but remote island where smugglers, old timers, and “God” weave in and out of their lives.’

Freaky Green Eyes by Joyce Carol Oates

‘Sometimes Franky Pierson has a hard time dealing with life. Like when her parents separate and her mother vanishes, Franky wants to believe that her mom has simply pulled a disappearing act. Yet deep within herself, a secret part of her she calls Freaky Green Eyes knows that something is terribly wrong. And only Freaky can open Franky’s eyes to the truth.’

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from my Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

‘When Molly Wizenberg’s father died of cancer, everyone told her to go easy on herself, to hold off on making any major decisions for a while. But when she tried going back to her apartment in Seattle and returning to graduate school, she knew it wasn’t possible to resume life as though nothing had happened. So she went to Paris, a city that held vivid memories of a childhood trip with her father, of early morning walks on the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter and the taste of her first pain au chocolat. She was supposed to be doing research for her dissertation, but more often, she found herself peering through the windows of chocolate shops, trekking across town to try a new pâtisserie, or tasting cheeses at outdoor markets, until one evening when she sat in the Luxembourg Gardens reading cookbooks until it was too dark to see, she realized that her heart was not in her studies but in the kitchen. At first, it wasn’t clear where this epiphany might lead. Like her long letters home describing the details of every meal and market, Molly’s blog Orangette started out merely as a pleasant pastime. But it wasn’t long before her writing and recipes developed an international following. Every week, devoted readers logged on to find out what Molly was cooking, eating, reading, and thinking, and it seemed she had finally found her passion. But the story wasn’t over: one reader in particular, a curly-haired, food-loving composer from New York, found himself enchanted by the redhead in Seattle, and their email correspondence blossomed into a long-distance romance. In A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, Molly Wizenberg recounts a life with the kitchen at its center. From her mother’s pound cake, a staple of summer picnics during her childhood in Oklahoma, to the eggs she cooked for her father during the weeks before his death, food and memories are intimately entwined.’

Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

‘Vocally graceful and fearlessly intimate, Steal The North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s remarkable debut novel, is a strikingly beautiful portrait of modern identity, faith, family, and love in all its forms. Emmy Nolan is a sheltered and introverted sixteen-year-old living in Sacramento with her mom, Kate, when a phone call comes from an aunt she never knew existed. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her only sibling, Beth, fleeing their tiny eastern Washington town and the fundamentalist Baptist church that had condemned her as a whore. Beth, who’s pregnant for what she knows is the last time after countless miscarriages, believes her only hope to delivering the baby is Emmy’s participation in a faith healing ceremony. Emmy reluctantly goes. Despite uncovering her mom’s desperate and painful past, she soon finds she has come home–immediately developing a strong bond with her aunt Beth and feeling destined to the rugged landscape. Then Emmy meets Reuben Tonasket, the Native American boy who lives next door. Though passion-filled and resilient, their love story is eerily mirrorThed by the generation before them, who fear that their own mistakes are doomed to repeat themselves in Emmy and Reuben. This is a marvelously imaginative and deeply felt debut, one whose characters live at nearly intolerable levels of vulnerability. Yet, as fragile as they may seem, Bergstrom has imbued them with a tremendous inner strength, proving that the question of home is a spiritual one, that getting over the past is hope for the future, and that the bond between family is truly unbreakable.’

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

‘Set against the backdrop of one of the most virulent epidemics that America ever experienced-the 1918 flu epidemic-Thomas Mullen’s powerful, sweeping first novel is a tale of morality in a time of upheaval. Deep in the mist-shrouded forests of the Pacific Northwest is a small mill town called Commonwealth, conceived as a haven for workers weary of exploitation. For Philip Worthy, the adopted son of the town’s founder, it is a haven in another sense-as the first place in his life he’s had a loving family to call his own. And yet, the ideals that define this outpost are being threatened from all sides. A world war is raging, and with the fear of spies rampant, the loyalty of all Americans is coming under scrutiny. Meanwhile, another shadow has fallen across the region in the form of a deadly illness striking down vast swaths of surrounding communities. When Commonwealth votes to quarantine itself against contagion, guards are posted at the single road leading in and out of town, and Philip Worthy is among them. He will be unlucky enough to be on duty when a cold, hungry, tired-and apparently ill-soldier presents himself at the town’s doorstep begging for sanctuary. The encounter that ensues, and the shots that are fired, will have deafening reverberations throughout Commonwealth, escalating until every human value-love, patriotism, community, family, friendship-not to mention the town’s very survival, is imperiled. Inspired by a little-known historical footnote regarding towns that quarantined themselves during the 1918 epidemic, “The Last Town on Earth” is a remarkably moving and accomplished debut.’