Melissa Brown

A Ballad of Love and Glory rides the waves of war and the bloom of lovers’ passion, intertwining real events of the Mexican-American War with a vividly imagined relationship between a forlorn Irish immigrant soldier and a grieving Mexican curandera, or folk healer.

In her fourth novel, Mexican American author Reyna Grande explores a little-known aspect of the Mexican-American War. After the annexation of Texas in 1845, hostilities between the United States and Mexico approached a boiling point due to a land dispute near the Rio Grande. At the time, foreign-born soldiers, primarily from Ireland, Germany and Italy, made up nearly half of the U.S. Army. After the American invasion of Mexico, many of the soldiers deserted the army in favor of Mexico’s cause as they resisted further land takeover and domination by the U.S.

In Grande’s detailed and well-researched novel, Irish Catholic immigrant John Riley, who is based on a real figure, deserts the U.S. Army in 1846. Enticed by the promise of better treatment, more pay and acres of land, John joins the Mexican Army, leading a growing battalion of deserters under Saint Patrick’s banner. They become known as the San Patricios.

Meanwhile, after Texas Rangers murder her husband, Ximena Salomé uses all the healing skills her grandmother taught her to bring comfort and relief to the many soldiers felled by each brutal battle. Her fate becomes inextricably bound with John’s while saving the life of one of his fellow soldiers, and in time, longing leads them to each other’s arms.

Grande’s novel highlights the abuses that American immigrants suffered at the hands of Yankee soldiers, in addition to the atrocities of war and all the maddening political and military machinations that go along with it. Although A Ballad of Love and Glory lags in pace or falls into cliche at times, it also often excels at making history palpable and real, not dry and unimpassioned but lively and full of the emotions the people of the past surely felt.

A Ballad of Love and Glory lives up to its title as it pays tribute to the heroism of everyday people called upon to defend their honor as well as their lives.

A Ballad of Love and Glory lives up to its title as it pays tribute to the heroism of everyday people called upon to defend their honor as well as their lives.

“Life, this up and down life” is on full, multifaceted display in Ethan Joella’s debut novel. A Little Hope begins with a family facing one of life’s greatest tests: a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer within white blood cells. Greg Tyler and his wife, Freddie, are caught up in worry and fear. How do they tell their daughter, Addie, that Greg is sick? What will the next looming doctor’s appointment reveal? The calendar year may be sliding into fall and then winter, but it is just the beginning of a long, unknown road that neither of them wants to take. And they are not the only ones questioning and wrestling. They are so very far from alone.

The small, fictional town of Wharton, Connecticut, is a well-connected community of characters who feel like people you know or people you could be: mothers and sons, wives and husbands, lovers and friends, parents and those soon to be. The cast of characters—Freddie and Greg, Ginger, Luke, Iris, Alex and Kay, Suzette, Damon, Ahmed, Darcy—are honest as they move through the vagaries of love, illness, infidelity, death or disappointment as best they can, searching for a foothold in the midst of all that is happening. Their unceasing thoughts and fickle feelings all strike a familiar and fully human chord.

Joella’s poetic side shines in his moving but never maudlin novel. He captures loneliness, sadness, happiness and anger in all their fleeting hues. He has created a truly intertwined world around the Tylers, portraying their neighbors truthfully yet kindly. From beginning to end, A Little Hope finds the grace of the everyday and homes in on the surprises (both heavy and light) that each day can hold.

Life is both painful and hopeful, but in Joella’s world, it is blessedly more of the latter.

Life is both painful and hopeful, but in Ethan Joella’s debut novel, it is blessedly more of the latter.

Vidya is a girl set apart in her time, growing up in a crowded tenement in 1960s Bombay, a place that does not value girls as it does boys. She chafes against men’s unwanted attention, and her dark skin makes her feel alienated by her own extended family. Her mother’s mysterious ways perplex her, and her father’s demands keep a distance between them. 

But Vidya’s restlessness is a gift, though it will take many years for her to understand and embrace it. As she journeys slowly into womanhood, she takes up a serious, devoted study of kathak, the storytelling dance that mesmerized her as a little girl. Her process of becoming forms the heartbeat of The Archer, and the narrative shifts from third person to first as she matures and claims her place in her own story.

Shruti Swamy’s visceral first novel after her critically acclaimed story collection, A House Is a Body, The Archer blends the corporeal and the spiritual in a story about what it means to be a woman and an artist. Swamy’s writing is transportive, precise and almost hypnotic, not unlike the controlled and expressive dance form that Vidya loves. The author’s perceptive and observant eye misses nothing, from a single ripening mango on a tree to the inner workings of a young female mind. In depicting Vidya’s interior world, Swamy captures both the dark side and long-awaited light of dawn, of discovery, of fulfillment. There is darkness, yes, but also “those dreams where you remember you could fly.” 

As Vidya maneuvers through worlds—home, school, women, men and dance, always dance—she discovers life. As a child, she “wanted to be marked, altered, changed. Split open,” and by the end of the novel, she is.

