Katie Lewis

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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.
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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 […]
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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 […]
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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 […]
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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 […]
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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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The title character in Robin Oliveira’s Civil War novel My Name is Mary Sutter is an accomplished midwife with aspirations to be a surgeon, thwarted at every chance by men who discourage her goals. But when the soldiers are wounded at a rate faster than hands can set a tourniquet, Mary’s desire to be a surgeon becomes a necessity, and she leaves her family in Albany to lend a hand in Washington, D.C.

Oliveira’s debut novel is magnificent historical fiction. She skillfully advances the plot with Mary’s experiences—the losses of an unrequited love and family members, the doubts about continuing on her medical path—while making each character and his or her life during the war feel intrinsic to the storyline, from Mary’s twin sister to President Abraham Lincoln.

Oliveira’s characters are hushed and contemplative, yet strong and enduring. The novel is well-researched, particularly the standards for medical practice during the Civil War, and Oliveira doesn’t skimp on studied details. Instead, My Name is Mary Sutter is beaten, bloodied and sorrowful, and at times it feels as though this story will end without Mary’s shining achievement. But this isn’t simply a book about a girl who wants to be someone else; it’s the story of a woman who must summon all her strength and skill to succeed. Her skirts are weighted down by blood and a bone saw is placed into her hand while piles of limbs surround the makeshift operating table. The war requires that Mary be a surgeon, and she rises to the challenge.

It would be easy to call this novel gritty, because at times the streets are slicked by filthy snow and the battlefields scattered with bloody, fly-covered bodies. Still, Mary glows; despite her tired eyes and dirty clothes, she is floodlit from the inside with a passion to mend.

The title character in Robin Oliveira’s Civil War novel My Name is Mary Sutter is an accomplished midwife with aspirations to be a surgeon, thwarted at every chance by men who discourage her goals. But when the soldiers are wounded at a rate faster than hands can set a tourniquet, Mary’s desire to be a […]
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A writing assignment in Buenos Aires comes at the perfect time for Francesca Rivabuona. The sex has gone out of her marriage and the love is at a standstill. She is bored, and there’s nothing like an Argentinean rendezvous to spice up her life. But Francesca gets more than she expected: tango lessons during the day, milongas late at night, a city that embraces her, fast friends who gently tend to her emotions—and an affair with a famous plastic surgeon. What will these 15 days mean when she returns to her husband, George, in New York?

Patrizia Chen’s It Takes Two basks in its Buenos Aires setting. The culture, foods, language and customs are seamlessly juxtaposed with Francesca’s Italian background, each complementing the other. Francesca (along with the reader) becomes fully immersed in the city and its inhabitants, as Chen takes quick detours into the pasts of Francesca’s new friends. Her characters are the caring companions who look you in the eye as you tell a story, rather than planning their next words.

What is lovely about Chen’s novel is that her heroine is not a blond 20-something with a suspiciously senior position at a glossy magazine. She has an appropriate job and lifestyle and feelings that aren't far-fetched for a 55-year-old. And so when she begins a whirlwind affair with Roberto, after George encourages her to find sex outside their marriage, her actions are more easily forgiven. Here is a woman who establishes her own happiness away from her spouse and grown children—a course of action that's necessary to preserve her sanity but seldom pursued by women of a certain age, nor approved by outsiders. Luis, her tango teacher, tells Francesca that for her to dance well, she must imbue the movements with her own personality. Otherwise, he says, it’s as though she’s letting someone else control her movements. Francesca puts herself first, finally, as no one else has, and is pleasurably rewarded.

It Takes Two is an education in the tango’s cultural importance, the Spanish language and the means by which one character can secure her own happiness, unaided.

Katie Lewis writes from Nashville, though her head is in Buenos Aires.

A writing assignment in Buenos Aires comes at the perfect time for Francesca Rivabuona. The sex has gone out of her marriage and the love is at a standstill. She is bored, and there’s nothing like an Argentinean rendezvous to spice up her life. But Francesca gets more than she expected: tango lessons during the […]
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A father’s criticism of his son, when presented privately, can be devastating enough. The words “I’m disappointed in you” can wrap themselves around a son’s mind and heart so that all decisions henceforth must filter through that statement in fear of what words will follow those haunting four. But familial criticism in the public forum proves to be even more disastrous for Gabriel Santoro after he publishes a novel about a family friend’s 1938 immigration from Germany to Colombia—and his father, a famous professor of rhetoric, gives it a contemptuous review.

