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.
Mama & the Hungry Hole
By Johanna DeBiase
Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015
Julia and her Mama, Elise, live in rural New Mexico. They are isolated, except for visits with their neighbor, Juanita, who brings food and provides company. But after Elise breaks off contact with Juanita, two surprise visitors appear: Elise’s mother and a circus that sets up camp in a neighboring lot. With Nana’s arrival, we learn Elise’s back story, discovering why she brought Julia to this remote area and learning of a childhood trauma she has never gotten over. Elise is a storyteller and there are smaller stories told within the larger narrative, creating a fabulist quality to the book. In fact the whole story has a magical realism quality to it, which I much enjoyed, including one chapter being narrated by a tree.
Elise, Nana and Juanita are all strong women who I felt very connected to. Elise has issues with her mother that she still needs to work out and Nana’s appearance brings just enough conflict to the story to make it take off. And the circus family is a whimsical addition to this already magical world. In the background, the area where Julia and her mother live is being developed at the expense of the earth, adding an environmental theme. I found the end to be moving and dramatic pulling together the many threads explored.
DeBiase lives in New Mexico. She also writes short stories and essays. I had the pleasure of attending an MFA program with her at Goddard College.
The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong
By Leland Cheuk
Sulliver Pong is the youngest member of the Pong family, a multi-generational Chinese American family that lives in “Bordirtoun, USA.” He has escaped a legacy of unscrupulous family members by moving to Copenhagen and marrying a Danish woman. But his family history is never far enough away, and after a surprise visit from his father, Saul Pong, the mayor of Bordirtoun, Sulliver is lured home on the pretense that his mom is ill and needs him. Sulliver’s life will never be the same.
This swooping satire is narrated by Sulliver, who is in jail for an unknown crime he commits after returning to Bordirtoun. He shares the events that lead up to his incarceration, including his father’s attempt to involve him in a dodgy business development, his own attempt to get his mother to leave his father who is a violent philanderer, and various accidents in which Sulliver keeps injuring himself and ending up in the local hospital. The book also includes chapters recounting the Pong family history, narrating the lives of multi-generations of Pong men.
This is a funny book with a great narrative drive. As I turned the pages, I longed to know how Sulliver ended up in jail and hoped he would eventually get out from under his father’s domination, but feared he wouldn’t. This is a book about how we are all bound to our families, even as adults, but Cheuk tackles a lot of other issues, including the history of Chinese immigrants in the US, domestic violence, urban renewal and corrupt local politics. This is an engaging and original family story that challenges the notion of the model Asian-American family and creates some memorable moments as Sulliver finds his way in Bordirtoun as an adult.
Cheuk lives in Brooklyn. I interviewed him last year about “firsts” that happened when he was publishing this book. I also know him in person and have read his short stories, which are also funny and engaging. He is about to go on a West Coast book tour and has a reading in Brooklyn next Monday, February 15th.