Karen Ann Cullotta

The bibliography tucked at the tail end of Philippa Gregory's The Other Queen might come as a surprise to those who assume that only nonfiction writers are rooted to the rigors of scholarly research. For this best-selling author of novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover, a passion for historical accuracy is the cornerstone of her abundant story-telling gift. Deftly weaving fact and fiction into a lyrical, literary tapestry that transcends the boundaries of the too-often predictable genre of historical fiction, Gregory has once again crafted a mesmerizing novel that will keep readers turning pages deep into the night.

Gregory's legions of loyal fans are already well aware of the author's aptitude for capturing the timeless pathos of 16th-century Englishwomen, royals and peasants alike. Perhaps never before has Mary, Queen of Scots, been portrayed in such a contemporary, complex manner: a beautiful, charming, headstrong and spoiled young woman who is both maddeningly self-absorbed and overwhelmingly courageous. The same is true for the novel's anti-heroine, Bess of Hardwick, who transcends her hardscrabble childhood via a trail of calculated betrothals and consequent widowhoods. Proud and pragmatic, Bess harbors no illusions about romantic love, and instead, sets her heart on the comforts of rank and financial security, a coup she achieves with her final marriage, to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.

Nonetheless, after Bess and George Talbot are asked by Queen Elizabeth to provide "sanctuary" for the beleaguered Mary, Queen of Scots, the couple's companionable marriage is jeopardized, with poor George smitten by the young queen's winsome ways, and his once implacable wife reeling with jealousy and, worse, the discovery that she is once again on the brink of poverty.

In the end, which arrives after a series of riveting chapters alternating between the voices and perspectives of Mary, Bess and George, nothing is what it seems. This spell-binding tale of Elizabethan England adds up to a novel as sweet and thorny as a wild English rose.

Karen Ann Cullotta is a freelance writer and journalism instructor in Chicago.

The bibliography tucked at the tail end of Philippa Gregory's The Other Queen might come as a surprise to those who assume that only nonfiction writers are rooted to the rigors of scholarly research. For this best-selling author of novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen's Fool and The Virgin's Lover, a passion […]

Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell.

The novel opens with a prologue set in 1975, as college-bound Samantha “Sam” McGinty is leaving behind her hometown, Erietown, but carrying plenty of emotional baggage along with her vintage suitcase. On the road trip to Kent State, she’s accompanied by her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother, Reilly. It’s a trip that hints at Sam’s childhood scars even before the story begins to unfold through a series of flashbacks, starting in 1944.

After being abandoned by her ne’er-do-well parents, Ellie is raised by her grandparents, kind and decent folks whose old age has been interrupted by the demands of another round of child rearing. The youngest of 12 children, Brick grows up with a violent, alcoholic father, who is mourning the death of his favorite son, killed in the war, and a loving mother, who is also a victim of the patriarch’s wrath. By the time Ellie and Brick are teenagers—she’s a cheerleader, he’s the captain of the basketball team—the young lovers are inseparable and looking forward to college, careers and eventually marriage and a family.

But those dreams are dashed by an unplanned pregnancy, a quickie marriage and a move to a dilapidated rental house near the electric plant where Brick finds employment. Before long, the young couple and their baby, Sam, have settled into a routine, with Ellie raising their child and visiting with friends, and Brick turning to a corner tavern and womanizing—with catastrophic consequences.

While Schultz’s compelling narrative and realistic characters will keep readers turning pages into the night, her eye and ear for real-life details set this novel apart from other domestic sagas. Part tragic love story, part powerful testament to shifting cultural norms and the evolution of the women’s movement, The Daughters of Erietown is an impressive first novel with a big heart.

Journalist Connie Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, stories that “provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.” So it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, The Daughters of Erietown, is a plain-spoken elegy to small-town, working-class women with big stories to tell.

For young Ben and his posse at Bailey Academy, most of the grown-ups in their lives are either dead, dying or dysfunctional. But despite the bleak subject matter of Ann Beattie’s latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ben’s adolescent angst and ensuing quarter-life crisis is riven with hope and humor.

