Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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Jodi Paloni on the transformative capacity of books

Jodi Paloni headshot

A year ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine. The neighbor boy counted my boxes of books as he helped load them from the house to the moving van. Fifty-one. His father asked me, “Do you actually read all these books?” I answered, “I either do, or maybe I will.” I flew off to organize the people upstairs, who asked more simple questions. “Should we mop the floors?”

A visitor to my new house commented, “You have more books than a person could ever possibly read. No, I mean it. It’s not even possible to read all of these books, one person, in one lifetime.”

So I thought about it. If I read two or three books per week (which happens only some of the weeks) that’s approximately eight to twelve books per month, so let’s say ten, which averages 120 books per year. I began to count my books. I looked around. One hundred and twenty books take up eight or nine linear feet on my shelves….

It doesn’t matter how many books. Books are not just for reading. They’re for viewing, touching, dusting, sorting, stacking, arranging, re-sorting, shelving, un-shelving. They’re a source of pleasure.

My husband has twenty-two screwdrivers, thirteen wrenches, and sixteen wood files.

My goat cheese-making friend keeps a couple of bucks around for kicks and, out of compassion, nurtures elder chickens that are all done laying eggs.

My daughter has 2,178 songs on her iPod.

That we are a species of excess is another topic. My point here is to say that we pay attention (and dollars) to what sparks passion, nourishes obsession, furnishes joy, soothes.

The other night, I climbed into bed with four books. I curled on my left side and spread them out, side by side, on top of the blanket where my husband sleeps: a book of poems with cover art that staggered me, two novels I was considering whether or not to finish, and a natural history book on corvids. I read the blurbs on the back of one of the novels. I read the acknowledgments inside the other. I admired the pen and ink drawings of crows and ravens on branches and in flight. I considered, once again, the book of poems. I picked it up, felt it, flipped through. I noticed the sound of quality paper between forefinger and thumb.

The cover of The Clock Flower by Adrian Rice, designed by Press 53’s editor, Kevin Morgan Watson, is thick and waxy. The art, by Jon Turner, depicts a pen and ink drawing: a dandelion seed and, standing to the right of it, a series of six human figures, lined up shoulder to shoulder, each wearing a suit–––males, let’s assume–––a boy growing into a youth, an adult, and eventually the drawing of a body stooping into an old man. Each head is represented by the life stages of a dandelion. The child’s head is the telltale toothed-leaf, the youth a bud, and so forth. The figure transforms–––the flower opening, the flower full, the seed-fluff, and finally the fluff scattering to the wind. There’s so much to think about what this image communicates. So, that night, I lay there thinking. Is this about how a person’s ideas change over time? Will the poems collected inside be about aging, grief, transformation? If the figures were female, would the flower have been placed to represent her heart, her hands, her womb? I set down the book of poems. I opened to my place in one of the novels and read the second chapter. After, I decided to let the novel go.

Jodi Paloni blog 2

During this time, all over the world, people were watching television, painting, milking cows, texting, waking up in a ditch, driving to shops and offices, defending their country, having sex, dancing  ballet, eating a calzone. My husband was in his shop turning a bowl from the burl of a maple tree. I could hear my daughter laughing, Skyping with a friend who lives in Virginia.

We’re fortunate to have some choice in the design of our time. We do the work we love, get our educations, and collect. I collect books. I also collect heart-shaped stones, clouded apothecary bottles, snail shells, small ceramic pitchers, and tiny used artifacts of whimsy that I arrange on a wooden shelf. I collect beautiful paper. I could collect antique tools, bicycles, CDs, vintage coffee pots, Frye boots, Victorian-era floor lamps (well, I do have a few of these), buoys, tea cups, paintings, orchids, Farmers Almanacs, beads, earrings, car parts, skiffs, license plates, baskets, matchbooks, military memorabilia, wooden birds, Breyer horses, iron hooks, or cheese graters. I collect books.

Many objects are pretty, touchable, stackable, arrange-able. Those fifty-one cartons of books (plus, the ones that I’d already moved in the car on an earlier trip) contained anywhere from 20-30 books. Add the new books I’ve acquired this year. I never did finish counting, but we’re talking about thousands. Books on nature, ecology, art, cottage décor, tiny houses and caravans, spirituality, gardening, and writing. My husband and I merge our collections of poetry and essays. We own a couple of dozen field guides between us. But, mostly, my books are works of fiction, and over half of those are short story collections.