Gabriel’s anger over his father’s public denouncement of his novel sends him on a quest to work loose his father’s reasons for doing so. In the course of his research, Gabriel finds that people are not necessarily who they present themselves to be, and that his father harbors a secret that is both disquieting and illuminating.

Juan Gabriel Vázquez’s The Informers presents history as something others have said to be true; fact is but a person’s insistence that things happened as they claimed. Each character in this thoughtful, complex novel truly believes the details of certain events transpired in the way he or she chooses to remember. The story is framed by the U.S. State Department’s blacklists during WWII, and Vázquez uses this practice as a parallel for the personally concealed blacklist—thoughts that are never made public but are still devastating.

Vázquez is an excellent writer and a fine storyteller. By presenting The Informers as his narrator’s second novel—Gabriel’s attempt to mend his eminent father’s reputation with truth, good or bad, following the posthumous airing of his dirty laundry—the author reinforces the idea that there are stories within stories and there are secrets huddling inside spoken words. We come to realize that what we are told is not always truth, and taking people at their word carries with it the risk of being uninformed after all.

Katie Lewis writes from Nashville.

A father’s criticism of his son, when presented privately, can be devastating enough. The words “I’m disappointed in you” can wrap themselves around a son’s mind and heart so that all decisions henceforth must filter through that statement in fear of what words will follow those haunting four. But familial criticism in the public forum […]
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In Rita Gray's Mama Mine, Mama Mine, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, the mother of each animal leaves her brood during the day to take care of her responsibilities: Cats must catch rats, pigs must eat and sheep must be shorn. The baby animal calls after its mother, "When will you come back?" She explains that while she must go about her duties, she will always return. A young boy plays during the day as his mother feeds the chickens, does laundry and gathers wool. After his mother finishes her work, she lovingly scoops her son up into her arms as she had promised that morning—"I'll come back, come back to you." Though Gray's story educates readers about each animal's function on the farm, it is also a reassuring depiction of a mother's love. The verses' repetition will lull even the most active readers to sleep after a long day of playing farm.

E-I-E-I-O!
The team of New York Times best-selling author David Elliott and Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Holly Meade has produced the delightful On the Farm. Separately going about their bustling daily lives, each farm creature has a unique routine, voice and disposition. The rooster is crowing, cows are grazing, turtles are swimming and the snake is coiled up in the garden, all while the farmer is tending to his duties. Each member of the farm has a regular role to play. Elliott's verses capture a reverence for animals unfamiliar to cityfolk, and Meade's watercolor and woodcut illustrations—a first for one of her picture books—are serene and beautiful. The subdued colors make this farm scene a quiet reflection of everyday patterns.

DIRTY WORK
In contrast, Stuck in the Mud captures the hectic busyness of life on a muddy farm. It begins as a normal morning: The animals slowly wake and the farmer and his wife begin to straighten the house. The hen is counting her chicks when she realizes that one of them is missing. A brief, frantic search discovers the chick in the mucky mud, but he's stucky stuck. In the name of teamwork, each member of the farm—hen, cat, dog, sheep, horse and, finally, the farmer—jumps in and becomes stuck as well. They push and they pull, but the mud just won't give way to release their feet. When the little chick easily hops out of the mud with a "plop!," even the littlest farm mouse is rolling with laughter. Jane Clarke's frenzied story is brought to life by Garry Parsons' bright, comical artwork. Readers will enjoy the story's rhythm, which makes it an excellent read-aloud choice.

VOTE DUCK
Just in time for the presidential race, a new edition of Duck for President offers a hilarious look at the campaign trail. Every animal on Farmer Brown's place has chores to do, but Duck is sick and tired of his. He thinks he can do a much better job than the farmer and decides to hold an election. Running on a platform that promises "a kinder, gentler farm," Duck wins by a muddy landslide. Once he realizes how difficult running a farm really is, he opts to run for governor. But why stop there? The Caldecott Honor-winning duo of author Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin (Click, Clack, Moo) follow our feathered friend all the way to the White House, where he learns that farm work isn't so bad after all. And there's even a blurb from real-life politicos Mary Matalin and James Carville.