As a child, Vidya “wanted to be marked, altered, changed. Split open,” and by the end of Shruti Swamy’s novel, she is.

When we ask questions about life, it’s often the why that most unsettles us: why bad things happen, why we didn’t get that job or marry that person—and when the time comes, why we die. Even though that last question kicks off The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, Marianne Cronin’s first novel brims with so much life.

Lenni Pettersson is terminally ill and perceptive in the way of 17-year-olds who've experienced more trauma than most people their age. She meets 83-year-old Margot Macrae in a memorable first encounter that turns comically conspiratorial: Lenni covers for Margot while Margot’s engaged in pulling something out of a large hospital rubbish bin. They’re both alone in the hospital, and each woman soon realizes that she’s found a kindred spirit.

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Captivated by Margot’s long and storied life, Lenni concocts a creative scheme. They will make paintings of pivotal moments from their lives, one for each of their combined 100 years, as a way to chronicle their stories and transport themselves away from the reality of hospital beds and surgeries. As they paint, their creative body of work begins to surprise them, as well as their fellow artist patients and excited art teacher, Pippa. With the encouragement of hospital chaplain Father Arthur and a favorite nurse, Lenni and Margot press on through memories both painful and breathtaking.

With love and tenderness on every page, this imaginative novel is a joy to read. British novelist Cronin captures all the emotions and desires of these two tenacious women as they relive their pasts in order to make something permanent and leave their mark. Her easy prose sings with real warmth, candor and humor.

Small in scope but large in humanity, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot illuminates the steadying force of a heartfelt connection. Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.

Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.

Loosely based on true events—and the real people and animals that played a part—The Elephant of Belfast captures the turmoil of both a city and a young woman’s life during World War II.

S. Kirk Walsh’s first novel opens in 1940, just as German bombardment begins to threaten Northern Ireland. The Bellevue Zoo has welcomed a new elephant named Violet to its menagerie, parading the pachyderm through the streets of Belfast with all the pomp of a visiting dignitary. Onlookers are bewildered, but young zookeeper Hettie Quin finds a sense of purpose in the elephant’s presence.

Hettie’s older sister is dead and her father absent, and she tiptoes around the house she shares with her mother, Rose. Hettie wants to be taken seriously as the only female zookeeper at Bellevue, though navigating her terse boss and the physical demands of working with large exotic animals proves challenging. But Hettie steadily proves to herself that she is capable, even resilient, despite the nearly constant state of upheaval caused by her tense relationship with Rose, confusion about the opposite sex, the ever-present Catholic and Protestant divide and the threat of bombing raids.

When the Luftwaffe bombs start to fall in April 1941, caring for Violet becomes Hettie’s sole focus. In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, Hettie has Violet, and their relationship keeps the young woman from falling into total despair.

With such a unique premise, the novel remains engaging despite occasionally clichéd prose and a plot that gets bogged down in detail. Hettie’s grief and longing are palpable, her mounting losses real and tangible. Through heart-stirring scenes of violence and destruction in a city unprepared for the chaos of war, Walsh showcases a flair for description and emotion, and for rendering ordinary lives amid extraordinary circumstances.

In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, a young woman’s relationship to an elephant keeps her from falling into total despair.

The past has a way of catching up to us, often when we least expect it. In Waiting for the Night Song, the idyllic childhood summer of two girls implodes after a shocking event.

Once close friends, Cadie Kessler and Daniela Garcia went their separate ways after witnessing a deadly argument. Twenty-five years is a long time to live with a burden like theirs, but they’ve tried to move on with their lives. When the secret buried in their childhood woods is exposed, everything they thought they knew about that summer will be questioned.

In her first novel, journalist Julie Carrick Dalton extols the virtues and beauty of the natural world and laments the forces that threaten it, passionately capturing the devastation that a fire can cause and the helplessness people feel in the face of such uncontrollable disaster. Adult Cadie works as an entomologist, trying to protect the New Hampshire woods she loves from an invasive species and the ever-present fear of drought that could lead to devastating fire. Through Cadie’s eyes, we see her beloved forest as living and breathing, worthy of care.

Ever since the fateful day when gunshots echoed across her lake, fear has been Cadie’s constant companion. Dalton slowly teases out this growing sense of dread for Cadie and Daniela—and Daniela’s undocumented family— against the backdrop of impending catastrophe and growing tensions in their small town.

Though her style comes across heavy-handed at times, Dalton writes thoughtfully and poetically about a place clearly close to her own New Hampshire-based heart. Cadie and Daniela’s interrupted friendship forms the core of the novel, and Dalton captures that best-friend bond so intensely forged in youth.

Through vivid and emotional imagery, Waiting for the Night Song speaks to the power that a place and its people can have over your life.

The past has a way of catching up to us, often when we least expect it. In Waiting for the Night Song, the idyllic childhood summer of two girls implodes after a shocking event.

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