Hope Racine

Emily Culliton’s razor-sharp debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, follows the titular Marion, a clever and creative Brooklyn accountant who goes on the lam with $180,000 that she has embezzled from her daughter’s private school. She leaves behind her rudderless, philandering husband and her two increasingly wild daughters in order to hide out in plain sight.

Culliton writes Marion, a woman who spent her life clawing her way out of the clutches of poverty, with a deliciously dark humor that permeates the entire work. At times the novel serves as a screaming satire of Brooklyn, private schools and the entire family relationship genre. Though occasionally tongue-in-cheek, Culliton flashes between points of view to deliver a straightforward and blunt exploration of Marion’s crime, motivation and aftermath, which almost reads like a novelization of a Wes Anderson film.

Culliton’s tight writing style leaves very little room for embellishment or empathy, which is unnecessary, as most of her characters are unlikable—yet readers will find themselves rooting for them anyway. Marion, though driven and fearless, is not a particularly good person or parent, but she is a good character who helms a cast of similarly strange figures. No one is safe from a vivid depiction of their flaws, especially Nathan—Marion’s part-time poet husband—and the members of the school board, who are particularly realistic.

Each point of view is delivered in bite-size chapters, which make for an enjoyable and easy read, perfect for vacation. As the title may suggest, The Misfortune of Marion Palm isn’t a particularly happy book, but it delivers a series of snappy quotes (“Kick all the boys you want”) and a delightfully satisfying ending that readers will not see coming.

Emily Culliton’s razor-sharp debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, follows the titular Marion, a clever and creative Brooklyn accountant who goes on the lam with $180,000 that she has embezzled from her daughter’s private school. She leaves behind her rudderless, philandering husband and her two increasingly wild daughters in order to hide out in plain sight.

Paul Lynch’s new novel, Grace, opens with a jarring scene: Fourteen-year-old Grace is pulled out of her house one morning in 1845 and dragged to the killing stump by her pregnant mother, who then cuts off her daughter’s hair. Grace is dressed in men’s clothing and cast from the house as her mother declares, “You are the strong one now.” What ensues is a heartbreaking tale of desolation, hunger, loneliness and survival, set during the darkest hour in Irish history.

Lynch, who has garnered comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and Colm Tóibín for his previous works Red Sky in Morning and The Black Snow, has woven a sweeping novel that is difficult to properly categorize. While calling upon traditional Irish storytelling, Grace also feels vaguely Dickensian and unfolds through language that’s more like poetry than prose. Even through gruesome parts of the novel—such as the death of Grace’s younger brother or the mildly traumatic experience of her first menstruation—Lynch’s descriptions and turns of phrase are macabrely beautiful.

Readers follow Grace as she wanders the barren countryside, reinventing herself. She is a boy, a man, a cattle herd and even a thief. She speaks with ghosts and struggles to survive. Many would see her mother’s choice to cast her out as harsh, but in comparison to the hardships experienced in the novel, readers come to see that her mother’s choice was actually an act of love, an attempt to help Grace grow and save her from hunger, pain and potentially the hands of her mother’s new lover, Boggs.

Grace offers an intriguing perspective on the concepts of femininity and hardship, one that feels as though it has already claimed its place among great Irish literature.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Paul Lynch’s new novel, Grace, opens with a jarring scene: Fourteen-year-old Grace is pulled out of her house one morning in 1845 and dragged to the killing stump by her pregnant mother, who then cuts off her daughter’s hair. Grace is dressed in men’s clothing and cast from the house as her mother declares, “You are the strong one now.” What ensues is a heartbreaking tale of desolation, hunger, loneliness and survival, set during the darkest hour in Irish history.

Judy Reene Singer, author of previous works such as Still Life with Elephant and Horseplay, has delivered something entirely new with In the Shadow of Alabama, a raw and emotional family drama that spans generations.

Rachel Fleischer is a horse trainer who begrudgingly agrees to attend the funeral of her estranged father, a withdrawn and angry man who left her with few good childhood memories. But a stranger approaches Rachel at the funeral, offering her an apology and an opportunity to learn more about who her father was—particularly during his time as a Jewish soldier in charge of an all-black battalion during World War II.

Traveling easily between present day and 1940s Alabama, when Jim Crow and racial violence reign, readers experience Rachel’s journey to discover the man her father was before the war changed him. In scenes that can be gut-wrenching, we see Martin Fleischer grapple with the astounding racism and violence he comes into contact with on American soil, and watch understanding and compassion grow as he learns more about the men he’s supposed to lead.

The most resonant moments of In the Shadow of Alabama focus on the unseen side of war stories: the aftermath of the war and the families who have to cope with a traumatized loved one. As Rachel learns more about her father, she, her critical mother and indulged younger sister find a measure of closure regarding the explosive man who overshadowed their early years. Though the book’s conclusion is far from neat or happy, this is a deftly painted portrait of real life, one that was inspired by Singer’s own experiences with her father. Filled with beautifully drawn characters, In the Shadow of Alabama is a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging novel that will keep readers thinking.

Judy Reene Singer, author of previous works such as Still Life with Elephant and Horseplay, has delivered something entirely new with In the Shadow of Alabama, a raw and emotional family drama that spans generations.