In Rita Gray's Mama Mine, Mama Mine, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, the mother of each animal leaves her brood during the day to take care of her responsibilities: Cats must catch rats, pigs must eat and sheep must be shorn. The baby animal calls after its mother, "When will you come back?" She explains that […]
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Making a move that is guaranteed to delight his fans, John Grisham returns to form with his first legal thriller in three years, The Appeal.

The novel finds Grisham in familiar territory—the courtroom—but it begins in an unconventional way: with the end. When the verdict is announced in the novel's first chapter, readers are immediately thrown into the case and the controversy that surrounds it. The husband-and-wife legal team of Wes and Mary Grace Payton is representing Jeannette Baker in an effort to prove that her son and husband died as a result of contaminated water. On the other side of this battle is the chemical company accused of dumping toxic waste into the water supply. After a protracted trial and agonizing deliberations, the jury finally delivers its verdict. The chemical company appeals to the Mississippi Supreme Court, though lawyers don't anticipate a favorable outcome. Enter Wall Street billionaire and chemical company owner Carl Trudeau, who purchases a court seat with pocket change—a few million dollars. The fate of the case is left up to the nine state Supreme Court justices, one of whom is ensnared in conspiracy. The judicial system may never be viewed in quite the same way again.

Grisham's literary dynasty and avid fan following have been built on his remarkable ability to produce a blockbuster novel every year, nine of which have been turned into feature films. Beginning with 1991's The Firm, his second novel and first big success, Grisham established his place in thriller history by writing suspenseful tales about the judicial system. Fans have come to expect frequent twists and turns that leave them on the edge of their armchairs.

Though Grisham has made successful detours from this formula recently, with the comic novel Playing for Pizza and his first nonfiction work, The Innocent Man, his return to the legal fiction realm is an event long anticipated by both avid readers and Grisham himself. "I still enjoy writing the legal thrillers," Grisham has said of his latest book, "and don't plan to get too far away from them. Obviously, they have been very good to me, and they remain popular. I plan to write one a year for the next several years." Grisham, who turns 53 this month, has more than 225 million books in print worldwide, and his work has been translated into 29 languages. A decade ago, Publishers Weekly estimated that Grisham's earnings had made him a billion-dollar man. Not bad for someone who began writing as a hobby. The Arkansas native and Ole Miss-educated author's pastime evolved into a career—though only 5,000 initial copies were printed of his 1988 debut A Time to Kill, which took him three years to write—after years of practicing law. His detailed mastery of the legal genre, which focuses on lawyers and their associates, is due in part to his personal understanding of the legal system.

Grisham's most recent appearance in a courtroom came in 1996, when he honored a long-standing commitment to represent the family of a railroad brakeman killed in an accident. A jury awarded the family more than $600,000 in the case. Grisham, who served in the Mississippi legislature during the 1980s, retains a keen interest in politics (he hosted an early fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in 2007) but says he has no intention of running for office again. "I enjoy watching and participating in politics from the sidelines, but it's best to keep some distance," he says.

Bookstore patrons and moviegoers may find it difficult to keep their distance from the nonstop writer—and who'd want to?—but there is little risk of a complete Grisham overload: Though his work can be found on the bookshelves and the big screen, don't expect to catch him pitching Gillette razors while you're flipping channels. The intensely private author continues to refuse offers of personal appearances and sponsorship, and he seems to live a tranquil life. He and his family divide their time between a home in Mississippi and a plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia, remaining largely out of the public eye. This eagerly anticipated return to the genre that made Grisham a household name is another page-turning installment from start to finish. A verdict has been reached: The people are craving another Grisham legal thriller.

Making a move that is guaranteed to delight his fans, John Grisham returns to form with his first legal thriller in three years, The Appeal. The novel finds Grisham in familiar territory—the courtroom—but it begins in an unconventional way: with the end. When the verdict is announced in the novel's first chapter, readers are immediately […]

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