Why books?

I can open up any one of any kind of books from my shelves, begin to examine and read, and something outside of my current state of awareness immediately shifts. I am “the self” found suddenly in juxtaposition with “the other.” Whether encountering the drawing of a rare moth, a journal entry from a woman sitting by the sea, or a description of a fictional town, I am catapulted into a world similar to or disparate from my own. I am made suddenly alert, brought up short by a line, an image, an idea, a whole nation of ideas. I shut the book in order to pursue a tangent. I sit down to read. What I like about books is their capacity for the boundless, the infinite, when caught in hands attached to an imagination.

Jodi Paloni blog 1

There exists a well-forged ideology that books are art, and that art is a necessity for a sane society. That books keep me sane is a personal truth I can defend. But I’d prefer to engage with the ingenuity of the artist, the writer, the aesthetics of the artifact, the design, the narrative, the mediation, the facts, the lyricism, the feet, the teeth, the wing on the page. I’d rather wage war, not in defending my need or want of fifty-plus boxes of books, but within the conflicted borders of my imaginary worlds. I want the conversation between the experience of the book and my way of understanding that experience to compel me into the next day and the next and the next, to do my work of writing books, editing books, making art, cooking dinner, taking the dog for a walk on the beach, all with a clearer vision than what I may have had without the book.

Not all books stay. I am sensible enough to know that when I cull, donate, trade, sell, recycle, I am opening space for more books to come in, and for old books to find new readers. Which brings me back to that one night in bed, that one book of poems, that compelling cover art.

Over time, I’ve come to understand what kinds of books have stood the test of time. The books that are memorable, or seem as though they one day might be, the ones that stay on my shelves, have taught me something worthy in a character’s choice, given me insight into the life of a non-human and still sentient being, or shown me the artful line of a building, the curve of a garden trellis, the shape of a sculpture. They’ve left some patterned mark on the page against a creamy space, the blankness having caught my eye. They’ve made me laugh, or cry, or shake with a powerful understanding.

I’d place myself on the cover of that book of poems, The Clock Flower, five flower heads from the left, still flowering, but with some poignant shape-shifting in near-view. I still need these books. Yet by letting a few of them go, it’s as if I’m beginning to see the beauty of flinging tiny-hooked fluffed seeds to the wind.

***

They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni is the author of the debut linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. Her website is www.jodipaloni.com

“Urgency. Please.” Writer Beth Kephart on the need for honest, relevant fiction

Beth Kephart

I need them urgent. I need them to persuade me of their relevance, to yank me by the hair, to stop me in my whirling tracks, to somehow give me faith (still, still) in this planet rotten with injustice.

I am a bore, I am a scold, I am no fun, excuse me and but:

There is a girl in the Gaza strip paralyzed neck to foot and (also) orphaned. There is an Ebola virus mad with intent. There is a lake that holds no water in California, a husband murdered by the cops, so many lost Syrians that we are losing count, disappearing birds, confounding politics, Salvadoran children running toward a country that will turn them back, a comatose boy in a hospital bed, a mother’s young son going blind and if, in this time, in this place, you ask me to understand narratives built merely to sell, stories packaged merely to distract, books sold merely on the basis of hollow hype—well, I can’t.

I’m sorry. I can’t.

I need my books urgent. I require the meticulously unveiled. I insist on purposeful, on stories that sizzle in. I need characters that help me believe that we human beings are capable of deep thinking, tenderness, complication, problems solved, humanity. Humans capable of humanity. That’s what I want. I need the books I read to give me signs of that.

Desperation—the news fills me with it. Intelligence—I’m desperate for that. For sentences that surprise me, structures that appease me, characters who give me something like truth, and something like hope, and something like proof that both are still possible, still available to us. Don’t talk down to me, don’t try to trick me, don’t fudge, don’t diminish, don’t pimp your characters or your storylines out. Don’t tell me the book before me is the next Eat, Pray, Love or the Hunger Games on steroids or Andrew Smith without the grasshoppers or the sideways, because imitation doesn’t sound like urgency to me. It doesn’t sound essential. It sounds nugatory and also pyrrhic; it sounds cruelly hollowed out.