The story begins when the bucolic bubble encompassing Ben’s posh New Hampshire boarding school is burst by news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, propelling the students further into the thrall of their Svengali-like teacher Pierre LaVerdere, whose role as their charismatic mentor and in loco parentis is solidified.

Beattie’s novel moves from the abrupt conclusion of Ben and his friends’ boarding school days straight into young adulthood, giving only a cursory mention of their college days. Wealthy and smart, Ben and company were admitted to the likes of Cornell and Stanford, but their elite pedigrees have not prepared them for the indignities of the early aughts. Struggling to hold a steady job and even harder to maintain a relationship, Ben pivots between his devotion to a sex-crazed narcissist and his obsession with an old boarding school crush.

When Ben escapes Manhattan and buys a house in the Hudson Valley’s idyllic Rhinebeck, he finds a kind of family in the warm embrace of his new neighbors, Steve, Ginny and their young daughter, Maude. Beattie’s belief in Ben’s inherent decency is most evident in these passages, as our brooding antihero discovers friendship, camaraderie and a sense of belonging. Alas, without spoiling the ending, LaVerdere arrives back on the scene, delivering a shocking revelation that brings Ben—and readers—into the heart of Beattie’s postmodernist Greek tragedy, where the luck of these self-absorbed scions of the so-called “1 percent” is not nearly as wonderful as one might think.

Beattie serves up an unflinchingly bleak—albeit sometimes laugh-out-loud humorous—serving of millennial malaise. It’s almost entirely character-driven, with plot far less important than dialogue, reflecting Beattie’s keen ear for not only what is said but also what is left unsaid, often with tragic consequences.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Ann Beattie for A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.

For young Ben and his posse at Bailey Academy, most of the grown-ups in their lives are either dead, dying or dysfunctional. But despite the bleak subject matter of Ann Beattie’s latest novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ben’s adolescent angst and ensuing quarter-life crisis is riven with hope and humor.

Considering that author Louise Miller (The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living) is a Boston-based pastry chef, it should come as no surprise that her second novel, The Late Bloomers’ Club, includes a recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake with Maple Icing.

The heroine of Miller’s second novel, Nora, the owner of the Miss Guthrie Diner, makes her living serving up comfort food to locals and visitors alike in a small town in rural Vermont that finds itself at the crossroads of preserving tradition and embracing economic development. Peppered with a cast of characters that includes Nora’s younger sister Kit, Kit’s significant other (both aspiring filmmakers) and an assortment of working-class heroes, the novel unfolds after the town’s beloved “cake lady,” Peggy Johnson, dies in a car crash. Peggy, whose property is targeted for a big-box development, has left behind a will designating Nora as the beneficiary of her estate—a gesture that proves both a boon and a burden to the cash-strapped Nora, who soon finds herself torn between loyalty to the residents of Guthrie and the prospect of financial freedom.

As Nora navigates between searching for Peggy’s lost dog, Freckles, who fled after the crash, and sidestepping her ex-husband’s overtures and dalliances, she finds herself alternately attracted to and angered by none other than the big-box developer, Elliot.

Readers with a sweet tooth and a passion for dogs are sure to enjoy The Late Bloomers’ Club. It’s a charming tale of life in a small town populated by good people struggling to make ends meet and refusing to relinquish the pastoral beauty of their rural hometown.

 

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

Considering that author Louise Miller (The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living) is a Boston-based pastry chef, it should come as no surprise that her second novel, The Late Bloomers’ Club, includes a recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake with Maple Icing.

With the exceedingly rare exception of literary genius, a first novel from even the most gifted short story writer is a risky effort, and not always successful. This is why Jane Delury is deserving of recognition: With immense storytelling gifts and spare but luminous prose, she is one of the few writers whose debut will have readers begging for a second novel.

