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Posts tagged 'Literary Fiction'

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende


In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

This story about late love and second chances is set against the backdrop of a raging Brooklyn snowstorm. But the novel is more than a love story. It examines the complex pasts of its three protagonists while tackling human rights abuses in Chile and Guatamala. The novel also highlights the life of an illegal immigrant whose main concern is her personal safety.

The novel revolves around Evelyn Ortega, a slight Guatemalan woman living in the United States illegally. Her story of escape from the horrible gang violence that plagues Guatemala is a focal point in the book. Another protagonist is 62-year-old Lucia Maraz, a survivor of the Pinochet regime in Chile. She has lived for years in exile in Canada and the United States. Although she has returned to Chile in recent years, her bout with illness and her divorce have left her at loose ends. When Richard Bowmaster, a fellow professor, invites her to teach at his university in Brooklyn and offers her lodging, she accepts.

Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Fiction


Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss


Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

Forest Dark is Krauss’s most metaphysical book.  In it, Krauss, author of History of Love and Great House, explores the notion of parallel lives through two very dissimilar protagonists: New York philanthropist and attorney Jules Epstein, and noted author Nicole (no last name).

Epstein is a complex man who, at 68, has been most comfortable in the material world. But now, after retirement from his law firm, his recent divorce, and especially, the death of his parents, he feels unmoored.  Like many of us at some point, he wonders what might have been had he taken another direction. As the narrator tells us:

Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Fiction


The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

PerryEssexThe Essex Serpent represents the best in current historical fiction. A second novel by British author, Sarah Perry, it was named Book of the Year by the Waterstone’s Bookstore. Set in 1893, the book explores many themes—among them, friendship, science vs. religion, the role of women in Victorian England, the class divide, and social conditions and mores of the times. The writing is highly evocative and calls to mind the writings of other Victorians such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Like Dickens, Perry highlights the squalor of the London slums. Perry also illuminates advances in medicine and surgery, including the first open-heart surgery and the prevailing treatment of tuberculosis in the late 19th century.


The main character is Cora Seaborne—a young widow formerly married to a sadistic older man. Now free to live as she chooses, she embraces her early passion for collecting fossils and roaming the English shores. Like others of her class, she is influenced by Darwin’s publication, The Origin of the Species, first published in 1876.When she visits Essex, Cora falls in love with the sheer wildness of the place. There, she befriends the local pastor and his family and learns about the Essex Serpent—a mythical creature dating back centuries. The plot is driven by Cora’s desire to determine whether the monster really exists.


Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Historical  British Fiction


Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

VasquezReputationsJuan Gabriel Vasquez is an award-winning Colombian writer, whose 2013 book, Las Reputaciones, was translated into English last year. Whereas his other books have focused on how public life affects private, Reputations is centered on how the private--with its traumas, fears, and shortcomings-- affects aspects the public personae.

The main character is Javier Mallarino, a 65-year-old political cartoonist of great renown. We meet him as he is about to be honored for his 40 years of journalistic excellence. Like many public heroes, fame has come at a price. Well into his marriage with the love of his life, an anonymous threat shatters the harmony that was once theirs. For the first time Magdalena had asked him the question that he, silently, asked himself every day: ‘Was it worth it? Were the fear and the risk and the antagonism and the threat worth it?’ (P. 69)

The novel that unfolds switches from present to past and crystallizes around one defining moment. It happens at a party Mallarino throws in his new home in the mountains. He and Magdalena have recently separated and it is the first time his 7-year-old daughter Beatriz, visits. She invites a friend, Samanta Leal, to the party.

That night, an uninvited guest—a politician Mallarino has satirized in a cartoon-- is discovered upstairs, and there is an implication that he molested Samanta. Twenty-eight years later, Samanta comes to Mallarino and asks him to revisit the incident. She wants to know what happened to her—what caused her family to move away, allowing her to create another identity. Mallarino begins to question the certainty of his assumption and the allusion he published in a cartoon that cost the politician everything.

Sara Picks  Politics  Literary Fiction  Contemporary


The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

ButlerHeartsNickolas Butler, author of the very popular Shotgun Lovesongs, sets this tale at Camp Chippewa, a Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin.