There are people out there hurting. There is a planet splitting apart. If we, as writers, are going to make a difference, we have to stop writing toward headlines, toward gimmicks, toward sales, toward the inevitable flaming out. We have to know where we are living, and what is at stake, and what we can do about this here, and this now.

We must write the book that might proudly stand as the last book ever written, ever read.

Time is running out.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 18 books, including, most recently Going Over, a Berlin Wall novel (Chronicle Books), Nest. Flight. Sky.: on love and loss, one wing at a time (Shebooks), and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham).

Guest blogger Patry Francis: My first bookstore

Patry Francis

Patry Francis is a three time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and has twice been the recipient of a fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her latest book, The Orphans of Race Point, was published by Harper Perennial on May 6 to strongly positive reviews by critics and readers alike. It was chosen as a featured  alternate selection in the Late Spring cycle of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Book of the Month Club, and Mystery Guild. The Boston Globe chose The Orphans of Race Point as a “Summer Read” recommended for those who like Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and is the July book club pick for MomAdviceHer first novel, The Liar’s Diary, has been translated into seven languages and was optioned for film. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.         

Usually, when I give an author talk, I start by describing the bookstore I used to visit every Saturday from the time I was about fourteen. Initially, it seemed like a somewhat arbitrary way to begin, but one of the great truths that writing reveals is that every time we open a notebook or a new document, the subconscious reveals obsessions and truths we never knew we possessed, and they are rarely arbitrary. Every revision, or in this case retelling, makes that more clear.

But back to that bookstore. In a city of a hundred thousand, it was the only one we had and it sold used books. My father said it was a front for a local bookie, which may have explained the disarray I encountered when I walked down the cement steps to the basement level where it was housed, and the air of preoccupation exuded by the proprietor. He chain smoked while he talked on the phone, allowing what was often his sole customer the run of the place. The disorganized stacks of paperbacks that cluttered the aisles and lined the musty bookshelves might have turned others away, but I entered the store in the spirit of an excavator, and never left without a great find.

When I first found myself talking about a place I hadn’t consciously remembered in decades, I focused on its seedy location and how I’d once been frightened by a man drinking from a paper bag under a bridge along the route. “What are you looking for down here, little girl?” he asked as he lunged toward me. I can still remember the fear I felt as I ran away. However, his question has also remained.

Did I know myself what drove me to walk under that bridge every Saturday, with a couple of dollars in my pocket? That bookstore, I told my audiences, was what had made me a writer.

However, as I continued to repeat the story in the various libraries and bookstores that were kind enough to have me, I saw something more clearly than the face of the man who had frightened me under the bridge. I saw the tattered covers of several books I’d discovered there, the price marked in the corner in heavy black ink:

Franny and Zooey with its no-frills white cover: 35 cents. That led me to the library where I discovered the rest of Salinger’s work.

A musty, waterstained copy of Les Miserables: 10 cents. It is still among my favorite novels.

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was unmarked, and when I asked the price, the owner flipped through the pages. “Hell, it’s poetry,” he said, pushing it at me. “If you want to read that crap, you can have it.” I still do.

I spent a dollar on an almost new copy of The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Though I don’t remember much of it now, there are a dozen mentions in my adolescent journals about how it changed my life.

I wasn’t sure what Man’s Search for Meaning was about, but I knew I needed it. The slim mass market paperback was in less than pristine condition, so I haggled with the owner over the price.  Though he was usually willing to negotiate, this time he set his cigarette down in the ashtray and leaned over the counter. “Priced as marked,” he bellowed. “If you don’t want it, put it back on the shelf–right where you found it, too.” As if the store had a some secret order, after all.

The pages of that book are yellow now and marked with underlinings in various inks that mark different stages in my life, but I still have that one, too. Even the price on the cover remains: 75 cents.

I had probably told the story of my first bookstore a dozen times before I realized why it had returned to me now, and what it had to do with my novel. Clearly, I had been drawn to certain themes and questions all my life. The adolescent angst Salinger depicts so well, the rage against abandonment in Plath, the belief that our essential goodness can triumph even in the worst situations which I found both in Hugo and Frankel, all show up in The Orphans of Race Point.

