Jessica Bates

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The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is a poetic novel about a real telephone booth in Otsuchi, Japan, a rural town decimated by the 2011 tsunami. Known as the “Wind Phone,” the disconnected rotary telephone allows grieving family members to speak, in a way, to loved ones who have passed on.

Yui lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami, and in the days following the catastrophe, she lived in a shelter with other survivors. Her existence was confined to a mat, and she was joined in her grief by a man who carried around an empty picture frame, observing the world through its void. As Yui begins to live again while trying to heal from her pain, she hears of the disconnected telephone that carries people’s words to the dead.

When Yui makes her first pilgrimage from Tokyo to the phone booth, she meets a widower named Takeshi along the way. Takeshi’s daughter has gone mute from the trauma of losing her mother. On their first visit, Takeshi goes to the phone to speak to his late wife, but Yui hangs back, hesitant. Yui and Takeshi become friends and travel monthly to the Wind Phone, but still Yui does not speak to her lost family.

Between chapters that follow Yui’s story and the experiences of other grieving people who visit the phone booth, author Laura Imai Messina intersperses bite-size sections that are almost like poems. They have titles such as “Parts of Yui’s Body She Entrusted to Others Over the Years” and “Two Things Yui Discovered After Googling ‘Hug’ the Next Day.” These snippets are lovely breathers, a chance for the reader to marvel at the tiny details that make up a life.

The English-language debut from Messina, an Italian author who lives in Japan with her husband and children, unfolds over the course of many years as a tender tribute to grief and what it teaches us. Healing is not linear, and the ones we lose never truly leave us. It can be unfathomably painful when we’re reminded of our losses, even though remembering our loved ones is often what can heal us. The phone booth is a magical place that not only connects the living to the dead but also the living to the living.

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is a poetic novel about a real telephone booth in Otsuchi, Japan, a rural town decimated by the 2011 tsunami.
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Odie Lindsay’s debut novel is filled with the rich and complex texture of the American South. Some Go Home is set in the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi, where the sweet tea flows with extra sugar and the families all know each other’s business.

The novel centers on Colleen, a war veteran turned small-town beauty queen. Colleen marries Derby Friar, who took on his mother’s maiden name to escape the stigma of his estranged father, Hare Hobbs. Hare is on retrial for the violent murder of a Black man named Gabe who, decades earlier, worked the same land with Hare.

As Colleen and Derby prepare for the birth of their twins, Derby takes a job renovating the historic Wallis House, the site of the infamous murder. Derby’s boss is JP, a house flipper from Chicago. JP has returned to Pitchlynn to fulfill the final wishes of his late wife, Dru: to raise their infant daughter in Dru’s hometown. Alarm rips through the small Mississippi town as JP threatens Wallis House with modernization. Dru’s aunt, Susan George, comes on the scene to thwart JP’s renovation plans. Susan had a painful history with Dru, as Susan’s daughter fell to her tragic death from a magnolia tree on the Wallis House property.

The novel follows generations of Hare’s descendants, as well as Gabe’s granddaughter and her husband, Doc, who works as a corrections officer where Hare is being held before his trial. These vividly imagined lives intersect in Pitchlynn, where each person is either running from a troubled past or running back home, desperately seeking closure and acceptance.

Told in hypnotic and at times sharp-witted prose, Some Go Home asks what land means to us, what we will do for that land and who we’ll become along the way. It’s a story of class and race intersections, of how the haves often send the have-nots to do their bidding. With racially motivated violence and scenes of animal cruelty, Some Go Home is often difficult to read as it reflects on trauma, war, family and how the sins and shortcomings of our ancestors replay in our own lives. It’s a relevant story that begs us to reconcile the past with the present so that we can finally begin to move forward.

Told in hypnotic and at times sharp-witted prose, Some Go Home asks what land means to us, what we will do for that land and who we’ll become along the way.
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Amity Gaige’s fourth novel tells the entrancing story of Juliet and Michael Partlow. As their marriage stalls after two children and relative normalcy in suburbia, Michael has a wild idea to take the whole family aboard a boat and sail for a year. Juliet, entangled in postpartum depression and unable to muster the strength to finish her dissertation for her Ph.D., begrudgingly agrees to the adventure.