The Balcony unfolds in 10 nonchronological chapters—each of which could be a perfect short story—that introduce a cast of characters spanning several generations from 1890 to 2009. From great loves and fleeting lust to hunger and genocide, each character’s story is connected to a once lavish estate (including a servants’ cottage, a manor and, of course, a balcony) in the French countryside. Families appear, then reappear in later chapters: “A Place in the Country” introduces the Havres, whose descendants and lasting heartbreak thread throughout several other sections. The actions of a World War II resistance hero affect the lives of his grandsons, whose own children continue to bear the weight of choices made before them.

The Balcony beckons readers to abandon preconceptions about generational legacies, motherhood and the ideal, pastoral French village. Benneville, the fictional setting of Delury’s novel, was nearly destroyed by bombs during World War II and, a generation later, is a hardscrabble, industrial exurb of Paris in the midst of gentrification. As Delury describes, it’s far from charming: “This was not exactly the country—Benneville had grown since Jacques was a boy, moving closer to Paris on a wave of concrete.”

The final chapter of The Balcony is written in a dramatically different freeform style, and some readers will wish for a more satisfying ending without Delury’s sudden embrace of a quirky, unconventional structure. However, this is a small concern, and readers are more likely to lament that the novel has come to a close, leaving them longing for more.

Delury is sure to win the hearts of all those who appreciate a smart, elegantly written story.

 

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

With the exceedingly rare exception of literary genius, a first novel from even the most gifted short story writer is a risky effort, and not always successful. This is why Jane Delury is deserving of recognition: With immense storytelling gifts and spare but luminous prose, she is one of the few writers whose debut will have readers begging for a second novel.

If there were a literary recipe for bestselling author Lauren Willig’s novel The English Wife, it would include blending equal parts historical fiction and British murder mystery, a dash of “Downton Abbey” and a pinch of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age.

That’s not to say The English Wife is cliché or formulaic; on the contrary, readers will be alternately delighted and shocked by this page-turner that features a dual narrative tethered to the social caste systems that straddled the pond in the late 19th century.

One of the novel’s two heroines, Georgie, is a former English showgirl and the wife of the wealthy American Bayard Van Duyvil—a blueblood from a distinguished, albeit dysfunctional, New York family. This unlikely match is kindled in London, where Bayard rescues Georgie from a life of poverty and hardship and brings her to New York, much to the chagrin of his mother, the formidable matriarch Mrs. Van Duyvil.

The tale begins with what appears to be a double murder at a New York society gala, and then unfolds in flashbacks, moving from late 19th-century London’s mean streets, where Georgie works as an actress, to the storied banks of the Hudson, where the Van Duyvil’s gracious manse is a hub for the old Dutch Knickerbocker society, which includes the Astors and Vanderbilts.

When Bayard’s sister, Janie, encounters an ambitious New York journalist determined to crack the case of the so-called Knickerbocker society murders, their working relationship evolves into a wary friendship, with the heartbroken heiress and cynical reporter both determined to uncover the truth.

This elegantly written tale will keep readers guessing until the final chapter.

If there were a literary recipe for bestselling author Lauren Willig’s novel The English Wife, it would include blending equal parts historical fiction and British murder mystery, a dash of “Downton Abbey” and a pinch of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age.

Arriving just in time for summer, Rosecrans Baldwin’s new novel, The Last Kid Left, is set in a New England beach town, where the bucolic, sea-swept terrain is smote by a double murder allegedly committed by a teenager, whose girlfriend’s foray into digital, private pornography ends up going viral. Indeed, readers best beware that Baldwin’s dark and brooding narrative is by no means a light and breezy “beach read,” and on the contrary, requires an appreciation for a murder mystery/love story in which the plot is inhabited solely by a cast of antiheroes, both male and female, who are not always easy to love.

Inspired by a true 1930s crime in New England and imbued with vestiges of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter—one of Baldwin’s favorite works—The Last Kid Left begins when a car, driven by 19-year-old Nick Toussaint Jr., crashes into a kitschy sculpture of a cowgirl, prompting police to discover the teen has two bodies in the trunk: a prominent town doctor and his wife. Nick is charged with the murders, thrusting his already fragile 16-year-old girlfriend, Emily Portis, into a media maelstrom fueled by a hungry pack of journalists, one of whom realizes her reluctant return to her hometown of Claymore is entirely serendipitous. Meanwhile, a recently retired veteran police officer, the beleaguered recovering alcoholic Martin, finds himself drawn to the case at precisely the moment his toxic second marriage implodes. As Baldwin writes: “The clock reads four. In less than twenty-four hours the department will throw him a retirement party. Going by previous nights out, everyone will get drunk, sing his praises, wake up the next morning, and hop in a radio car and resume routine. Everyone except him.”