I rarely write autobiographical fiction, but there is a reason we are drawn repeatedly to the same thematic landscapes, whether they’re drawn directly from experience or not. Like much of the creative process, it often remains one of the mysteries of the unconscious–at least for me. But every time I relive the walk to my first bookstore, and walk down the stairs to the subterranean room where a literary excavator unearthed so much of herself, I get a little closer.

Guest blogger Susan Jane Gilman: “What Am I Reading? Don’t Ask.”

Susan Jane Gilman  Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

Susan Jane Gilman has published three nonfiction bestsellers (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara) but June 10 marked the publication of her debut novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. It has received much acclaim already and is an Indie Next pick for June. (You can catch her on tour this week in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Providence, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) Gilman’s journalism has been published in countless magazines and newspapers, her stories have been published in literary journals like Story and Ploughshares, and her commentaries were heard regularly on NPR. She was born and raised in New York City, attended Brown University, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. 

Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” runs over five hundred pages, and I loved every one of them. But here’s what I remember: Pip’s nasty stepmother buttered only the top of a loaf of bread, so that each slice received just the thinnest wisp of butter along the crust. There was the pathetic woman with the mouldering wedding cake, Miss Havisham. And, oh yeah, an ingenue named Estella.

That’s it.

Five hundred pages and my takeaway is a slice of bread, a bad cake, and two women. I’d even forgotten that Pip was called “Pip.” I’d had to go back and look it up.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? One of my favorite books of all time. Yet here’s what I can recall of that classic: A cloud of yellow butterflies, hovering above an open-air bathroom. “Love in the Time of Cholera”? Fermina Daza. I think she was the protagonist.

“Corelli’s Mandolin?” Corelli. A mandolin. A girl on a beach.

“Beloved”? Slavery.

“Olive Kitteridge”? The fact that the main character was named — wait for it — Olive Kitteridge.

Really.

I am a literary fiction and nonfiction writer, with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.

Two of my bestselling books were memoirs. I have nearly total recall of the day when I was seven years old and our second-grade teacher, an eccentric, flame-haired New Zealander named Mrs. MacNuer, had us make stick puppets depicting humanoid dinosaurs; mine was a lime-green Stegosaurus with a peace medallion and a handbag. I can recall what the streets of China looked like in 1987, shrouded in ghostly, pearlescent fog, the air smelling of wood smoke and garlic while swarms of black bicycles emerged from the pollution and chugged around Tiananmen Square. My family calls me ‘the historian” due to my full, sensory memory of places, events, conversations. Butdon’t ask me about the novel I read recently. I’ll have even forgotten the author.

I am not proud of this. We writers are supposed to be encyclopedic and erudite, capable of speaking incisively about great books. Certainly, I believe I should be capable ofretaining the most basic elements of what I read. Certainly, I should be capable of quoting lines from the literature that’s become hard-wired into my central nervous system.

Certainly, I should beable to give you thumbnail synopses of the novels I’ve loved and championed over the years — from Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” to Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here,” to April Sinclair’s “Coffee Will Make You Black.” to Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife.” Surely, I should be ableto remember the plot from “The Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve only read the goddamn thing six or seven times. But no. I still cannot, for the life of me, tell you how it ends.

Last year, in Barnes and Noble, I came across a book about God written by Karen Armstrong. “Wow, this looks interesting,” I said to my husband. I read the endorsements on the back.

Turns out, one of them was from me.

I’d forgotten that I’d reviewed it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” several months earlier.

I’d worry that I have early-onset dementia, except that I’ve been this way since college.

And here is what is, perhaps, at the heart of the matter: Books, for me, are like fever-dreams. When I read, I am completely and utterly consumed by them. The rest of the world falls away. Caught in a riveting story, I’ll abandon my own writing, leave the laundry sopping in thewasher, ignore my mounting emails. I’ll move through my days in slow-motion, my thoughts bifurcated between the objects directly in front of me and the luminous otherworld that has takenover my brain. I feel addicted, unseeing. If anything distracts me from my fugue state, all I want todo is get back to that book.

