Jessica Inman

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In Company of Liars, British author Karen Maitland makes her U.S. debut with a novel that tips its hat deeply to The Canterbury Tales, executed with stunning skill and precision. Her medieval world is full of the fantasy and mystery you'd expect from the genre, but it also parallels our own culture more than we might expect.

It's 1348, and the Black Plague has begun its malignant spread across England. Our narrator, an itinerant relic peddler, has reluctantly allowed two minstrels to travel with him as they flee from the disease. From that trio, the company grows to nine (if we count the horse), among them a magician with an ax to grind, a gifted storyteller who just might be half swan and an eerily prescient child rune-reader. All have stories to tell—and something to hide. As they outrun the plague, it becomes apparent that they're being hunted by something else as well. But which one's secret threatens to destroy the whole group?

Maitland holds a doctorate in psycholinguistics, and she has crafted a smart, historically informed novel, effectively portraying an era dominated by faith and superstition. But the novel is an aesthetic treasure as well as an academic one. The characters are human and fascinating, and the excellently paced storyline is spooky and thrilling. Company of Liars would look delightful on stage or screen. But it's so vivid, so enchanted that it needs no visual aid.

Jessica Inman writes and reads in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

 

In Company of Liars, British author Karen Maitland makes her U.S. debut with a novel that tips its hat deeply to The Canterbury Tales, executed with stunning skill and precision. Her medieval world is full of the fantasy and mystery you'd expect from the genre, but it also parallels our own culture more than we […]
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Sometimes you can have it both ways. Maile Meloy’s new collection of short stories, for example, is an exhibition of both substance and style.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It features 11 fresh and unique stories, many set in the author’s native Montana. Some, like the story of two combative brothers, are wryly funny; some wear a deep sadness, like the story of a ranch hand who spends almost all of his time alone; and some, like the story of a teen’s last summer at home, are simply true. In all of them, the air is heavy with meaning.

Meloy’s standout is “Lovely Rita,” a love story that mostly takes place in a nuclear power plant. It’s completely heartbreaking in an accessible, believable way. And the rest of the stories offer that same believability as they trace the lines of grace and beauty in everyday human existence. Each one is told patiently, perfectly—even the ones that explode with fear or passion.

That may be Meloy’s greatest strength as a writer: her skill with clarity and control. The images and storylines in Both Ways are clean, yet complex, and somehow Meloy deftly avoids being too obvious. Her dialogue also earns high marks.

But what edges out the other qualities of Both Ways is that these stories, even in their simplicity, are so deep and involving that they forbid their readers to stop turning the pages. Not only will you want to read this book in one sitting, you will want to read each story a second time—and a third. And that’s something not every short story collection achieves.

Meloy has received much praise—including a Guggenheim fellowship and a spot on Granta’s list of Best Young American Novelists, among other honors—for her novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, and her first book of short stories, Half in Love. She’s undeniably talented, and Both Ways is the latest installment in what is sure to be a long list of beautiful, truthful tales from Maile Meloy.

Jessica Inman writes and edits in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Sometimes you can have it both ways. Maile Meloy’s new collection of short stories, for example, is an exhibition of both substance and style. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It features 11 fresh and unique stories, many set in the author’s native Montana. Some, like the story of two combative brothers, are […]
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Sharon Kay Penman transcends beloved-author status: among lovers of historical fiction, she is cherished. Her latest offering sets out to capture the larger-than-life Richard I—crusader, king of England and member of the colorful Angevin family—and she does not disappoint.

The stage for Richard’s story is the Third Crusade, a quest to retake Jerusalem from the hands of the sultan of Egypt, Salah al-Din, called Saladin by the Westerners. As Richard embarks on this all-consuming quest in concert with the rest of Christendom, he rescues his sister, Joanna, from a precarious political position after the death of her husband and marries Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navarre. And so the two women join Richard in the Holy Land, bearing witness as the plot clambers over the highs and lows of history—scandalous political intrigue, battles won and lost and the thrills and heartaches of maintaining a life in the midst of war.