When Martin meets Nick’s mother, Suzanne, a fellow alcoholic who has not yet hopped aboard the recovery wagon, their shared obsession with proving the troubled teen’s innocence sparks a relationship that proves redemptive for both of them.

Without spoiling the ending of this finely wrought thriller, Baldwin’s novel steers clear of tidy endings, remaining faithful to delivering a story that ebbs and flows with the messiness of real life.

Arriving just in time for summer, Rosecrans Baldwin’s new novel, The Last Kid Left, is set in a New England beach town, where the bucolic, sea-swept terrain is smote by a double murder allegedly committed by a teenager, whose girlfriend’s foray into digital, private pornography ends up going viral. Indeed, readers best beware that Baldwin’s dark and brooding narrative is by no means a light and breezy “beach read,” and on the contrary, requires an appreciation for a murder mystery/love story in which the plot is inhabited solely by a cast of antiheroes, both male and female, who are not always easy to love.

It is the rare debut novel that reveals a writer of such immense talent as to achieve a dazzling literary home run the first time up to bat. Such is the case with Benjamin Ludwig’s Ginny Moon, an extraordinary coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a 14-year-old protagonist with autism.

Ginny’s disability isn’t even the most formidable challenge facing this plucky young heroine, who has survived the horrors of living with her violent, drug-addicted mother, Gloria, as well as a sad trail of failed foster care placements.

Ludwig’s novel begins as Ginny has finally found solace in the “Blue House” with her “Forever Parents,” a courageous young couple who, despite their determination to be the teen’s salvation, soon realize that they have signed up for more struggles than they anticipated. When Ginny becomes obsessed with reuniting with her birth mother and her beloved “baby doll,” her adoptive parents and school officials alike must struggle to keep the teen safe from her impulsive and methodical, albeit well-intentioned, behavior.

Despite the novel’s sobering subject matter, including child abuse, kidnapping and the realities of living with an autistic child, Ludwig has interjected his often-heartbreaking narrative with laugh-out-loud observations from Ginny, who loves Michael Jackson and displays a wicked sense of humor.

In a letter to his readers, Ludwig explains that he and his wife experienced similar, although less dramatic, challenges after adopting an autistic teenager, who helped inspire this tremendous debut novel.

 

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

It is the rare debut novel that reveals a writer of such immense talent as to achieve a dazzling literary home run the first time up to bat. Such is the case with Benjamin Ludwig’s Ginny Moon, an extraordinary coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a 14-year-old protagonist with autism.

Despite its pastoral title, Jennifer Ryan’s compelling and exquisitely wrought World War II-era novel is far removed from the stereotypical cozy British village story. Rooted in the bucolic countryside of Kent, the novel is told in a series of letters and journal entries penned by an eclectic cast of characters, all of whom are members of their village’s first ladies’ choir—a musical distinction born of necessity rather than choice.

Indeed, with the village’s sons, brothers, husbands and lovers heading off to join the war effort, Chilbury is virtually absent of men. For the women they have left behind, the emotional burdens to be borne include the lonely widow Mrs. Tilling’s fears for the safety of her only son; village beauty Venetia Winthrop’s illicit romance with an enigmatic artist; intrepid musical prodigy Kitty’s ill-fated attempts to gain attention; and the haunted Jewish refugee Silvie’s harboring of a family secret.

While the poignant narratives that unfold in each letter and journal entry are imbued with the struggles of a town reeling from the ravages of yet another war, the bleakness is tempered by romance, mystery and even crime—in particular, a daring act of deception performed by Miss Edwina Paltry, a conniving member of the Winthrops’ household staff. 