But then, when I read the final sentence, and wistfully close the cover and set the book back down on my nightstand, it’s like a hypnotist snapping her fingers. Suddenly, I’m back in reality. And like a dream — even the best, most delicious dream — the book recedes so quickly that I am left with only fragments, glimpses of what I loved, surreal and ephemeral shards. A Russianadultress’ fingers, heavy with emeralds. A tumbleweed dancing end over end in an apocalyptic field. Ted Lavender. A tug boat storm-tossed in the straits of Japan.

Two days later, when you ask me what I’ve read, I’ll enthuse, “Oh, I just finished this phenomenal novel. It was set in an Indian reservation. With this devastating car scene between amother and son? And a tower?”

But for the life of me, I won’t be able to tell you what it was!

 

The Top Ten Novels of 2014 (So Far)

As we near the halfway point of 2014, Top Ten Tuesday has asked book bloggers to share their ten favorite/best novels so far this year. Here are my favorites (listed alphabetically by author’s last name); I can’t honestly say they’re the “best” because there are so many novels I haven’t read.

(The hot links will take you to my recent reviews. I have also done interviews with Molly Antopol, Cara Hoffman, Laline Paull, and Mary Vensel White. My interview with Laura McBride is coming this week.)

The UnAmericans

The UnAmericans — Molly Antopol (Feb. 3)

Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street* — Susan Jane Gilman (June 10)

Be Safe I Love You

Be Safe I Love You — Cara Hoffman (April 1)

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise — Laura McBride (June 3)

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You* — Celeste Ng (June 26)

Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird — Helen Oyeyemi (March 6)

The Bees

The Bees — Laline Paull (May 7)

Home Leave

Home Leave* — Brittani Sonnenberg (June 3)

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun — Natalia Sylvester (June 3)

qualities-of-wood-pb-

The Qualities of Wood — Mary Vensel White (June 17)

* Discussed in my May 26 Summer Reading Preview (reviews to come).

 

Recent Releases on TBR List (some of which may make the revised Top Ten list on June 30 — watch for my upcoming reviews)

Ruby — Cynthia Bond

Abroad — Katie Crouch

The Chronicle of Secret Riven — Ronlyn Domingue

What is Visible — Kimberly Elkins

The Book of Unknown Americans — Cristina Henriquez

The Last Illusion — Porochista Khakpour

Euphoria — Lily King

The Frangipani Hotel — Violet Kupersmith

The Sixteenth of June — Maya Lang

The Other Language — Francesca Marciano

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste — Valerie Martin

 

This is also a good time to preview some of the books that will be published later this month and over the summer. I’ll be reviewing most or all of them in the next couple months.

Upcoming Releases on my TBR List (discussed in my May 26 Summer Reading Preview)

Life Drawing — Robin Black

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing — Mira Jacob

Mambo in Chinatown — Jean Kwok

Rainey Royal — Dylan Landis

The Home Place — Carrie La Seur

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai

Land of Love and Drowning — Tiphanie Yanique

Summer Reading Preview: 25 can’t-miss reads

Although Summer doesn’t technically begin until June 21, for most people (alright, most North Americans)  it begins in early June when school gets out or Memorial Day weekend is behind them. That means it’s time to preview the many intriguing female-authored novels arriving in the next three months. For once, readers might actually have the time to read most of the books on their TBR (to be read) list. Here are 20 novels worth looking into. 

Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun – Natalia Sylvester (Amazon/New Harvest, June 3)

Sylvester’s debut is the story of Andres and Marabella, a long-married couple living amidst the social and political upheavals of Lima, Peru. Andres thinks she has left him again, but he soon learns that terrorists have kidnapped her. How far is he willing to go to get her back? Is their troubled marriage worth saving? Andres works with a mediator to negotiate for her release, all the while caring for their two young children.

Home Leave

Home Leave – Brittani Sonnenberg (Grand Central Publishing, June 3)

The Krigstein family has lived a peripatetic existence, following husband and father Chris’s job to such far-flung locales as Berlin, Singapore, and Shanghai, before eventually settling in Madison, Wisconsin. Wife Elise has enjoyed the advantages of a clean slate every few years, while their daughters have developed an extremely close bond to cope with the constant change. When the family is rocked by a stunning loss, their lives and lifestyle are called into question. Extra bonus: Sonnenberg writes like a house on fire. The opening chapter alone is worth the price of this book.

