By Julie Buntin
Henry Holt & Company, 2017
I was completely captivated by Marlena, a story of two teenage girls. 15-year old Cat and 17-year old Marlena meet when Cat’s parents split up and Cat’s mom moves Cat and her brother from the Detroit suburbs to a desolate town in the Upper Peninsula. Marlena lives in the house next door with her father and younger brother.
The book alternates between the year the two girls were friends that tragically ends in Marlena’s death, and Cat’s adult life in New York looking back. Buntin artfully captures the way teenage girls become entranced by each other. Cat has just finished a successful first year of high school, but is lost in her new town. Marlena is a beautiful young woman with many self-destructive habits. With Marlena, Cat’s life is transformed.
Told in the first person, Cat’s perspective, I appreciated how honest the narrator was and the depth with which she explores how teenage rebellion can be self destructive and empowering at the same time. The girls escape their small town with drugs, for Marlena, and drink, for Cat, and their habits have consequences. It’s not easy to watch them anesthetize themselves but powerful nonetheless. If you are interested in female coming-of-age stories, this book is a unique look into a community I have not read about much in fiction.
Buntin grew up in Michigan and teaches writing now in New York City.
By Katie Crawford
Deeds Publishing, 2016
Mine is a story of two sisters, Maggie and Janie, bonded despite deep differences. They grew up in a small Eastern Pennsylvania coal town in the 1940s and 50s. The story begins when Maggie is 8 and Janie is 6, and as I read the first few chapters, I thought it was going to be a coming-of-age story. But this book is about much more. It tells the story of the sisters’ lives, from the small town they grew up in to Philadelphia, where they spent their adult years.
I don’t want to give away too much as I enjoyed how this book twisted and turned as the women grew up. This is a story of loss and resilience and what I liked was how well Crawford expressed the weight and power of female experiences, about what it means to be a: daughter, mother, sister, mother-in-law or an aunt. And about all the loss that women face. It is a quiet book and yet much drama unfolds during Janie and Maggie’s lives.
I heard of this book from a friend, DM, who knows the author. Crawford is a Philadelphia native who now lives in Swarthmore, PA. The book was published by a small press, Deeds Publishing. I am much appreciative of the small presses that publish exciting work that get overlooked by the Big Five publishers.
A Front Page Affair
By Radha Vatsal
When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother always had a mystery in hand. She loved Agatha Christie but would read any book that had a missing character or a mysterious plot. I remember reading Agatha Christie as a child because I wanted to read books I knew she liked. I wanted to be like her.
A Front Page Affair is a classic who dunnit? Set in New York City in 1915, the story features a smart and becoming narrator–Kitty Weeks. Just 19, Kitty lives with her father in New York after attending boarding school in Europe. She dreams to be a journalist and works for the Ladies’ Page (yes, one page!) of a paper called the New York Sentinel. Her first assignment is to cover a Fourth of July party at a country club and this seemingly banal social story leads her into a mystery that is the heart of the book.
I don’t want to give away too much of the mystery, but the story focuses on a murder and is full of a range of New York characters, including her editors at the paper, a society friend who wants to be a nurse and head off to Europe, the humble secretary of a wealthy society woman and Kitty’s father, a businessman who doesn’t share much about his work with her. There is a lot of historical detail in the book. I enjoyed the time period and setting, and found Kitty, nickname for “Capability,” to be an insightful and enjoyable narrator. The book twists and turns and comes to a satisfying end. If you enjoy a good mystery, this is a fun one to get swept up in. My granny would have enjoyed it.
Vatsal lives in New York City. And like all good mystery writers, is planning a Kitty Weeks series.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is being written up as the season’s, even the year’s, debut to read. It is a sweeping historical story, about the contrasting lives of two half sisters from Ghana and multiple generations of their families. The book starts in the late 18th century when one sister marries a British man and lives in Cape Coast Castle while the other is sold into slavery and ends up in the United States. The book tells a sweeping history of slavery while also recounting their unique life stories.
In this interview with Aaron Zimmerman, Executive Director of the NY Writers Coalition, Gayasi talks about her motivations for writing this book, books and teachers who influenced her and what it feels like to write a book that’s getting buzz.