The structure of the novel is a duet between Michael and Juliet, with Juliet’s lyrical, rhythmic first-person narration driving the story forward. She is a student of confessional poetry, and she is transfixed by the wind and its many faces. Entries from Michael’s captain’s log while aboard the Juliet weave throughout, veering more toward a diary. He journals about his childhood, his father’s early death, his initial attraction to Juliet and their problems as a couple. 

This marriage isn’t perfect, and it’s debatable whether Michael and Juliet are running from their problems or tuning in to fix them. But the sea opens up an avenue toward peace, with unending amounts of water to dump their minds into.

Unafraid and perhaps unaware of all that could possibly go wrong, Michael and Juliet’s daughter, Sybil, easily trades Barbie houses and elementary school for seashells and bottle caps. Their younger son, Georgie, called Doodle, watches Sybil and mimics her. When the sea brings squalls, Juliet and Michael must learn to communicate and come together on a whole different level.

With taut prose and well-paced action, Sea Wife provides an excellent escape from reality while exposing universal truths about marriage, motherhood and childhood trauma. In a world where so many “shoulds” are thrown upon mothers, this story’s mother does her best to be honest. While in the beginning Juliet gives away too much of herself in service of her family, the sea and her sailing adventure bring forth her confidence and free her from traditional gender roles.

The sea changes this family. They cannot go back to the lives they had before. Sea Wife is brilliant, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.

The sea changes this family. They cannot go back to the lives they had before. Sea Wife is brilliant, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful.

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The harrowing, heartfelt debut novel from Elizabeth Wetmore tells the story of a West Texas town reeling from an oil boom and a brutal rape case in the late 1970s. Surrounded by a harsh and beautiful landscape, the town of Odessa serves as a microcosm of the U.S., allowing Wetmore to explore themes of motherhood, sexism, capitalism, violence, immigration and race. 

The story opens on 14-year-old Glory, the unrelenting sun shining down on her, her rapist fast asleep. Covered in cuts and bruises and suffering from organ damage, Glory silently wills herself to walk, to escape. To live. She comes to the farmhouse porch of pregnant Mary Rose, who sends Glory inside when the assailant, a young white man, comes to claim his “girlfriend.” Mary Rose denies Glory’s presence and holds tight to her rifle as she waits for the cops to arrive. After they take the villain into custody, Mary Rose can’t shake the feeling that she’s failed the girl. She’s compelled to testify in the case, which causes a rift between her and her husband. When Mary Rose subsequently moves into town, she meets her new neighbor Corrine, who’s drinking herself into oblivion as she mourns the recent loss of her husband. We also meet spunky 11-year-old Debra Ann Pierce, who steals cans of food to help a homeless war veteran. As the trial nears, Mary Rose receives daily threats from drunk townsfolk who call her horrible things. 

With her children at home with Corrine, Mary Rose takes the stand to testify. It’s been hours and hours since she’s breastfed her newborn baby, and her vulnerability in this moment—and her sacrifices to get here—will leave readers contemplating the very nature of justice.

As these women navigate what is decidedly a man’s world with feminine grace, Valentine becomes a testament to the resilience of the female spirit. Wetmore’s prose is both beautiful and bone-true, and this mature novel hardly feels like a debut. You’ll wish you had more time with each of these powerful women when it’s over.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Elizabeth Wetmore shares a glimpse of growing up in Odessa.

The harrowing, heartfelt debut novel from Elizabeth Wetmore tells the story of a West Texas town reeling from an oil boom and a brutal rape case in the late 1970s. Surrounded by a harsh and beautiful landscape, the town of Odessa serves as a microcosm of the U.S., allowing Wetmore to explore themes of motherhood, sexism, capitalism, violence, immigration and race. 

