Barbara Clark

Four compelling stories of mothers and daughters center on secrets revealed and secrets kept, with powerful consequences that reverberate through the years.


A wealth of history turns Wunderland into a novel that’s both beautiful and devastating. Author Jennifer Cody Epstein (The Painter From Shanghai) taps into the 1930s prewar era, laying out an unsparing narrative that details tragic events and horrifying legacies.

Renate and Ilse, Jew and Gentile, are best friends in pre-World War II Germany, but they’re driven apart in the terrible buildup to war when Ilse joins Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female division of the Hitler Youth movement. Many years later, in 1989 New York City, Ilse’s estranged daughter, Ava Fischer, receives her mother’s ashes and a trove of letters, addressed to Renate but never sent, that reveal her mother’s terrible secrets. In turn, Ava resists sharing Ilse’s history with her own daughter, Sophie, and Ava realizes that she “has kept Sophie from her own story.” 

The narrative unfolds from several characters’ perspectives, making plain “the things we lie about to make our crimes bearable,” while also opening a new door that may lead to redemption and joy for future generations.

The Daughter’s Tale is a detailed, immersive chronicle of World War II’s tragedy, the power of love and the lengths to which a mother will go to save her children when there are no choices left. With his second novel, Armando Lucas Correa (The German Girl) depicts the meager options available to Jewish people caught in the vise of war, highlighting two real historical events: the ill-fated voyage of the liner St. Louis, in which Jews were not allowed to debark at their destination of Havana, Cuba; and the 1944 SS massacre of French villagers in the town of Oradour-sur-Glane, where only a few survived.

In the novel, a Jewish woman named Amanda Sternberg flees Germany in 1939 with her two daughters, Lina and Viera, but she makes a fateful decision that separates the children and forever alters their lives. Viera is sent to Cuba, but Correa’s novel follows the youngest daughter, Lina, as she escapes wartime imprisonment to begin a different life in France, where her relative freedom is short-lived. Correa starkly portrays the many horrors that were visited on an innocent citizenry.

In her new novel, Feast Your Eyes, Myla Goldberg, author of the 2001 bestseller Bee Season, has again turned her talent for detail into a powerful story about gifted yet flawed characters who can’t escape tragic missteps.

Lillian Preston is a singularly talented photographer whose early work runs afoul of obscenity laws in the 1950s. Photographs of her seminaked 6-year-old daughter, Samantha, lead to trial, tragedy and a rift between mother and daughter that never quite heals. The book is structured like an exhibition catalog that Samantha has organized for a retrospective of her mother’s work. Through the diaries and letters of Lillian’s loved ones, Samantha uncovers Lillian’s gifts, her struggles and intense ambition, tempered by sorrow and love for her daughter. 

Like a photograph that captures the inner light of its subject, Feast Your Eyes catches such moments on the page, illuminating the power of both beauty and heartbreak. Goldberg unsparingly reveals a driven artist whose propulsive talent is also her Achilles’ heel.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, the fourth novel from Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), is an absolute delight. It interweaves multiple family stories within the colorful panorama of a journey to India, resulting in a novel that is sad, joyful and exciting all at the same time.

Jaswal’s narrative entwines the stories of three adult sisters whose disparate lives are catapulted on a new and completely different trajectory when their mother makes a request. With her death only hours away, India-born Sita Kaur Shergill, who raised her children in England, says she wants her daughters to undertake a pilgrimage to India—one she was unable to take—and provides detailed instructions for the trip that are daunting, life-changing and often hilarious.

The Shergill sisters—Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina—live very separate lives, each with its own secrets. The author enfolds readers in deceptively simple stories that reveal the hidden depth, humor and pathos of each sister’s life, as little by little they learn and accept each other’s stories. The teeming, textured setting of India is captured through the author’s evocative scenes, as the sisters navigate on-the-ground travel as well as their own inner terrain. 

Four compelling stories of mothers and daughters center on secrets revealed and secrets kept, with powerful consequences that reverberate through the years.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, the fourth novel from Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), is an absolute delight. It interweaves multiple family stories within the colorful panorama of a journey to India, resulting in a novel that is sad, joyful and exciting all at the same time.

Jaswal’s narrative entwines the stories of three adult sisters whose disparate lives are catapulted on a new and completely different trajectory when their mother makes a request. With her death only hours away, India-
born Sita Kaur Shergill, who raised her children in England, says she wants her daughters to undertake a pilgrimage to India—one she was unable to take—and provides detailed instructions for the trip that are daunting, life–changing and often hilarious.

