Jessica Pearson

“This is a hell of a country, isn’t it? You choose your story. Then you go out and make it happen.” In Lydia Peelle’s debut novel, The Midnight Cool, main characters Billy and Charlie are doing exactly that, harnessing their charm, grit and self-reliance to forge a better life. This theme is not new, but in the gifted hands of Peelle it rises off the page in a fresh, daring fashion. 

The Midnight Cool opens in the summer of 1916, as war rages in Europe and political tensions are running high. Charlie and Billy are traveling horse traders who arrive in Richfield, Tennessee, a fictional town just north of Nashville. Both are smooth-talking grifters who specialize in the art of the underhanded deal. 

Upon arriving in town they set their sights on a gorgeous mare who belongs to the wealthy Leland Hatcher. Despite warnings from Catherine, Leland’s daughter, they purchase the mare only to discover her violent, deadly past. Indebted and unable to unload the temperamental animal, they turn to selling mules to the British army to recoup their lost funds. All the while, Charlie’s feelings for Catherine, a woman very much above his station, are intensifying, and the bonds between Charlie and Billy are beginning to fray.

Peelle is a writer to watch. She deftly recounts the surprisingly fascinating history of mules, who bore the brunt of American labor during this period and whose resiliency and strength made them key players in the war effort, while also giving us a rich, satisfying novel, full of memorable characters grappling with love, loyalty, identity and the struggle to build something that lasts in a rapidly changing world.

 

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

“This is a hell of a country, isn’t it? You choose your story. Then you go out and make it happen.” In Lydia Peelle’s debut novel, The Midnight Cool, main characters Billy and Charlie are doing exactly that, harnessing their charm, grit and self-reliance to forge a better life. This theme is not new, but in the gifted hands of Peelle it rises off the page in a fresh, daring fashion.

Imagine a world where you bear children only to watch them “die” when your gaming system is hacked and requires a reboot, or where contact lenses act as social media implants that live-stream every moment of your life. These are just two of the brave new worlds that creative writing professor Alexander Weinstein has envisioned in Children of the New World, a bold debut collection of speculative short stories.

Many of the stories deal with our culture’s growing dependence on new technologies and the profound isolation and boredom that this dependence creates. In “Migration,” families are quarantined inside their houses, their needs met through total online connectivity. One day, in an act of familiar teenage rebellion, the son steps into the outside world. The frightened father follows, only to find him playing with a tennis ball. When questioned about his actions, the son responds, “You know whenever I play Tennis, the ball always bounces smoothly and makes the same sound. But that’s not what happens in real life.” This theme reappears throughout the book—characters live in tailored, ideal virtual realities, and yet they’re bored to death. Weinstein deftly captures technology’s limitations and leaves the reader to ponder the beauty found in the real world’s imperfections.

Ultimately, what is most remarkable, and chilling, about many of these stories is their resemblance to our current times. Think Her rather than “Star Trek” or Minority Report. Discomfiting as they may be, these characters’ desires and frustrations are familiar as they navigate worlds increasingly devoid of human connection. The stories in this collection, while wildly imaginative, also read as a sort of cautionary tale. As we push our dependence on new technologies further than ever before, one can’t help feeling that we may be closer to these imagined worlds than we think.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Imagine a world where you bear children only to watch them “die” when your gaming system is hacked and requires a reboot, or where contact lenses act as social media implants that live-stream every moment of your life. These are just two of the brave new worlds that creative writing professor Alexander Weinstein has envisioned in Children of the New World, a bold debut collection of speculative short stories.

BookPage Fiction Top Pick, July 2016

About three pages into Miss Jane I found myself both transfixed and perplexed. Who is this Brad Watson and why am I just now discovering him? A finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta, he is certainly a known quantity. But finally with Miss Jane, it seems he has a novel that will break him out to the wider readership he so deserves. 

Set in Mercury, Mississippi, in the early 20th century, Miss Jane is the story of Jane Chisolm, a woman born with a genital birth defect that renders her “useless” in a time when a woman was intended for two purposes: marriage and motherhood. Contrary to other independent-minded literary heroines like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jane is not actively shunning social expectations, but rather forced into a life of solitude by circumstances beyond her control. But her curiosity, courage and resolve to live life on her terms places her in the company of these unique characters.

In Miss Jane, Watson creates a rural Mississippi that exudes Southern gothic at its very best. Jane is a heroine considered by most in her community, including her family, to be damaged goods. And yet, through her relationship with a country doctor who supports and advocates for her, and the gentle boy who loves her despite her abnormality, Jane emerges as the member of her family who experiences the truest forms of love and connection. 

Like the peacocks that the doctor raises on his farm, Jane’s strange yet beautiful spirit possesses a haunting, anachronistic beauty. Miss Jane is a truly original novel with a character that readers will cherish. Watson has delivered a striking and unforgettable portrait.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a behind the book feature about Miss Jane.
 

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

About three pages into Miss Jane I found myself both transfixed and perplexed. Who is this Brad Watson and why am I just now discovering him? A finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta, he is certainly a known quantity. But finally with Miss Jane, it seems he has a novel that will break him out to the wider readership he so deserves.