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The Henna Artist is set in the pink city of Jaipur, India, and follows Lakshmi, a namesake of the goddess of wealth. Lakshmi has abandoned her husband, Hari, and now works in Jaipur applying dizzying henna designs to the city’s most elite women. Lakshmi is also a skilled herbalist, and she creates delicious Indian treats to ease her clients’ ailments and issues, as well as tea sachets that serve as birth control. She learned all of these skills from her mother-in-law, a kind and talented woman.

Lakshmi’s business is booming. She’s even planning to meet the maharani at the palace. But Lakshmi’s world is turned on its head when her sister, Radha, shows up with Hari. Radha, called “Bad Luck Girl” by her small town’s gossip-eaters, didn’t know Lakshmi existed until she realized her mother was burning letters as soon as they arrived. Lakshmi didn’t know Radha existed either until she saw her sister in the flesh. Their green-blue eyes match perfectly. 

Lakshmi dutifully takes Radha under her wing, but her spirited little sister wants to explore her new city and all its delights, and soon several missteps lead to all hell breaking loose.

Rich in detail and bright with tastes and textures, The Henna Artist is a fabulous glimpse into Indian culture in the 1950s. You’ll notice certain remnants of British colonization, and you’ll see how Western culture permeates Jaipur. Throughout her first novel, Alka Joshi explores the complex relationships of women in India, offering an introduction into the caste system that separates and defines people, and comments on the often invisible yet deeply important labor that’s deemed “women’s work.” 

Joshi’s prose is rhythmic and alluring, and her characters are multidimensional and alive. This is a novel of hope, ambition and healing.

Rich in detail and bright with tastes and textures, The Henna Artist is a fabulous glimpse into Indian culture in the 1950s.
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Sue Rainsford’s fresh and exciting first novel, Follow Me to Ground, reads like a dark fairy tale. First published in Ireland to glowing reviews, the novel is now reaching a much wider audience.

Our narrator is Ada, a healer who lives with her father in a small village. Ada and her father have strange and unexplainable gifts, and the other villagers, or Cures, come to the healers with a mix of reverence and fear. They open Cures on their couch and sing their sickness away. For particularly troublesome illnesses, Ada and her father temporarily bury Cures in the Ground and bring them up again, healed.

While Ada and her father appear to be human, they are decidedly not human, but something other. The churning and gurgling Ground is sacred to Ada, as she came from it. She remembers the taste of it, the tang of dirt in her mouth. Not only does the Ground have powers, but so does Sister Eel Lake. The Cures know to stay away from the lake that’s rumored to contain giant killer eels.

Ada’s life, while odd, is small and quiet until she meets Samson, a male Cure in the village. She grows curious and then entranced with Samson, creating a rift between herself and her father. Samson’s sister, Olivia, is pregnant and seeks help from the local healers, but Ada finds something troubling about the woman.

Both a coming-of-age story and a piece of ancient folklore, Follow Me to Ground is a pleasure to read. Seeing the world from Ada’s perspective is intoxicating, and as she grows in her power, we feel lucky to be taken along for the ride. With language that’s visceral and jarringly beautiful, Rainsford has created a mysterious world that left me wanting to hear more tales of the strange healers and their trusting Cures.

Both a coming-of-age story and a piece of ancient folklore, Follow Me to Ground is a pleasure to read. Seeing the world from Ada’s perspective is intoxicating, and as she grows in her power, we feel lucky to be taken along for the ride.

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Bryn Greenwood’s quirky, page-turning love story, The Reckless Oath We Made, is mesmerizing from its opening pages to resonant end.

Zhorzha Trego, called Zee, lives with her sister, LaReigne, and nephew, Marcus. She works as a waitress and makes weed runs for extra cash to pay their never-ending bills. Zee suffers from chronic pain from a motorcycle crash, and at physical therapy she meets an oddly chivalrous young man named Gentry. She doesn’t think much of him, even though LaReigne calls him Zee’s stalker.

Gentry is an aircraft builder with autism spectrum disorder who speaks in Middle English and hears voices. One of the voices, the Witch, tells him that one day Lady Zhorzha will need a Champion. Ever since, Gentry has been checking in on Zee, waiting to serve his lady.