There are few romantic heroes in classic literature more confusing or less sympathetic than Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. In her debut novel, Sarah Shoemaker has set about unmasking this brooding hero. Fully immersing readers in the language and culture of the 19th century, Mr. Rochester is a coming-of-age journey that follows the lonely and motherless Edward Rochester from bleak Thornfield Hall to sunny and humid Jamaica, through a childhood that feels torn from a Dickens novel and into the murky waters of adulthood.

Mr. Rochester differs from popular Jane Eyre retellings, such as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, in that Shoemaker, a retired librarian, succeeds in painting a sympathetic portrait of the man. Edward is revealed to be deeply emotional and achingly lonely. His sole desire in life is a companion—be it lover or friend—and his repeated inability to find one is what drives him to become the man readers know and (sometimes) love. The strength of the novel lies in Shoemaker’s acute attention to detail and historical accuracy, particularly in her treatment of Jamaica, where slavery is king and everything young Edward thought he knew has been turned upside down.

Mr. Rochester is beautifully paced and compelling as it delivers a sweeping narrative and a new perspective to one of literature’s most famous love stories. Many questions and confusions from the original story—such as Bertha’s backstory, why Edward hides his feelings and why he finally decides to propose—have been answered. Though the novel will appeal most to fans of Jane Eyre, Shoemaker has recreated the spirit of the original, which will help those unfamiliar with the text enjoy this retelling.

There are few romantic heroes in classic literature more confusing or less sympathetic than Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. In her debut novel, Sarah Shoemaker has set about unmasking this brooding hero. Fully immersing readers in the language and culture of the 19th century, Mr. Rochester is a coming-of-age journey that follows the lonely and motherless Edward Rochester from bleak Thornfield Hall to sunny and humid Jamaica, through a childhood that feels torn from a Dickens novel and into the murky waters of adulthood.

Those who pick up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new novel, Long Black Veil, may be expecting a traditional horror story. The premise seems familiar at first glance, using well-loved tropes: A group of college students looking for fun accidentally get locked in the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary, only to discover they aren’t alone. But Boylan, rather than focusing the story on who gets out alive that night in 1980, instead subverts the genre and focuses on identity, relationships and the human experience.

Alternating between 1980 and present day, Long Black Veil follows the six friends as the repercussions of that night send reverberations through the rest of their lives. In the present day, a body has been discovered in the walls of the prison, and Jon Casey, a famous chef who is haunted by the events of that night, has been arrested for the murder. The one man who could vouch for him has died, but an old friend, main character Judith Carrigan, has information that may be able to save him—though sharing it could mean losing her family and the life she has fought for.

Those familiar with Boylan’s bestselling memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders will be unsurprised by the dark humor and beautiful prose that drive the narrative. Boylan has crafted a plot full of whodunits, faked deaths and new identities, and delivered an elegant tale that does justice to both the high emotions of youth and the hardened regrets of middle age. Her pacing keeps the reader racing through time periods, life events and characters, eagerly flipping to the next chapter in an attempt to unravel the countless riddles the story offers. Fans of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History will find an equally engaging and erudite story full of references to classic literature and history.

Those who pick up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new novel, Long Black Veil, may be expecting a traditional horror story. The premise seems familiar at first glance, using well-loved tropes: A group of college students looking for fun accidentally get locked in the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary, only to discover they aren’t alone. But Boylan, rather than focusing the story on who gets out alive that night in 1980, instead subverts the genre and focuses on identity, relationships and the human experience.

Kris D’Agostino’s new novel, The Antiques, is familiar in the best of ways. As a hurricane threatens upstate New York, the estranged Westfall siblings experience their own personal storms as they are forced to congregate at the family home to mark the passing of their father. While they deal with the physical damage of the hurricane, the family tries to find common ground and work together to carry out their father’s dying wishes.

Despite a peaceful childhood spent in the family antique shop, the three Westfall children aren’t exactly succeeding at life. Armie makes beautiful furniture, but his skill hasn’t helped him move out of his parents’ basement. Josef, a sex-addicted tech-guru who lives in New York, struggles to connect with his daughters, while Charlie juggles her job as a publicist to an impossible starlet, her peculiar son and her husband’s infidelity. The Westfalls are flawed, selfish and rather absurd, but it does not detract from how realistically likable they are.

D’Agostino first demonstrated his talent for delightful family based fiction in his debut, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac. In The Antiques, D’Agostino has once again succeeded in creating a vivid portrait of the modern family and giving readers insight into a unit that is both comfortingly familiar and exceedingly awkward. Their foibles and quirks—from braving a hurricane for a hookup to having a son that’s been kicked out of preschool—provide hilarious fodder in the midst of family tragedy. Yet, even through the absurdity D’Agostino still delivers an insightful rumination on the nature of family. Although the catalyst for the novel is a death, The Antiques is far from melancholy, instead throwing readers into the surreal and sometimes farcical aftermath that so often follows such family events.

Although the formula may be familiar, The Antiques still feels fresh. Readers who enjoyed Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You may find a new favorite in D’Agostino.

Kris D’Agostino’s new novel, The Antiques, is familiar in the best of ways. As a hurricane threatens upstate New York, the estranged Westfall siblings experience their own personal storms as they are forced to congregate at the family home to mark the passing of their father. While they deal with the physical damage of the hurricane, the family tries to find common ground and work together to carry out their father’s dying wishes.

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