Richard’s profile in history is that of a bold, boisterous warrior-king, a character that seems almost too exaggerated to be real. Penman reaches beyond the hero, not to imbue him with flaws, but to find the man behind the legend. Penman’s Richard I is hot-blooded with incredible military prowess, but capable of being humbled and moved. His commitment to act with honor is not outsized, but real.

Richard’s spotlight, however, is very nearly stolen by his tough-minded sister and quiet, yet strong new wife, two women who become compelling characters in their own right in Penman’s hands.

Penman is often commended for writing about the medieval world without passing judgment on its characters and the value system that makes them so different from modern readers, and she does that again in Lionheart. She also succeeds at depicting the odd nature of holy war. Both Richard and Saladin, a shrewd commander famous for both might and mercy, believe they are serving God with each clash of swords, and yet each respects the other’s military skill and strategy.

The author is also known for her meticulous research; it’s as if she sees herself more as a historiographer than a novelist. Lionheart is no departure from this reputation, and the richly imagined dialogue and story are intercut with snippets from primary sources. The truth of the events makes the novel all the more fascinating and worthy of several reads.

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Meet the Author interview with Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman transcends beloved-author status: among lovers of historical fiction, she is cherished. Her latest offering sets out to capture the larger-than-life Richard I—crusader, king of England and member of the colorful Angevin family—and she does not disappoint. The stage for Richard’s story is the Third Crusade, a quest to retake Jerusalem from the […]
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Fifty years after Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942, her daughter discovered a treasure trove of the author’s lost works. Suite Française was published in France in 2004 and quickly became a bestseller, and Fire in the Blood followed soon after. Now, in Dimanche and Other Stories, we have a collection of 10 short stories from Némirovsky, all written between 1934 and 1942 and newly translated.

“Those Happy Shores” contrasts the disparate lives of two women in a bar. “Flesh and Blood” follows the failures and passions of four siblings as they attend to their sick mother. “The Unknown Soldier” uncovers a shocking family secret. And in “Brotherhood” a man on a train experiences an encounter with his own Jewishness that disturbs the way he has ordered his world.

When Némirovsky's first book was published, editors marveled that such a young writer could produce such rich and wise work. After taking in these 10 shorts, readers will easily understand the literary world’s incredulity. The stories explore interpersonal tension and everyday intrigue in a way that’s graceful as a ballerina. There are lots of 20-year-old women, extramarital affairs, class conflicts and mysterious family secrets, all captured with a keen eye.

The detached yet somehow all-seeing perspective helps to make this collection so unique and valuable. Because in addition to being exquisitely written and full of page-turning drama, these stories provide an important window into France and Russia just before and during the early years of World War II. Némirovsky offers us a kind of early source material, one that’s imbued with humanity and artistic grace.

Delightfully vintage yet fresh, Dimanche and Other Stories will satiate a variety of appetites—for literary short stories, obviously, as well as for international fiction. The book will also be welcomed by those with an interest in stories from World War II and the Holocaust. In a way, even though their author died tragically young, her words themselves are Holocaust survivors. They remain to tell stories that need to be told, and in the process light up our shelves with beautiful prose.

Jessica Inman writes from Oklahoma.

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Review of Fire in the Blood

Review of Suite Française

Fifty years after Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942, her daughter discovered a treasure trove of the author’s lost works. Suite Française was published in France in 2004 and quickly became a bestseller, and Fire in the Blood followed soon after. Now, in Dimanche and Other Stories, we have a collection of 10 short […]
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Girl with a Pearl Earring made Tracy Chevalier a household name in the historical fiction world. And now, with the dazzling Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier gives us another intriguing celebration of women and friendship.

Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster, has just moved to Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of England, with her sisters. She falls in love with scouring the beaches for fossils, and meets a young girl and fellow fossil-hunter, Mary Anning. As Mary grows up and the two follow their shared passion, they find themselves making discoveries that cause a stir in the scientific community and hold implications for science and religion that they could never have foreseen.

The novel weaves together many fascinating elements, not the least of which are the fossils themselves. Chevalier captures their beauty and mystery perfectly and allows readers to feel her subjects’ obsession with them. As Mary and Elizabeth diligently and excitedly uncover these messages from another era, the reader sees how little was initially known about fossils and how they affected the way we view the world.