While volunteering at the local prison, La-Reigne is kidnapped by two white supremacists, and Zee’s life is flipped upside down. When Zee and Marcus are swarmed by journalists in front of Zee’s mother’s house, Sir Gentry steps in, thrilled to finally be of service. Zee accepts his help reluctantly, embarrassed by the state of her mother’s home even in the midst of chaos. Zee’s mother is a reclusive hoarder; Sir Gentry calls her a dragon.

When the police come up short in their search for LaReigne, Zee is still determined to find her missing sister, and Gentry’s deep code of honor mandates that he follow her to whatever end. 

Chapters told in Gentry’s melodic, medieval voice are hypnotic and haunting, and Zee’s chapters provide an exciting contrast. The Reckless Oath We Made illuminates a life of struggle in middle America and examines how incarceration, poverty and mental illness affect families for generations.

Bryn Greenwood’s quirky, page-turning love story, The Reckless Oath We Made, is mesmerizing from its opening pages to resonant end. Zhorzha Trego, called Zee, lives with her sister, LaReigne, and nephew, Marcus. She works as a waitress and makes weed runs for extra cash to pay their never-ending bills. Zee suffers from chronic pain from […]
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Joshilyn Jackson’s newest novel weaves a wicked tale right from its opening pages. When a mysterious and charismatic woman named Angelica Roux shows up at a suburban book club in a small Florida town, Amy Whey has a sinking feeling that a bomb is about to drop on their cozy lives.

Roux gets the liquor flowing and slips the reins from Charlotte, the book club’s leader and Amy’s best friend. As the women relax, Roux starts a seductive game—an adult version of “Never Have I Ever,” in which each woman shares the worst thing she’s done in the past week, then month, then year and so on. The women are giddy with the newness of Roux’s game and her feral flirtation. When a married woman confesses to kissing another man, Amy worries that her neighbor is messing around with Charlotte’s husband. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Roux somehow knows a terrible secret from Amy’s past, and Amy thinks Roux has shown up to trap her.

Amy has worked hard to rebuild her life. She has a loving husband, a quirky teenage stepdaughter named Maddy and a baby to dote upon. But as Amy’s past threatens to collide with her present, she is forced to play Roux’s dangerous game. After the party has ended, Roux starts to chip away at Amy’s cool exterior, demanding hush money for the secrets she keeps. But Amy reveals herself to be shrewder than she seems, and she’s determined to keep her family and new best friend from knowing what’s buried deep in her heart.

Things get even stickier as Maddy cozies up to Roux’s son, Luca, who seems like the type of boy to break Maddy’s heart, or worse. When Roux sets a deadline for the hush money, Amy decides the only way to get out is to beat Roux at her own game.

With excellent pacing, clever character development, fun plot twists and a palpable setting, Never Have I Ever is a binge-worthy read. Jackson brings her first thriller to the table this summer, and you don’t want to miss it.

Joshilyn Jackson brings her first thriller to the table this summer, and you don’t want to miss it.
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Set in the American South one generation after the Civil War, The Magnetic Girl is a mystical story about one girl’s journey from a gawky, small-town farmer’s daughter to a well-known, alluring performer.

Lulu Hurst sneaks into her father’s study one evening and finds a book that changes the course of her life. Mrs. Wolf’s The Truth of Mesmeric Influence becomes Lulu’s bible as she learns to hone her natural skills of “captivating” people around her, essentially holding them in a trance. But Lulu keeps more secrets than just her captivating skills; she dropped her brother on his head when he was an infant, and from then on, his development stagnated. Lulu never told her parents about the accident. Her guilt weighs her down, though she believes one day her magnetism can heal her brother.

As she reads and memorizes Mrs. Wolf’s book, Lulu feels as if the author is speaking directly to her. When Lulu’s father confronts her about the missing book, he surprises her by letting her keep it. He then trains his talented daughter to perform “tests” that, through the laws of physics, allow Lulu to appear as if she possesses unparalleled, unnatural strength. She perfects the tests, and her family hosts her first show in the parlor of their home.

