Katie Lewis

Legendary writer M.M. “Mimi” Banning hid herself away after feeling suffocated by the fame that accompanied winning a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award at age 20. The only piece of work the reclusive author has managed to produce since then is her son, Frank, a brilliant fourth-grader who uses smart 1930s garb—like pocket squares and wingtips—and facts about the movie business as armor. But after losing her fortune, the tetchy literary talent must write a new book ASAP. 

Enter Alice Whitley, an assistant deployed by Mimi’s editor to travel from New York City to L.A. to make sure Mimi is working. But Mimi doesn’t want Alice’s help, and Alice instead finds herself tasked with being Frank’s companion. Both taken with and frustrated by Frank’s eccentricites, Alice can’t help but be curious about the identity of the boy’s father—and how his handsome, flirty piano teacher fits into the cloistered family’s life. Meanwhile, Alice gently urges the frequently unpleasant Mimi to please, please finish her book.

In her debut, Julia Claiborne Johnson ably conjures a quirky cast and a privileged California world. Be Frank with Me is about being an outsider and the ways in which differences help others see the world in a new way. Like Frank, this offbeat story has a big heart.

 

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

Legendary writer M.M. “Mimi” Banning hid herself away after feeling suffocated by the fame that accompanied winning a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award at age 20. The only piece of work the reclusive author has managed to produce since then is her son, Frank, a brilliant fourth-grader who uses smart 1930s garb—like pocket squares and wingtips—and facts about the movie business as armor. But after losing her fortune, the tetchy literary talent must write a new book ASAP.

Life should be a picnic for Peter, a bright 14-year-old footballer who lives off the coast of Denmark. But then his eccentric parents—a vicar and an organist—decide to increase church attendance through controlled miracles, a quest that leads to their disappearance. When Peter learns that their acts could mean prison time, he and his two older siblings, Tilte and Hans, set off to save their family.

The tale takes the three clever siblings around their fictitious Danish island of Finø (stops include a brothel and a castle). Despite the chaos of travel, Peter finds time to ruminate on difficult facts of life: his eventual separation from his siblings as they become distinct from their three-buddy circle; the loneliness he’s been courting; and his future death. Youth can be painful and sad, and author Peter Høeg does not trivialize the children’s emotions.

Høeg is best known for his modern classic Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a literary thriller. The Elephant Keepers’ Children—which would also appeal to YA readers—is both suspenseful and a coming-of-age adventure, recalling Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011). Here, the adults are the Toms to the children’s Jerrys, both dazed (imagine stars circling their heads) and foiled by disguises. Middle sibling Tilte calls her parents “elephant keepers,” meaning they have an unfulfilled desire that’s bigger than they are: the desire to know God. Pairing complex ideas with youthful scheming, The Elephant Keepers’ Children is both somber and vibrant, just like childhood itself.

 

Life should be a picnic for Peter, a bright 14-year-old footballer who lives off the coast of Denmark. But then his eccentric parents—a vicar and an organist—decide to increase church attendance through controlled miracles, a quest that leads to their disappearance. When Peter learns that their acts could mean prison time, he and his two […]

Ginny knows that trouble is bound to find the Slocumb household this year. After all, she’s turning 45, and every 15 years brings a pregnancy or other heartache to the family. This year is no different: A child’s bones, dress and toy are found buried beneath their backyard willow tree. The scandalous discovery sends Ginny into the arms of a married former love; drives 30-year-old Liza—already stricken nearly silent by a stroke—to regain her language and expose the truth; and sends 15-year-old Mosey and her best friend out to unearth the mystery of her past.

New York Times best-selling author Joshilyn Jackson’s A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty shows the strength of these Mississippi women—and the ties that bind them. Alternately told in their three voices, the story is Southern in vernacular but modernized in a way that other Southern stories often are not. Like Jackson’s previous four novels, it presents the real South in a tale that is less interested in the stereotypical poverty, hackneyed regional idioms (think “knee-high to a grasshopper”) and unbearable humidity than in the lives of three fiercely brave women, who just happen to be Southern.

The Slocumb women’s choices aren’t always the right ones, but they know that even bad decisions are theirs to make. After all, sometimes the path to contentment is a winding one, and the journey chronicled in A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty includes a dangerous road trip, a forest sex lair, swimming pool physical therapy, poison, handfuls of pregnancy tests, drugs, text messages and attempted communication through photographs. But through it all, the Slocumbs have each other’s love and support.

Jackson’s engrossing fifth novel is a mystery, comedy and drama wrapped up in one.

