Book reviews: reading recommendations for spring and summer
I don’t know about you, but my level of concentration isn’t what it was two months ago. No matter how captivating the book is, I can’t help but hop on the computer every few minutes for the latest on COVID-19. You might notice that my picks for Spring/Summer books are a bit lighter than usual.
“A good neighborhood”
I’m curious if the author is from the Carolinas, which prompted me to move in with Therese Anne Fowler “A good neighborhood” (St. Martin’s. $27.99), which was released in March.
What I’m hoping for in a new book is exactly what Fowler — who lives in Raleigh — delivers: a gripping story and an ending that grips you. Fowler, the author of “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” creates a sought-after, close neighborhood in a town somewhere east of Charlotte. Here, on a modest ranch, live Valerie, a black ecology professor, and her 18-year-old, bi-racial, musically gifted son, Xavier.
Next door, on a plot cleared of all trees to make way for their McMansion and swimming pool, sits newly wealthy Brad Whitman, his wife and two daughters – one of whom is Juniper, 17 – all white. Yes, Xavier and Juniper fall in love.
Yes, this love goes haywire, but how you can’t imagine. Meanwhile, Valerie begins to notice that her beloved oak tree is dying, likely due to recent clearing of nearby land. The oak isn’t the only beautiful thing in this tale that will wither away at the bulldozer – whether delivered via machine or via overheated emotions. Kudos to Fowler for his candid examination of the complex intersections of race, class, and culture. Don’t miss.
“All the Broken People”
I like a writer who can deliver time from a particular location. (No one is better than Thomas Hardy at this.) And Leah Konen can definitely do fall and winter in Woodstock, NY Konen studied English and journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, and her first novel for adults, “All the Broken People” (Putnam, $26, out July), is set around Woodstock, where 28-year-old Lucy runs away with her dog Dusty to escape an abusive boyfriend in Brooklyn.
She befriends – no, she falls in love with – her next-door neighbours, a glamorous, slightly older couple who are out of luck. The three hatch a plan to fake the death of the husband – John is an artist and his wife Vera thinks his paintings will start selling if people think he is dead. The problem is, John is dead, and now Lucy is a prime suspect. Seat edge? You bet.
“Dear Scott, dearest Zelda”
I’m slipping this one into last summer’s list because April 3 was the 100th wedding anniversary of the two directors. “Dear Scott, Dear Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,” edited by Jackson Bryer and Cathy Barks (Scribner, $22), includes a treasure trove of unpublished letters from Zelda, as well as those of hers and Scott’s that we’ve read in other publications.
In her introduction, Eleanor Lanahan, the couple’s granddaughter, says she believes, as does her mother, that Scott and Zelda remained in love until the day they died. The letters reinforce what we suspected all along – Zelda’s mental illness was not Scott’s fault and Scott’s alcoholism was not Zelda’s. These letters show so poignantly how extravagant neglect can undermine beauty, talent, hopes and dreams.
‘Life after death’
Any Woman Reading Julia Alvarez “Life after death” (Algonquin, $25.95) who has one or more sisters, will instantly identify with how these four sisters function in a crisis. (Says main character Antonia Vega, “They could be a whole person, but not without constant altercations, meltdowns, hurt feelings. It’s exhausting.”)
The publicity surrounding this book refers to Antonia as an immigrant. But she feels no more like an immigrant to me than Alvarez herself, who left the Dominican Republic for the United States at age 10 in 1960. Like Alvarez, Antonia is a former teacher who now lives in the North-east.
Widowed and recently retired, Antonia is all too vulnerable when a pregnant, undocumented teenager shows up on her doorstep. Another fun read from the author of “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.”
“My Autobiography of Carson McCullers”
Carson McCullers has long been the darling of Charlotteans because she wrote part of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in two places here in 1937-38 – in an upstairs apartment of a house on East Boulevard, which now houses the Copper restaurant, and in another, which no longer exists, on Central Avenue. So of course I totally agree when I hear about the recent “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers,” by Jenn Shapland, who discovers elusive truths about herself as she discovers new information about McCullers.
While Shapland was an intern at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, she discovered love letters to McCullers from a Swiss heiress with whom McCullers had had an affair. Bingo! This discovery changed Shapland’s life, and soon she was finally able to call herself a lesbian.
A reviewer praised Shapland’s book for being about the shortcomings. It’s true. It’s also about uncovering the cover-ups, half-truths, and white lies that have been told over the years in so many of McCuller’s biographies. Shapland literally moved into McCullers’ childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, bathed in McCullers’ tub, cooked in his childhood kitchen, all the while imbibing McCullers in order to absorb his true self. A truly brilliant approach to biography. Bold, brave and fascinating.
I’m excited about a memoir from July – “Memorial Disc” (Ecco, $27.99) — from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, whose stepfather shot and killed her mother in 1985 in Atlanta when Trethewey was 19.
For years, Trethewey wrote poems about this devastating event. What new emotions and/or understanding will she discover as she turns to prose, and what will we learn from her about the process of turning grief, pain and anguish into poetry?
“The Summer Guests”
Some writers just have a knack for keeping you hooked. Mary Alice Monroe, a writer from the South Carolina Lowcountry, is one of them.
Now available in paperback “The Summer Guests” (Gallery Books, $16.99), located in Tryon, was inspired when the author herself – along with an “extremely eclectic group of evacuees” – escaped a hurricane that threatened the Lowcountry for a farm near the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
With a knack for turning fact into fiction, Monroe writes about a Category 5 hurricane threatening Florida and the Carolinas and several horse owners/breeders/trainers fleeing with their horses to Tryon to sleep at Freehold Farms, the luxurious estate of Grace and Charles Phillips. .
Did I say none of the guests knew each other initially? Monroe wraps up in drama: A man whose spirit returns when, at last, he gets back on a horse. A dashing Olympic medalist who follows his heart. A controlling mother who learns to let go. It’s all there, including divine meals and stolen kisses from the stable. No, he’s not a candidate for the Man Booker Prize. Just a damn good read. The last of Monroe will be released this month – “On Ocean Boulevard” (Gallery books, $26.99).
“The Widow Hills Girl”
For years, I shunned thrillers. Now I like being addicted. “The Widow Hills Girl” (Simon & Schuster, $26.99) is the latest from prolific Huntersville-based Megan Miranda. Here, a 6-year-old girl sleepwalks through a rainstorm, is swept away by a flash flood and trapped in pipes for three days before being found clinging to the grating.
Her rescue is so dramatic and highly publicized that she changes her name before going to college. But here she is, years later, working in North Carolina, and she’s sleepwalking again. This time, she wakes up to find a dead man at her feet and blood on his hands. Kirkus says, “This is Miranda’s best book to date.”
“Bells for Eli”
Two more for suckers like me who love stories set in small-town Carolinas. Susan Beckham Zurenda of Spartanburg gives us the romance of spring, “Bells for Eli” (Mercer, $25), set in fictional Green Branch, SC, in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a story of first cousins - a boy and a girl – and their devotion and forbidden love. Sandra Conroy calls it “a stunning start.”
And Renea Winchester, from Bessemer City “Outgoing Train” (Firefly, $26.99), set in 1976, a story of mothers and daughters, grief and healing, with pitch-perfect dialogue and enough courage to keep turning the pages. Barbara Parker fights with demons every night, and every morning at 5:30 a.m. she wakes up to the train’s whistle before heading to the “blue jeans factory.” Dismissals. A missing girl. An essential novel in these troubled times.
This story was originally published May 18, 2020 5:17 p.m.