Quickly Lulu becomes a sensation and takes her act on the road. As the Magnetic Girl, Lula learns to embrace her physical and mental strength, and she gains confidence as she sees different parts of the world and earns more and more money for her family. When an aging mesmerist calls on her for a visit, Lulu questions her “powers” and wonder about the illusive author of her beloved book.

Author Jessica Handler paints a quaint picture of life in the late 19th century, when electricity was a new phenomenon. Lulu begins as a young woman used to obeying her parents, but through her performances, she begins to see her parents and their shortcomings more clearly. The Magnetic Girl is hypnotic tale about a girl growing into a woman and discovering the truth of her own powers.

Set in the American South one generation after the Civil War, The Magnetic Girl is a mystical story about one girl’s journey from a gawky, small-town farmer’s daughter to a well-known, alluring performer.

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Andrea Rothman’s debut novel tells the story of Emily Apell, an accomplished scientist who studies smell: “Smell is an illusion, my father used to tell me: invisible molecules in the air converted by my brain into cinnamon, cut grass, burning wood.” Illusion or not, Emily’s work is certainly illusive. Allergic to cut grass from a young age and raised by a scientist single father, Emily comes to a new job at a laboratory in New York City, where she is hired to map how smell is processed.

Emily’s research is closely related to that of two other lab workers, Aeden and Allegra, who are less than thrilled with Emily’s presence. As Aeden and Allegra’s research misses its mark, Emily pulls Aeden onto her project, which has the potential to be a success. And despite her usual lone-wolf nature, Emily is attracted to Aeden. 

Emily and Aeden’s research progresses, as does their relationship, and soon Emily finds herself at a crossroads: She can continue with her career aspirations or leave the lab with Aeden and explore whether the things society wants for her—a husband and children—are things she actually wants for herself.

With crisp descriptions and keen observations, author and neuroscientist Rothman creates a realistic picture of the life of a scientific researcher, including the long, lonely hours in a lab, the envious and possessive behavior of other scientists and the highly competitive nature of publishing scientific results. Fresh and intelligent, The DNA of You and Me is a tale of a modern woman in science, though it can be enjoyed by any reader working to balance career ambitions with the possibility of a family.

Andrea Rothman’s debut novel tells the story of Emily Apell, an accomplished scientist who studies smell.

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Emma Rous’ debut novel, The Au Pair, is a delightfully paced gothic tale about a family’s snarled secrets and what happens when you start pulling at their strings.

Seraphine is staying at Summerbourne, her family’s manor on the Norfolk coast, mourning the death of her father and reminiscing about her childhood. While rifling through old family photo albums, she is shocked to stumble across a chilling image. In it, her mother holds a baby, and Seraphine’s older brother and father stand smiling in the picture. The photograph is picture-perfect: a family posing proudly with their newborn. But Seraphine is a twin, and hours after she and her twin brother, Danny, were born, her mother tragically threw herself from the cliffs behind their luxurious home.

The mourning daughter begins a hunt for clues as to what happened on that dreadful day and why only one baby is in the photograph. Her search leads her to Laura, the family’s former au pair, who mysteriously left Summerbourne the same day Seraphine and Danny were born and their mother died. Then messages—at first subtle and then explicit—are sent to stop Seraphine from digging any deeper. Her brothers begin to worry for her sanity and then her safety, as odd events start to unfold throughout her search for the truth.

Told in interweaving narratives of Seraphine’s present and Laura’s past, The Au Pair is a thrilling tale that plays on local folklore, hidden family histories and the small decisions that alter the trajectories of many lives. With vivid characters, a magical setting and a tightly knitted plot, The Au Pair is a splendid read that will be best enjoyed with a book club or a buddy, as you’ll be itching to digest the tale’s twists with someone else, especially when you reach the jaw-dropping climax.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Emma Rous’ debut novel, The Au Pair, is a delightfully paced gothic tale about a family’s snarled secrets and what happens when you start pulling at their strings.

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