Of course, the fossils are not the only stars of the novel—Mary and Elizabeth, based on real historical figures, will fascinate readers as well. At age 11, the real-life Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaurus skeleton ever found. Despite little education and even smaller means, she somehow managed to engage middle-class men of science in her pursuit of fossils and helped pave the way for Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Less is known about the real Elizabeth Philpot, only that she was an avid collector of fossil fish—one species is even named after her—and, given their differences in age and class, a somewhat unlikely friend of Mary’s. But Chevalier brings her to life. Both women will enthrall readers with their aspirations, fears and obstacles and, above all, their admirable determination.

The story unfolds gracefully and will keep you eagerly turning pages until the novel’s close. There’s humor, romance and a down-to-earth kind of suspense. But most of all, there are the believable and well-crafted personal triumphs and tragedies of two women who defied convention and changed their corner of the world. Indeed, Mary and Elizabeth are remarkable creatures.

Jessica Inman writes and edits in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Girl with a Pearl Earring made Tracy Chevalier a household name in the historical fiction world. And now, with the dazzling Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier gives us another intriguing celebration of women and friendship. Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster, has just moved to Lyme Regis, a town on the southern coast of England, with her sisters. […]
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In New World Monkeys, former advertising copywriter Nancy Mauro offers a debut novel that cannily and artfully shows the wild side of human nature.

Lily and Duncan are spending the summer in a small town upstate. On the drive into town, they hit a snag—specifically, they run over a wild boar with their car. And in the moment that sets the story spinning into motion, Lily puts the animal out of its misery with a tire iron. Unfortunately, the boar was the town’s mascot, and soon his owner seems to have the whole town in on his thirst for revenge. Then Duncan discovers a human femur in the backyard, which they discover may have belonged to Lily’s grandfather’s nanny.

All they have to do before the summer ends is dig up the dead nanny and hide their guilt in the death of the boar, thus avoiding the wrath of the eccentric residents of Osterhagen. Meanwhile, Lily works on her dissertation and Duncan, an ad man, dreams up a new campaign. All the while, the couple must navigate the next bend in their tired, chilly marriage.

Duncan may not be exactly what he seems. Underneath his urbane, Saab-driving exterior may lurk something nearly bestial. The academic Lily, for her part, has her own contradictions. Sure, she killed the boar when Duncan showed reticence to do so, but she also clings desperately to him at social gatherings. Duncan and Lily may not truly know each other’s depths and capabilities, and the events of the summer hold surprises for both.

And then there’s Lloyd, Lily’s fellow library patron and the local peeping tom with whom she, crazily enough, finds herself going on expeditions. As his thrill at seeing what people are really made of grows ever more frightening, it also becomes a mirror to show Lily parts of herself that she didn’t know existed.

With narration that sounds at times like the work of Zadie Smith, New World Monkeys weaves a funny and macabre tale. Its quirkiness and ingenuity should earn this novel a spot on many fall reading lists.

Jessica Inman writes and edits in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In New World Monkeys, former advertising copywriter Nancy Mauro offers a debut novel that cannily and artfully shows the wild side of human nature. Lily and Duncan are spending the summer in a small town upstate. On the drive into town, they hit a snag—specifically, they run over a wild boar with their car. And […]
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Oscar Casares’ Amigoland, his first novel and a follow-up to his much-acclaimed book of short stories, Brownsville, is a liberating journey full of warmth and color.

Don Fidencio and Don Celestino are senior-citizen brothers who live near each other but haven’t spoken in years. Their falling-out has something to do with a haircut, or the fact that Celestino never quite believed Fidencio’s account of a story their grandfather told him. At the prompting of his much younger new girlfriend, Socorro, Celestino attempts to reconnect with his aging brother. One fateful morning, Celestino and Socorro spring Fidencio from his nursing home. And bickering all the way, they journey through Mexico in search of their grandfather’s childhood home (which may not actually exist the way it does in Fidencio’s mind). By the last page, the trio just might find exactly what they need—but didn’t know they were searching for.