I have a copy of the book waiting for me next to my bed and I can’t wait to read it. Have any of you picked it up?
We Love You, Charlie Freeman
By Kaitlyn Greenidge
We Love You, Charlie Freeman tells two stories. In the present day, the 1990s, the Freeman family moves to New England so Laurel, the mother, can work on a sign language research project at the Toneybee Institute. A monkey, Charlie, will live with the family. Laurel, a sign language instructor, sees this job as a professional opportunity, but the experience takes a toll on the family. The Freemans are African-Americans living in a small, white rural New England town, and Laurel’s two daughters negotiate their race at school while they also learn to accept their mother’s devotion to Charlie at home. The second story is set in 1929, and explores the history of the Toneybee Institute and the Institute’s reputation for studying African Americans.
There are so many layers to this story. It is a book about sisters. There is a coming of age theme. It is a story of a family redefining itself and what it means to be a minority in a rural white New England community. The book also explores race and science. Greenidge gracefully delves into all of these themes while also being funny! I heard her read the opening at an event this spring and it was laugh out loud funny and made me immediately want to buy the book. I was quickly drawn in to her story and transported into both of the worlds she exquisitely creates.
Greenidge lives in New York and also writes essays. She wrote a very poignant essay about a garden her mother tried to plant that was published the New York Times earlier this year.
The Forgetting Time
By Sharon Guskin
Flatiron Books, 2016
I love a literary page turner. A story with just enough mystery to keep me wondering, while also enjoying the rich language and more fully developed characters than is found in commercial fiction. One of my favorite debuts in this category is Celeste Ng’s, Everything I Never Told You. The Forgetting Time is a new favorite.
Janie Zimmerman is a single mom with a unique four-year-old. She got pregnant during a one-night stand while on vacation in Trinidad. She now balances her work as an architect with the energy needed to raise her son Noah. She loves Noah, feels connected to him, but there is a side to him she doesn’t understand. Noah has terrible nightmares and talks about things Janie knows he has never experienced, like reading Harry Potter books and another “mommy.” After the director of his preschool tells Janie that Noah is no longer welcome in the school, and also suggests he needs therapy, Janie sets off on a journey to discover what is different about her son. She connects with Jerome Anderson, an aging psychiatry professor, who is also an expert on past lives.
I don’t want to give away what happens, as Guskin weaves a beautiful story, but with Jerome, Janie begins to see her son, and the world, in a new way. This book has an intriguing otherworldly set up and a twisting plot that kept surprising me as the story unfolded.
The book explores the mother – son relationship and the idea of when do our lives begin –at birth or are we connected to a longer lifeline? It also explores the extent to which we are influenced by nature or nurture and what it means to have a child and to also lose one. The book read to me like a movie and I got so gripped that I finished it in two sittings. If you enjoy a family mystery and are open to the idea that life does not begin at birth, I think you will enjoy Guskin’s tale.
Guskin lives in Brooklyn was briefly was a member of my writers group. I feel lucky to have met her in person. Check out this lovely conversation she had with a fellow writer about getting her debut into the world.
The Turner House
Houghton Mifflin, 2015
This is a delightful read that I didn’t want to end! There are 13 adult children in the Turner family and in 2008 a decision needs to be made about the fate of the family home in Detroit. The family has lived in East Detroit for over 50 years and Viola, the matriarch is not well, and is living with the eldest child, Cha Cha. Cha Cha thinks it is time to sell the house, but the value of the house is now less than what is left on the mortgage, and not all of the siblings agree with his idea. The family needs to come together to make a decision and support their aging mother.
There are so many aspects that I loved about this book: the crisp writing; the distinct and alive characters; and the artful balance between plot and character development, but I also loved the central theme—how grown adults siblings, ranging from their 40s to their 60s, interact with each other and cope with their family legacy. Most of the story revolves around the lives of Cha Cha, and the youngest Turner, Lelah, who also lives in Detroit. But the other siblings are part of the story, and their parents’ back-story, and journey to Detroit from the south, is also recounted. This is a powerful look at a 21st century African-American family dealing with each other and the current economic situation in Detroit.
Flournoy has been nominated for and won awards for this book – for good reason! The book is now out in paperback and perfect for an early summer read.