Sixteenth of June

The Sixteenth of June – Maya Lang (Scribner, June 3)

Lang’s debut novel examines the intimately connected lives of a young married couple and the husband’s young brother over the course of one summer day in Philadelphia. Both a close observation of twenty-somethings and a satire of ambitions dreamed, thwarted, and abandoned, The Sixteenth of June pays tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses with its single-day time frame and the characters’ attendance at a Bloomsday party.

We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to Rise – Laura McBride (Simon & Schuster, June 3)

A wide cast of characters, whose lives appear to be falling apart, struggle to survive in Las Vegas during its recent boomtown years. Seemingly unconnected, their paths eventually cross. At the center of this compelling novel are an 8-year-old Albanian immigrant boy, a middle-aged woman whose marriage has just imploded, a lawyer who volunteers as a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate for children), and a recently returned Iraq War veteran. As the title suggests, together they find a way to rise above their troubled circumstances and repair their damaged lives. Haunting and inspiring in equal measure and beautifully written.

The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans — Cristina Henriquez (Knopf, June 3)

When their fifteen-year-old daughter Maribel sustains a traumatic brain injury, the successful Rivera family decides to leave everything they have achieved in Mexico behind to go to the United States so Maribel can attend a special school and receive state of the art treatment. They end up living in a dilapidated apartment building that is home to struggling and ambitious immigrants from nearly every Latin American country. The voices of the residents explore what it means to be an “unknown American” while believing intensely in the American dream. The novels is enriched by Panamanian immigrant Mayor Toro’s love for Maribel, which leads to a close relationship between the Toro and Rivera families. This is a sweet, compassionate, and hopeful story.

Euphoria

Euphoria — Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 3)

King made a big splash with her debut novel, The Pleasing Hour, in 1999, and has written several other notable novels in the last 15 years. Euphoria, based in part on the life of Margaret Mead, explores a love triangle among three anthropologists in New Guinea during the 1930s. Englishman Andrew Bankson is ready to call it quits when he encounters Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen, who have just been through their own trauma. The three anthropologists are re-energized by their professional and personal chemistry and the discovery of a matriarchal tribe. But conflicts soon arise, jeopardizing their important work and their friendship.

What is Visible

What is Visible — Kimberly Elkins (Twelve Books, June 3)

Elkins brings to life the young woman who was reputed to be the second-most famous in the world in the 19th century. Laura Bridgman lost four of her five senses due to scarlet fever at age 2. She was Helen Keller before the Keller herself came along, and they had much in common. Elkins explores Bridgman’s amazing life and the reasons Keller became the poster child for overcoming profound disabilities while the woman whose experience laid the groundwork for Annie Sullivan’s success with Keller faded into obscurity. Listen to Kimberly Elkins interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition here.

All Day and a Night

All Day and a Night – Alafair Burke (Harper, June 10)

The latest installment in the Ellie Hatcher detective series, All Day and a Nightis Burke’s tenth police procedural thriller. When a Brooklyn psychotherapist is found murdered, her husband is the prime suspect. But an anonymous caller knows that her body was abused in a way that matches the trademark of a serial killer who has been imprisoned for 20 years. The killer maintains his innocence, and now it appears that the actual killer is still at loose. Of course, the plot is far thicker than a brief synopsis can convey. As with Burke’s previous thrillers, All Day benefits from Burke’s years as a prosecutor. Her work is also distinguished by the presence of strong and realistic female characters.

Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street — Susan Jane Gilman (Grand Central Publishing, June 10)

One of the most highly anticipated books of the summer, Gilman’s first novel is a multi-faceted fictional biography of a life that parallels many of the key events of the 20th century. Russian immigrant Malka Treynovsky arrives in the Lower East Side of New York City as a child and is soon crippled in an accident with an Italian ice vendor’s horse cart. When her poor and desperate parents abandon her, the vendor adopts her, changes her name to Lillian, and teaches her the business. Eventually she marries and takes over the business, which she and her husband, Albert Dunkle, rapidly expand. In time, Lillian Dunkle’s chain of ice cream stores is the most successful in America. She is famous not only as the ambitious queen of the Dunkle empire but also as a charming television personality. In reality, Lillian is an imperious and opinionated force to be reckoned with and a character that readers will both admire and despise.