The Shergill sisters—Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina—live very separate lives, each with its own secrets. The author enfolds readers in deceptively simple stories that reveal the hidden depth, humor and pathos of each sister’s life, as little by little they learn and accept each other’s stories. The teeming, textured setting of India is captured through the author’s evocative scenes, as the sisters navigate on-the-ground travel as well as their own inner terrain. 

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, the fourth novel from Balli Kaur Jaswal (Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows), is an absolute delight. It interweaves multiple family stories within the colorful panorama of a journey to India, resulting in a novel that is sad, joyful and exciting all at the same time.

A wealth of history turns Wunderland into a novel that’s both beautiful and devastating. Author Jennifer Cody Epstein (The Painter From Shanghai ) taps into the 1930s prewar era, laying out an unsparing narrative that details tragic events and horrifying legacies.

Renate and Ilse, Jew and Gentile, are best friends in pre-World War II Germany, but they’re driven apart in the terrible buildup to war when Ilse joins Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female division of the Hitler Youth movement. Many years later, in 1989 New York City, Ilse’s estranged daughter, Ava Fischer, receives her mother’s ashes and a trove of letters, addressed to Renate but never sent, that reveal her mother’s terrible secrets. In turn, Ava resists sharing Ilse’s history with her own daughter, Sophie, and Ava realizes that she “has kept Sophie from her own story.” 

The narrative unfolds from several characters’ perspectives, making plain “the things we lie about to make our crimes bearable,” while also opening a new door that may lead to redemption and joy for future generations.

A wealth of history turns Wunderland into a novel that’s both beautiful and devastating. Author Jennifer Cody Epstein (The Painter From Shanghai ) taps into the 1930s prewar era, laying out an unsparing narrative that details tragic events and horrifying legacies.

Windswept islands protect, isolate and irrevocably shape the course of events in two new novels about the lives of people in far-flung places.


Readers who gravitate toward glorious prose will find a feast in The Dragonfly Sea, a mesmerizing new novel by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Dust, 2014) that delves into the discoveries, joys, sorrows and epiphanies of a singular coming of age—that of Ayaana, a stubborn, imaginative girl from a small island off the coast of Kenya who discovers that she can trace her heritage to a 14th-century Chinese seafarer.

Early in her life, Ayaana’s compass is set when her mother tells another character, “You shall only point my daughter to eternal possibilities. She was not born for limits.” From her childhood on Pate Island to her adventures in the Far East as a charming young woman, Ayaana’s life is marked by both violence and great beauty. Assorted characters alter her destiny, from a sailor who fills the role of the father she’s always wanted to a powerful Turkish mogul who seeks to possess her soul.

The story is deftly interwoven with a sense of life’s fragility, as if it’s holding its breath in anticipation of some danger. This feeling of vulnerability assails Ayaana: “Life was passage, nothing lingered.” Jealousies and troubled kinships affect husbands, fathers and lovers who travel on the ocean tides and are often lost, swept away by storms or twists of fate, but the author brings the story full circle with passages that dazzle and enlighten.

The singular culture of the haenyeo (sea women) of the Korean island of Jeju is at the center of bestselling author Lisa See’s captivating new novel, The Island of Sea Women, a quietly amazing story of two close companions whose friendship is transformed by misunderstanding, cultural prejudice and the terror of war.

Young-sook and Mi-ja are part of Jeju’s female free-diving collective, which forms the economic backbone of the island community in the years leading up to World War II. The friends are bound by ancient female spirits that watch over the island, and by the age-old ties of cooperation that enable their community’s survival. See interweaves details of the island’s semi-matriarchal culture with the adventures and travails of the two women, whose differences grow throughout the decades. Poignant chapters reveal the perspective of an aging Young-sook as she encounters the family of her old friend, forcing her to confront past missteps and the horrors of a 60-year-old massacre, ultimately bringing the generations together to forgive and heal.

Within this enthralling story is a fascinating historical perspective on Korea, a country long victimized by war and foreign occupation, and the ways in which the strains of modernization have forever altered Jeju’s island culture.

Windswept islands protect, isolate and irrevocably shape the course of events in two new novels about the lives of people in far-flung places.

In two new works of popular fiction, determined characters search for answers to evergreen questions of fate and choice.

Josie Silver’s One Day in December begins and ends during holiday seasons, spanning a decade as three young people come to terms with the choices they’ve made.

While waiting to depart for holiday travel, 22-year-old Laurie stares through the window from her seat on a London bus and glimpses the face of a stranger standing outside in the crowd. Their eyes meet, but the doors swing shut and the bus pulls away. Over the next year, perhaps lured into that age-old trap of wanting the impossible, Laurie, aided and abetted by best friend Sarah, searches everywhere to try and locate her elusive “bus boy,” but to no avail.