From the very first page of her new novel, LaRose, Louise Erdrich heaves readers into the tumultuous world of two families shackled together by grief: the Ironses and the Raviches. While stalking a buck along the border of his property, Landreaux Iron, a decent yet complicated family man, accidentally shoots and kills his best friend’s 5-year-old son. Tormented, Landreaux turns to an ancient Ojibwe tradition: “Our son will be your son now,” Landreaux says as he bequeaths the young LaRose to the Ravich family. While LaRose’s adoption does bring relief to the grief-stricken Raviches, complications inevitably arise. LaRose’s presence can only do so much to soothe Nola, his new mother, who is struggling with thoughts of suicide. Meanwhile, Landreaux is pursued by a vengeful townsman who begins digging around for information, suspecting a cover-up on the day of the accident. 

A National Book Award-winning author and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Erdrich is a master of the literary form. Throughout the present-day narrative, Erdrich weaves the ancestral legacy of LaRose’s namesake. The seamless blending of the ancient and the modern is a familiar technique in Erdrich’s storytelling. In the contemporary passages, Erdrich’s prose is terse, almost staccato, but when she dips into the ancestral interludes, her voice is at its strongest and richest. Describing an ancestor’s tuberculosis, she writes, “Finally, in its own ecstasy to live, the being seized her. It sank hot iron knives into her bones. It kept snipping her lungs into elaborate paper valentines.” 

Through complex, dynamic characters and resonant human conflict, Erdrich gives readers the space to ponder atonement, the emotional bonds of family and the ways in which tradition can both orient and obscure our sense of right and wrong.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

From the very first page of her new novel, LaRose, Louise Erdrich heaves readers into the tumultuous world of two families shackled together by grief: the Ironses and the Raviches. While stalking a buck along the border of his property, Landreaux Iron, a decent yet complicated family man, accidentally shoots and kills his best friend’s 5-year-old son. Tormented, Landreaux turns to an ancient Ojibwe tradition: “Our son will be your son now,” Landreaux says as he bequeaths the young LaRose to the Ravich family.

Lara and Marija have always been more like sisters than friends. Growing up in the Balkans, they spent every summer together in Sarajevo, stealing fruit from the neighbor’s gardens and quoting classic Hollywood movies. The friendship only deepened in college, where they shared everything from fiercely anti-nationalist sentiments to a pale, white boy named Milko. Life was about ideological, heady conversations in tiny cafes over shots of vodka and reckless nights spent tangled in sheets. 

But when the Bosnian war begins, Lara, a Serb, and Marija, a Bosnian, are forced to face the realities of their separate identities. Lara moves to Washington, D.C., with her American husband, where she throws herself into her graduate studies in political science and tries desperately to nurture an unraveling marriage. Meanwhile, Marija returns to Sarajevo to work as an undercover journalist. When contact with Marija suddenly ceases, Lara is gripped with a fear that she has lost her. Amid the chaos and mess of her personal life and driven by her desire to know the truth, Lara embarks on a journey through war-torn Serbia in an attempt to discover what really happened to her dearest friend. 

Country of Red Azaleas, the third novel from Romanian writer Domnica Radulescu, is a tightly wrought, beautiful story of friendship. Whether she’s conjuring up the colorful sights and smells of the prewar Balkans or describing the “fierce clarity of the war” where you “get to see humanity all bare,” Radulescu creates images that lodge themselves firmly in your consciousness, giving you ideas to ponder long after you turn the final page. In the tradition of Elena Ferrante and Khaled Hosseini, Country of Red Azaleas prevails as a true testament to a bond that transcends the devastation of war.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Lara and Marija have always been more like sisters than friends. Growing up in the Balkans, they spent every summer together in Sarajevo, stealing fruit from the neighbor’s gardens and quoting classic Hollywood movies. The friendship only deepened in college, where they shared everything from fiercely anti-nationalist sentiments to a pale, white boy named Milko.

“I was born blue.” This is our introduction to Kali Jai, named after the goddess of destruction in the Hindu pantheon. When we meet Kali again decades later, she is known as Paula Vauss, a brash, sharp-tongued Atlanta lawyer and narrator of Joshilyn Jackson’s new novel, The Opposite of Everyone.

Paula is a successful divorce attorney in her mid-30s, handling mostly BANK (Both Assholes, No Kids) cases. Her love life constitutes a series of sabotaged romances—the second a relationship begins to smell of intimacy or monogamy, she runs the other way. Her only family is her mother, to whom she has not spoken since college. Their only form of contact is a monthly check that Paula dutifully mails to frequently changing addresses. It is clear that Paula has managed to avoid dealing with her troubled past by pouring herself into her career. But when one of her checks is returned, Paula realizes her mother has gone missing, and she is finally forced to confront her traumatic history—with the help of her longtime friend and erstwhile lover who means more to her than she is willing to admit.

The Opposite of Everyone hurtles forward at a breakneck pace and is chock full of twists. Paula’s brutal honesty and loyal heart will make readers root for her. Jackson has woven a multilayered story that uses both folklore and mythology to explore the deep bond of mother to child and the way that the tales we tell can both define and constrain us.

A closed-off lawyer is finally forced to confront her traumatic family history—with the help of her longtime friend and erstwhile lover who means more to her than she is willing to admit

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