Readers will be delighted to hear that the television rights to this splendid novel have already been optioned by Carnival TV—the production company behind “Downton Abbey.” With The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, Ryan has crafted a riveting debut novel that is certain to resonate with readers on both sides of the pond.

 

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

Despite its pastoral title, Jennifer Ryan’s compelling and exquisitely wrought World War II-era novel is far removed from the stereotypical cozy British village story. Rooted in the bucolic countryside of Kent, the novel is told in a series of letters and journal entries penned by an eclectic cast of characters, all of whom are members of their village’s first ladies’ choir—a musical distinction born of necessity rather than choice.

Despite the abundance of Massachusetts coastline that serves as a backdrop for Leaving Lucy Pear, readers should be warned that Anna Solomon’s novel has nothing in common with your typical summer beach read.

Solomon’s story begins in 1917, when Beatrice Haven—an unwed, albeit wealthy, young Jewish mother—makes the heartbreaking decision to abandon her infant daughter beneath a pear tree. The baby, named Lucy Pear, is quickly rescued by Emma Murphy, an impoverished Irish Catholic who already has her hands more than full trying to feed, clothe and care for a growing family of her own. Lucy is thrust into a world far removed from that of her birth family, but Solomon avoids clichés proclaiming the nobility and selflessness of the poor. Industrialists have grown rich on profits hewn from the broken bones and spirits of the working class, and Solomon’s nuanced story depicts the catastrophe that results when these two disparate spheres collide—both in the larger world, and through the lens of Lucy’s experience with the two women who love her.

Spanning the Great War and Prohibition and deftly delving into the social issues of the time, Leaving Lucy Pear is the perfect choice for readers who appreciate the rigor and richness of literary fiction.

 

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

Despite the abundance of Massachusetts coastline that serves as a backdrop for Leaving Lucy Pear, readers should be warned that Anna Solomon’s novel has nothing in common with your typical summer beach read.

Call it serendipity, but when author Eleanor Brown stumbled upon a cache of letters chronicling her grandmother’s Jazz Age journey to Paris, the circa 1924  correspondence inspired a novel that pays homage to a chapter of her family’s history, but with a fictional and decidedly modern twist.

Readers who relished Brown’s debut novel, The Weird Sisters, will not be surprised to find that The Light of Paris is also rooted to the timeless themes of home and family, and the messy conflicts that ensue when venerable traditions are threatened by personal independence. 

Brown’s latest heroine, 34-year-old Madeleine Spencer, has forfeited her dream of becoming an artist in order to please her controlling, judgmental mother and the country club set. One day, Madeline has had enough: She packs her bags, walks out on a miserable marriage and heads—where else?—from Chicago back South to her family home in Magnolia, where she discovers inspiration in her grandmother Margie’s journals.

If Madeleine’s narcissistic, stunningly handsome and successful spouse, Phillip, is painted with broad strokes that seem slightly implausible for a book set in 1999 (the couple is childless, but Phillip does not allow Madeleine to work), Brown can be forgiven: Without exception, the other characters populating her novel are achingly real.

Written in a dual narrative style, with colorful chapters from Margie in 1924, interspersed with modern-day chapters in Madeleine’s voice, this page-turner is sure to be a summer favorite with readers who have visited, and loved, Paris, as well as those who understand the tragedy of family history repeating itself. As Brown writes: “So it ran in the family, then, this estrangement. There was a sadness in my mother’s eyes I had never seen before, and it made my heart ache for her, and for myself. How had we spent our entire lives lying to each other? How had she denied herself to me—her real self—for so long?”

Still, it would be inaccurate to sum up The Light of Paris as entirely a mother-daughter story. Brown’s deft narrative touch has also created two love stories as well as an endearing cast of peripheral characters from Magnolia who keep the plot lively, and who, above all, prove that you can indeed go home again.

Call it serendipity, but when author Eleanor Brown stumbled upon a cache of letters chronicling her grandmother’s Jazz Age journey to Paris, the circa 1924 correspondence inspired a novel that pays homage to a chapter of her family’s history, but with a fictional and decidedly modern twist.

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