Fast-forward to the next holiday season, when in an ironic turn of fate, Sarah introduces Laurie to her new boyfriend. This is how Jack, the bus boy, reappears in Laurie’s life, though neither Laurie nor Jack thinks the other remembers the bus encounter, and both pretend this is their first meeting. Time passes, and there’s a marriage or two, along with deceptions and revelations that alter all of their lives.

What sounds like a garden-variety romance takes shape as an impeccably written novel. The charm’s in the telling as Laurie and Jack struggle with their private thoughts and yearnings . . . and there’s that accidental late-night kiss. Each will have to decide how—or if—they’ll be able to square their dreams with reality.

The holiday greeting advanced in a yearly letter provides the title of Gretchen Anthony’s Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, a rambling, funny and often poignant look at how one family disintegrates, copes and flourishes, then carries on with life.

Violet needs structure, certainty and, above all, advance plans. But what’s a deeply loving and controlling mother to do when her daughter, Cerise—happily partnered up with a woman named Barb—becomes pregnant? The father’s name is known only to Cerise and Barb, and they’re not telling.

This is hard to take for Violet, whose controlling arm is long. However, leave it to this determined lady to find a way to return order to her world. She’s used to micromanaging events at home and at the Faithful Redeemer Church holiday fair, as well as the ongoing issues in her friend Eldris’ life, so what could go wrong here? What’s a little fraud, some missing eyeglasses, an early labor, an unfinished family tree and a food fight with roast lamb, among friends?

Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a charming, often hilarious story about people whose sticky jealousies, insecurities and small joys are remarkably similar to the ones that mark our own lives. Anthony offers readers a chance to savor and appreciate the joys of the commonplace as well as that strange but remarkable pride we have in our own family bonds.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In two new works of popular fiction, determined characters search for answers to evergreen questions of fate and choice.

Two compelling new works of historical fiction explore the human dramas and decisions facing characters caught in the midst of two very real historical disasters, one in England’s Middle Ages and the other on the Atlantic Ocean during World War I.

LOVE AND ESPIONAGE ON THE LUSITANIA
Wartime espionage, a doomed ocean voyage and separate loves converge in The Glass Ocean, a mesmerizing historical mystery that links three fictional women, each at an important turning point in her life. Their stories, separated by nearly a century, are linked by a legendary historical event—the sinking of the vessel RMS Lusitania by a German U-Boat in 1915.

In the present day, an author seeking an idea for her next book opens an old box that belonged to her great-grandfather, a steward on the fabled luxury ship. She learns of his intriguing connection to a wealthy British passenger—one that possibly involves military intelligence. The box also contains tantalizing clues about two women aboard the vessel: a beautiful, wealthy Southern belle, whose industrialist husband is concealing a mysterious document; and a spunky Irish con artist, who’s attempting one last big heist while not fully aware of its true import and danger.

The Glass Ocean combines adventures surrounding the Great War with the drama of an epic historical event for a tale of obsession, romance and espionage. It blends the creative talents of three authors—Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White—who are looking to repeat the success of their first bestselling collaboration, The Forgotten Room (2016). Their commingled voices deliver a smoothly constructed narrative without a hitch, so readers never lose the flow or fall out of the story.

SURVIVING A PLAGUE IN THE MIDDLE AGES
After a decade’s hiatus, bestselling British crime writer Minette Walters returns to the literary scene with The Last Hours, a sprawling historical saga set in a dark era of superstition and violence.

It’s the year 1348, and the Black Death is decimating England’s population. The terrible disease has inundated a populace essentially without defenses or scientific knowledge about the pestilence, and most can do little but try to flee its ravages, with thousands dying in the attempt.

The story centers on the demesne belonging to Sir Richard of Develish, with its manor, lands and attendant serfs. After the boorish Richard succumbs to the plague, Lady Anne, his wife, who is rather progressive for the Middle Ages, implements a radical idea of walling off the rest of the manor’s occupants, serfs and all, from the outside world in an attempt to survive.

The physical isolation of the group, masters and servants alike, leads to escalating tensions and a violent death, and one group of the anxious hangers-on soon decides to leave the confines of their enclosure and head into the unknown landscape, looking for survivors and supplies. After living their entire lives in Richard’s demesne, they have zero knowledge of the lands beyond Develish, and no maps to guide them in a hostile world.

The author presents an unforgettable picture of this raw, barely civilized era and its brutal hierarchy of master, slave and serf, all of whom are in thrall to a capricious god.

Two compelling new works of historical fiction explore the human dramas and decisions facing characters caught in the midst of two very real historical disasters, one in England’s Middle Ages and the other on the Atlantic Ocean during World War I.

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