Nelson, the bugler, is the first boy we meet. He is a small, studious nerd, working hard to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He is also the object of teasing and ridicule by the other boys. Each morning he arises in his single tent, polishes his bugle, shines his shoes, sharpens the crease in his uniform, and sounds “Reveille”, awakening a camp full of Scouts. Despite the Scout Oath to remain physically strong and mentally awake, often many of the boys are hung over, as is Nelson’s own father who serves as one of the camp’s chaperones. Scoutmaster Wilbur, who runs Chippewa, befriends Nelson, and acts as father figure in place of Nelson’s own ineffective dad. An older, popular boy named Jonathan is Nelson’s only friend at camp, and sticks up for him when he’s taunted by crueler boys. Jonathan and Nelson remain life-long friends in this epic story that spans three generations from the years 1962 to 2022.

After Nelson’s father dies, the boy is sent to military school, then West Point. Ultimately he serves in the elite forces in Vietnam, where he sees horrible things. When he returns home, he finds it hard to find and hold down a job. Eventually he becomes became the Scout Master and Camp Director at Camp Chippewa, and enjoys the solace of living in the remote wilderness year round. However, Scouting and the camp both have changed by this point. There is no longer a bugler to play “Reveille”, so the song is prerecorded. Boys seem glued to their electronic devices, texting each other across the tent. Such traditional badges as orienteering, radio, and stamp collecting are obsolete. But it is still a place where Scouting values are promoted, and it is where Jonathan’s grandson Thomas goes to camp one summer.

The author excels at storytelling, and imbues his writing with North Woods atmosphere and charm. Butler conveys so much emotion on each page; once I started The Hearts of Men, I couldn’t put it down. I recommend this book to both men and women, but perhaps not to young Scouts. There are very mature themes in this novel. I enjoyed The Hearts of Men so much, and I can’t wait to read it again when I prepare it for book discussion.

Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age  Boy Scouts of America  American History


Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

StroutAnythingStrout’s new book combines the best of two of her previous novels, last year’s very popular My Name is Lucy Barton, and 2008’s Olive Kitteridge. Anything Is Possible, to be published April 25, follows the novel-in-stories format of Olive Kitteridge, but the new book is about the characters from Lucy Barton. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I think so.

In case you haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton, that book’s title character is an author who is hospitalized in New York with a mysterious illness. Her mother, from whom she has been estranged, has taken her first plane trip from tiny Amgash, Illinois, to be by her daughter’s side. For five days, the women tell each other stories; mostly gossip about the interesting, eccentric people they have known over the years from their tiny hometown. The truths of their own lives are not fully addressed.

In Anything Is Possible, Strout writes about Lucy’s childhood neighbors as “characters who deserved their own stories.” The Barton family is seen through the eyes of the locals, and not favorably. Her “hellish childhood”, which is alluded to but not discussed in her namesake book, is illuminated through multiple points of view in the new novel. Lucy herself only makes one appearance, as a famous author who has written a memoir explaining the mysterious backstory of her childhood. She is regarded with disdain, as someone who turned her back on her people and is too fancy for her own good. The Bartons are not the only family in town with secrets, and as the small town neighbors tell their stories, the reader understands the depth of poverty and dysfunction that pervades Amgash.

I know you will wonder if you should read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy this sequel, and I recommend that you do. Anything is Possible could easily stand alone, but it is a richer reading experience when you have already read about the characters within.

Short Story  Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary


The Nix by Nathan Hill

HillThe Nix, one of this fall’s most talked about debut novels, has been compared to works by Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe, and John Irving. Other critics have noted Hill’s style to be reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.

Accolades aside, the book is an engrossing coming of age story as well as a social satire that takes aim at our current political climate, social media, gaming culture, and academia. While doing so, it transports us to the 1960s and depicts Chicago’s Democratic National Convention with its protests and brutal police response.

As a Bildungsroman, The Nix is the story of a son trying to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment as he seeks to understand the mystery surrounding her life. And just like the Norwegian fable of “the Nix,”* most of the main protagonists are deluded by day to day realities and fail to see the danger in living out a fantasy. No one is quite who they seem to be in this captivating novel.

The Nix is a saga that will capture the reader’s empathy and imagination. Characters are three dimensional, and their behavior, though misguided, has deep-seated reasons behind it. The illusions of youth and the untrustworthiness of memory are key themes in this spectacular novel. It is not to be missed.

Sara Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction


Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Crucet

CrucetLizet Ramirez, the narrator of the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, details her life during a year of emotional and physical changes for herself and for her family.