The Quick

The Quick — Lauren Owen (Random House, June 17)

Looking for a literary mystery dripping with atmosphere and strong sense of place? The Quick might be your book. Set during the Victorian era in both Yorkshire and London, this suspenseful Gothic thriller about a brother and sister is full of twists and turns, shocks and surprises. Yet another strong debut novel.

Abroad

Abroad — Katie Crouch (Sarah Crichton Books, June 17) 

Abroad is the second novel in less than a year to take the experiences of American college student Amanda Knox as a starting point (Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois was published in October 2013; see my review here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-4g). Knox is the foreign exchange student in Italy who was charged with the murder of her British roommate, with the motive centering on a romantic triangle gone wrong. She was convicted and spent four years in an Italian prison before an appeals court overturned the ruling and released her in late 2011. She returned to Seattle to watch a second trial proceed without her presence, resulting in a guilty verdict and  a sentence of 28 years. She remains in the U.S. With Abroad, Crouch has fashioned a coming-of-age-in-Italy story about a British college student who is pulled into a group of thrill-seeking girls hungering for every experience they can squeeze out of their year abroad. Her roommate, an American, is concerned, but when they both fall for the same Italian boy, everything gets very complicated very fast. Abroad is a dark, lurid tale of privilege, friendship, passion, and betrayal.

Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown – Jean Kwok (Riverhead, June 24)

Kwok, the author of the highly regarded Girl in Translation, tells the story of 22-year-old Chinatown resident Charlie Wong. She is leading a dreary life, working as a dishwasher, when she lands a job at a ballet studio. Charlie, as it turns out, has her own dancing talent. But her family is Old World Chinese and disapproves. Then her sister becomes seriously ill, and a conflict arises between Eastern treatment and Western medicine.

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, June 24)

When their middle daughter Lydia is found dead in a nearby lake, the marriage of Marilyn and James Lee, a Chinese-American family avidly pursuing the American dream, begins to unravel under the burden of James’s guilt and Marilyn’s determination to find the killer. Lydia’s older brother has his own theory about who killed her, but quiet younger sister Hannah may hold the key to solving Lydia’s murder and restoring the family’s delicate balance.

The Arsonist

The Arsonist — Sue Miller (Knopf, June 24) 

Miller has had a long and impressive career full of terrifically readable books. She returns with a story centering on arson in a small New Hampshire town. The intrigue centers on the fact that the arsonist is burning down only the houses of summer owners. This opens up a divide in the town’s social fabric as suspicions run wild like bushfires. The protagonist, Frankie Pomery, has returned to stay in her family’s summer home after 15 years in Africa, only to encounter the kind of trouble she thought she’d left behind.

Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing — Mira Jacob (Random House, July 1)

Comparisons to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable — and justified — with this debut novel about a dysfunctional middle class Indian-American family. Jacob’s novel is split between India and New Mexico, where brain surgeon Thomas Eapen and his wife Kamala reside.  Their daughter Amina, a photographer living in Seattle, returns home to find that a trip the family took to India 20 years earlier is having unforeseen ramifications.

Red Joan

Red Joan – Jennie Rooney (Europa Editions, July 1)

This historical novel is a character study based on the case of Melita Norwood, who was exposed at age 87 as a KGB spy who had spent decades in Great Britain. Rooney has crafted a psychologically astute portrayal that makes suburban grandmother Joan Stanley a believable, three-dimensional character whose motivations are understandable if not laudable.

hundred-year-house

The Hundred-Year House — Rebecca Makkai (Viking, July 10)

Makkai’s second novel is a cleverly-constructed family saga with a satirical bent. Zee Devohr is an academic who rejects her family’s wealth and privilege in principle but still lives on the estate. Her husband Doug, a struggling biographer, begins work on a book about the artist’s colony that resided in the house for more than 30 years mid-century. But his attempt to conduct research on the house’s long history leads to conflict with Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie, who refuses to give him access to the records. Both the Devohr family and the house they’ve long lived in have an even stranger history than Doug and Zee could have imagined.