This dryly humorous yet big-hearted novel boasts three compelling and intricately drawn characters. Don Fidencio is imprisoned in a nursing home and growing bitter—and terrified—over the betrayals of his aging body, even as he holds on to his stubbornness and a still-flickering hope for resolution. Don Celestino shares his brother’s stubborn pride and faces his own uncertain future with a quiet sobriety. The two are just alike enough to clash—and alike enough to slowly grow to understand each other.

Meanwhile, Socorro, Celestino’s cleaning-lady-turned-lover, is a study in patience and wistfulness. Her name means “help,” and help she will—help broker understanding between the two brothers, help Fidencio during their whirlwind of travel and in the end, one hopes, help herself finally get what she wants.

In Casares’ gifted hands, the brothers and Socorro completely come to life, while the group’s impromptu trip to Mexico feels like a refreshing, rejuvenating trip for the reader as well as the characters. And the ending? Bittersweet, unexpected and undeniably precious.

All told, Amigoland is full of new friends and makes for perfect summer reading.

Jessica Inman writes and reads in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Oscar Casares’ Amigoland, his first novel and a follow-up to his much-acclaimed book of short stories, Brownsville, is a liberating journey full of warmth and color. Don Fidencio and Don Celestino are senior-citizen brothers who live near each other but haven’t spoken in years. Their falling-out has something to do with a haircut, or the […]
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If you pick up The Book of Night Women, you might lose a little sleep. The second novel from Kingston native Marlon James will having you flipping pages, thirsty for more story, late into the night.

On a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late 1700s, a slave dies in childbirth. But the baby, called Lilith, lives. As she grows up, it becomes apparent that a dark power lies within her, and she catches the eye of the leader of a group of women. They meet at night and practice magic—and make plans. Amid the events of the novel and Lilith’s tragic life, there are questions stretched taut across the background: can these women upend their dehumanizing lives—can they free themselves? Before it’s all over, we’ll find out how cruelty can break a person, fracture a soul. And we’ll find ourselves just as hungry for justice as the night women.

Lilith is one of the best characters in recent memory. She starts the book appropriately smart-mouthed and “uppity,” and as she grows into womanhood, she expectedly grows hardened, quieter. But her ability to hold on to her own soul, her ability to love, makes her not only endearing, but also a symbol of spirit and strength. James doesn’t spare anything in depicting the brutality of slavery. The violence is both horrifying and deeply saddening, but it spurs the reader to have hope in the characters and faith in the story—as well as the author.

Well-crafted and beautifully written in the patois of 19th-century Jamaica, The Book of Night Women seems likely to find itself on the short list for several literary awards (James’ first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize). It’s certainly worthy of a book club read: nearly all of the characters are so morally complicated that they will inspire plenty of discussion. And with its unique rhythm, this book almost asks to be read out loud. The Book of Night Women is not an easy novel. But it’s one that’s rich and true, and it will stay in your mind for weeks to come.

Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If you pick up The Book of Night Women, you might lose a little sleep. The second novel from Kingston native Marlon James will having you flipping pages, thirsty for more story, late into the night.

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In the opening scene of Jamie Ford’s debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 50-something Henry Lee watches as a crowd gathers around the Panama Hotel. The new owner of the long-abandoned building has discovered something in the basement: the belongings of 37 Japanese families, items left behind decades ago when their owners were rounded up for internment camps during World War II.

There’s a delicious sense of mystery about this scene. What will we find in the dusty memorabilia? Will its secrets be beautiful or tragic—or both? Henry is curious too, and he begins to remember his preteen years during the war and a girl named Keiko. In flashbacks, Ford tells us their story.

The only two students of Asian descent at their school, Chinese-American Henry and Japanese-American Keiko quickly strike up a friendship. But soon it becomes clear that their friendship is much deeper than schoolyard camaraderie. Their feelings for each other are simple, but their love story is complicated: by war, and by Henry’s father’s ill regard for the Japanese. When Keiko’s family is sent to an internment camp, time and tragedy separate her from Henry. Ford aims to portray the Japanese-American internment with solid historicity, choosing to focus on how the events affected the course of real people’s lives. And he succeeds. The book’s historical elements are sturdy, but they’re very gently threaded into the novel. It’s mostly just a good story, one about families and first loves and identity and loyalty.