Lizet applies secretly to an elite northern school, is accepted, and decides to attend despite the wishes of her family. She enjoys so many of her college experiences - new friends, her first snow, and, eventually, some success in her studies. Lizet (“Liz” to her fellow college students, “El” to her Cuban friends) is the first member of her family to go to college, and she is fortunate to have a scholarship and work-study assistance. However, she does have difficulties with workload and cultural change.

In Miami, Lizet’s Cuban-American family struggles with changes in their lives. Her parents’ divorce, and her mother moves from Hialeah to Little Havana in Miami with Lizet’s older sister, Leidy, who is a young single mother with a new baby. Lizet’s father remains in Hialeah, estranged from the family and struggling financially. Lizet’s mother becomes involved, emotionally and then as a leader, in Madres Para Justicia, a group formed to prevent the deportation of Ariel Hernandez. Ariel is a young boy from Cuba whose mother died fleeing on a raft with him and whose father, still in Cuba, wants him back.

The book focuses on the struggles, worries, and guilt resulting from clashes of cultural and family relationships.  It also details the everyday life of Miami’s Cuban-American community and college life in a small town in upstate New York. Well-written dialogue, as well as realistic characters living through very human situations, make the story hard to put down.

Literary Fiction  Gail's Picks  Family Drama  Cultural Fiction  Contemporary  Coming of Age


Ann Patchett's Commonwealth

PatchettCommonAnn Patchett, award winning author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, has written a fabulous new book, Commonwealth, that’s due out in mid-September. I couldn’t put down the advanced copy I received!

Patchett’s latest work is a captivating family saga that spans five decades. The story begins when Bert Cousins walks into a christening party for Beverly and Fix Keating’s second daughter, Franny. Bert enters carrying a large bottle of gin, and several gin and tonics later, he finds himself kissing the hostess. And soon courting her. Two messy divorces later, he marries her. Between them they have six children, and theirs is the story that carries the book. All six spend the summers together in the Commonwealth of Virginia, largely unsupervised. Much of their fun is innocent, but some of it turns deadly, leaving repercussions that will reverberate through the family for decades.

Years later, Franny, a waitress and law school dropout, falls in love with a much older man, author Leon Posen. Following the publication of several of his successful books, he has hit a severe case of writer’s block. Then Franny tells him the story or her torn apart and blended family. His next book, Commonwealth, is a huge success! He credits Franny as his muse, his inspiration. She is horrified that Commonwealth is a thinly veiled accounting of her childhood. Suddenly siblings and step siblings she hasn’t heard from in years are finding her, furious, demanding to know why she would air their dirty laundry in public.

Patchett’s storytelling is at its finest in this book. She has written a complex and realistic family saga that keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to see how the next relationship or drama will manifest itself. The subject matter is said to be drawn from the author’s past. Whether or not that is true, she writes compellingly realistic and fascinating characters.

Southern Literature  Nancy's Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary  American Fiction


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow. The setting is 1922 Moscow, and the main character, Count Alexander Rostov, is an “unrepentant aristocrat” sentenced by a Bolshevik Tribunal to a lifetime of house arrest in the Hotel Metropol.  Returning from the trial to the hotel, where he has lived the last four years, the Count finds that his valuable antiques and artwork have been declared “property of the people “ and have vanished from his sight.

The Count is ousted from his luxury suite at the hotel and moved with meager belongings to a 100-square-foot apartment on the low-ceilinged top floor, where he can barely stand up.  Determined to make the most of his circumstances, he sticks to his old routines of dining, barbering, and socializing, all within the confines of the hotel.  A breath of fresh air arrives in the form of 10-year-old Nina, also a “prisoner of the hotel” while her widowed father serves as a diplomat. Nina wears a master key to the hotel on her necklace, and together she and the Count explore the behind-the-scenes workings of the Metropol. A life-long friendship is forged, which will test the Count again and again. Although he clearly remembers being told “Make no mistake – should you ever step foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot,” when an adult Nina asks a favor of him, it’s hard to say no.

This book has been described as “a masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history.” I would add that it is a good long saga, spanning four decades. The author has done a marvelous job of drawing the characters not only of the Count and Nina, but also of the supporting cast that works in the hotel.

Several subplots are woven in, each serving to forward the story and keep you turning those pages.  If I were going on a trip, and could only take one book, this would be it. Good writing, engaging characters, and some history all in one volume.

Russia  Relationships  Nancy's Picks  Literary Fiction  Historical Fiction  Historical