Land of Love and Drowning

Land of Love and Drowning – Tiphanie Yanique (Riverhead, July 10)

Set in the Virgin Islands during the early 1900s, Land of Love and Drowningtells the story of three siblings orphaned in a shipwreck. The story runs 1916 through the 1970s, following the three members of the Bradshaw family and their progeny through the full range of life events. Yanique weaves Caribbean history and her family experiences with a magical realism inspired by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, all told in her powerful and rhythmically distinctive Caribbean prose.

Life Drawing

Life Drawing — Robin Black (Random House, July 15) 

Robin Black attracted a lot of attention with her debut, the short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, in 2011. Life Drawing is her first novel, and it has received even more acclaim (having been published in the UK in April), including a rave review by Claire Messud (author of The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children) in The Guardian. Augusta (Gus) and Owen have “retired” to the country to escape the urban life and concentrate on their art and writing, respectively, and to spend more time together in hopes of rekindling the flames of their earlier passion. Of course, there is a hitch: an affair long ago casts a long shadow even now and a young, attractive neighbor complicates matters further. Black is an astute observer of human nature and has written a compelling character study that will pull you in and hold you fast until these issues are resolved, for good or ill.

The Home Place

The Home Place – Carrie La Seur (HarperCollins, July 29)

Alma Terrebonne has left her troubled family and life in rural Montana behind to become a lawyer. But she is drawn back into her past when her sister dies accidentally. Or did she? This debut novel is said to explore family life, small town rigidity, and the secrets held by both in an evocative style with a strong sense of place.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies — Liane Moriarty (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, July 29)

Moriarty, author of the smash The Husband’s Secret, returns with another clever potboiler set in a small town that examines relationships during and after marriage, the challenges of raising children from these marriages, and the suspicions and misunderstandings that occur despite good intentions. Big Little Lies is the story of three women: divorcee Madeline (whose ex-husband and his new wife have just moved into town with their own child), Celeste (charismatic, community-oriented mother of exhausting twin boys), and Jane (a young single mother who is taken under the wing by Madeline and Celeste). They are connected through their children’s school, where multiple tensions come to a head.

Lucky Us

Lucky Us — Amy Bloom (Random House, July 29)

Bloom, whose last novel, Away, was critically acclaimed, tells the tale of a mother and daughter’s (mis)adventures across America in the 1940s. Heading out from Ohio in an old station wagon intending to make mother Iris’s dreams come true in Hollywood, they end up in locales as far-flung as Long Island and London. Lucky Us is about mothers and daughters, creating families, experiencing a new world and a new life together, and surviving one crisis after another, from scandals to World War II.

Invention of Exile

The Invention of Exile – Vanessa Manko (Penguin Press, Aug. 14)

Based partly on her own family history, The Invention of Exile, set in 1913 and thereafter, follows Russian immigrant engineer and inventor Austin Voronkov and his American wife Julia as they are deported for Austin’s alleged communist/anarchist activities. The story details their life during the Russian Civil War and their escape to Mexico City. While Julia is allowed to repatriate to the U.S., Austin is trapped in Mexico, where he devotes himself to designing new inventions in the hope that obtaining a patent will lead to his return to Julia and their children in Connecticut.

The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton (Ecco, Aug. 26)

Both an atmospheric study of a house and family in 1686 Amsterdam and a suspenseful page-turned with a supernatural bent, The Miniaturist is the story of an 18-year-old country girl, Nella, her wealthy merchant husband Johannes Brandt, and his martinet of a sister, Marin. When Johannes gives Nella a chest-size version of the family home, to be filled with replicas of themselves and their lives crafted by a miniaturist, Nella begins to learn the truth behind the family and their lifestyle, and the story takes a turn toward the supernatural. Or is it all in Nella’s mind?

Rainey-Royal

Rainey Royal — Dylan Landis (Soho Press, Sept. 9)

Landis has expanded one of her popular stories into this captivating novel. Rainey Royal is the talented 14-year-old daughter of a New York City jazz musician, and her story, set in the 1970s, follows her attempts to explore her own creative impulses and create a new family (her mother has abandoned her husband and Rainey). Landis captures the tenderness and rebellion of adolescence, the artistic ferment in the rough and tumble NYC of the 70s, and the vicissitudes of friendship and family.