Ford, of Chinese descent, is the kind of down-to-earth writer you’d like to have a cup of coffee with. His full-length fiction debut might make you fall in love with Seattle—or at least start digging up your own city’s wartime history and possible jazz roots. It will make you want to call your oldest relatives and ask how they met their spouses. More than anything, though, it will make you linger on the final pages, sure that even the bitterest memories and the most painful regret can yield something sweet.

Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

This first novel is more sweet than bitter.
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If you ever thought of the 18th century as stuffy, you were wrong. Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore have brought the era to life with their first collaborative novel, Blindspot. Through their engaging tale, we're treated to a brand-new vision of life and literature in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

Stewart "Jamie" Jameson, exiled from Scotland, has just washed up in America to set up shop as a portrait painter. To establish credibility with his new clientele, he puts out an ad for an apprentice, which leads him to Fanny Easton. A fallen woman with a talent for art who's estranged from a powerful family, Fanny assumes the role of a teen boy named Francis Weston. When one of the town's revolutionary leaders is murdered and his slaves are indicted for the crime, Jamie and Fanny join Jamie's brilliant friend Ignatius Alexander in trying to solve the mystery—even as they face the mysteries of love.

As a leading man, Jamie is nothing short of dreamy—passionate and funny with a big heart. Fanny charms him with her wit even while disguised as a boy, and the apprentice soon finds herself anguished by a crushing love for her master, which she is sure can never be requited. Their stories are laced into a backdrop of the tragedies of poverty and the slave trade in the young American colonies. Kamensky and Lepore, both professors who have written nonfiction, have endeavored to create not just a historical novel, but also a kind of faux 18th-century novel. Told alternately from Jamie's perspective and through Fanny's letters to a girlhood friend, the book is a combination picaresque and early American novel that's original but historically credible, complete with real news postings and letters, and even characters that are tracings of historical figures. The result is so authentic the book seems to breathe. Blindspot is full of beautiful narrative and wonderfully quotable lines like "whence Reason when Justice places a man in a cage?" But make no mistake: it also has plenty of, er, action.

Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If you ever thought of the 18th century as stuffy, you were wrong. Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore have brought the era to life with their first collaborative novel, Blindspot. Through their engaging tale, we're treated to a brand-new vision of life and literature in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Stewart "Jamie" […]
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Everly Lederer and K.C. Stites, the central characters in Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, are busy coming of age in 1950s Cuba. K.C. is the privileged son of the president of United Fruit, while Everly and her family dwell on the (relatively) less wealthy side of the American enclave. They serve as our eyes and ears in a unique Cuba, sharply discerning the disparities and novelties in their idyllic, yet complex life. But K.C.'s brother has disappeared with rebels associated with Fidel Castro, and someone has set fire to his father's sugar cane, signaling that their world is about to change forever.

This wildly intriguing story is a genius mix of history and fiction. Christian de la Mazière, a real-life French former Nazi and member of the Waffen SS, here takes a fictional turn as an agent of the revolution. Such is also the case with Rachel K, a prostitute murdered in Cuba in the 1930s and elegized in song and a 1973 movie. In Telex from Cuba, she serves as an underground revolucionaria playing multiple sides of the drama. Ernest Hemingway even makes an appearance on a Cuban dance floor. These allusions shine like understated gems in the fabric of the novel.

Some elements are entirely real, of course. The province of Oriente is real, as are—obviously—the Castro brothers and United Fruit. The fictional characters carry on within this historical framework, leaving the reader sure she has gained great insight into the American experience of Cuba just before and just after the revolution. And this is rightly so: Kushner's mother grew up in the same region as Everly and K.C., and Kushner has drawn from this family legacy to create a work of realistic fiction.

The close of the novel finds K.C. reflecting on these events of his growing-up years, wistful for the ornate, exotic beauty of his former life and thirsty for answers about his brother's choices. We're left feeling sorry that even paradise is temporal and fraught with imperfection, but so thrilled by it all that we want to hear the story again.

Everly Lederer and K.C. Stites, the central characters in Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, are busy coming of age in 1950s Cuba. K.C. is the privileged son of the president of United Fruit, while Everly and her family dwell on the (relatively) less wealthy side of the American enclave. They serve as our […]

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