Ginny knows that trouble is bound to find the Slocumb household this year. After all, she’s turning 45, and every 15 years brings a pregnancy or other heartache to the family. This year is no different: A child’s bones, dress and toy are found buried beneath their backyard willow tree. The scandalous discovery sends Ginny […]

A request from an old family friend lures Madeline Stone from her stale life as a Chicago waitress to Lake Superior’s coast. McAllaster, Michigan, is only 500 miles from home, but to Madeline, who just lost her adoptive mother, the landscape feels further from anything she’s experienced before: Icebergs bob and waves lash a town that time forgot.

As she cares for a sweet elderly woman—and butts heads with the woman’s stubborn sister—Madeline discovers the town hasn’t forgotten her. Nor has it forgotten the young, wild mother who abandoned her. Madeline learns bit by bit of her family’s connection to the land—and to the shuttered Hotel Leppinen, which she is sneakily using as a nighttime painting studio.

South of Superior is a story about home, what people are willing to fight for, the weight of friendships and continued ambition. Despite Madeline’s move to a one-stoplight town, she never stops dreaming: She wants to sell paintings, illustrate books and run a destination hotel. A romantic storyline takes a backseat to allow for Madeline’s self-actualization, and it’s a treat to read a book starring such a stirring female lead. Ellen Airgood, who has spent the last 19 years in the Upper Peninsula, knows small-town life and portrays its positive and negative aspects with affection and feeling. Readers will tear through this engrossing story.

A request from an old family friend lures Madeline Stone from her stale life as a Chicago waitress to Lake Superior’s coast. McAllaster, Michigan, is only 500 miles from home, but to Madeline, who just lost her adoptive mother, the landscape feels further from anything she’s experienced before: Icebergs bob and waves lash a town […]

The protagonist in Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, is one we’ve met before. The unnamed 14-year-old narrator is reminiscent of Lee Fiora in Prep, Eveline in Anthropology of an American Girl and writer Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There’d Be Cake). But she’s seemingly sourced from every girl’s childhood.

There are the disastrous babysitting escapades the teen and her best friend Felicia, who feign British accents, find themselves in; the horrible and oh-so-familiar feeling when a clique of popular girls leave her at a slumber party to meet, ugh, boys; and the three feral kittens the besties hide in a camper, much to their mothers’ chagrin.

So goes In Zanesville: The story of a few months in a 1970s adolescent’s life is so accurately portrayed, the dialogue so precisely rendered, the inner monologue so painfully evocative that the reader plainly remembers being the late-blooming teen herself. The book isn’t nostalgic, because Beard doesn’t write as an adult recalling how she thinks she felt way back when. Instead, the novel reads like a diary of a girl’s 14th year, complete with the dual terror and delight of a possible phone call from a boy and the gut-wrenching discovery of parents’ flawed humanity.

Beard’s narrator is eclectic, thoughtful, witty, imaginative and constantly trying to catch up to her peers, who already seem to know how the world works. The novel is as aching as “The Wonder Years,” but instead of following Kevin and Winnie, the book celebrates the relationship between two misfit best friends. To read In Zanesville is to step back in time—revisiting the bitter and the sweet memories we all share.

The protagonist in Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, is one we’ve met before. The unnamed 14-year-old narrator is reminiscent of Lee Fiora in Prep, Eveline in Anthropology of an American Girl and writer Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There’d Be Cake). But she’s seemingly sourced from every girl’s childhood. There are the disastrous […]

In her last 11 books, Jane Green has created friends who become family and family who become estranged. Her characters have had their hearts broken, their dreams realized and their health jeopardized. Green’s latest work, Promises to Keep, maintains her tried-and-true formula but has special meaning for the author, who says writing this novel helped her cope with the loss of a dear friend.

The characters in Promises to Keep are going about their lives, dating, raising kids and searching for meaning, when one of them, a cancer survivor, falls ill again. What follows is what Green does best: A group of people—some blood-related, some kindred spirits—rallies for Callie Perry. They take her flowers and food—establishing an important community theme in the novel—with a recipe between each chapter. They make sure her kids are loved and entertained, and her husband stable. Instead of approaching Callie’s illness from the sick woman’s perspective, Green shows the disease as she knows it best: from the standpoint of someone watching their loved one shrink away.

The reader is able to go through the grieving process without distraction, as these characters are all who they seem: Callie’s doting husband does not cheat, her best friend does not neglect her and her children don’t turn against her. By not building characters for shock value, Green creates a scene of what has become a large family drinking wine and eating chips on Callie’s bed as she dozes between bouts of laughter. The reader views the image from the doorway of a room floodlit with spirit. Promises to Keep is a thoughtful, poignant tribute to cancer victims and those who were impacted by their abbreviated, shining lives.

In her last 11 books, Jane Green has created friends who become family and family who become estranged. Her characters have had their hearts broken, their dreams realized and their health jeopardized. Green’s latest work, Promises to Keep, maintains her tried-and-true formula but has special meaning for the author, who says writing this novel helped […]

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