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Behind the Book by

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of traveling. A time existed, after I graduated from college, when I taught English in Japan and then backpacked around Asia. I had little money and tended to stay in rooms that cost a few dollars a night. With nothing more than a couple sets of t-shirts and shorts in my backpack, I visited places such as Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Korea. Some of these countries I grew to know quite well. I’d find a cheap room, rent a scooter, and explore as much of an area as possible. Sometimes my future wife or my friends were with me, though I was often alone.

I saw so many beautiful things throughout these adventures, sights such as the Taj Mahal, the Himalayan peaks, and white-sand beaches unspoiled by humanity’s touch. But I think that I witnessed the most beauty within the street children I encountered. These children seemed so similar, country to country. They were out at all times of day and night, selling their postcards, their fans, their flowers. For many nights in Thailand, I played Connect Four with a boy who wasn’t older than seven or eight. We bet a dollar each game. Some travelers told me not to play with him, convinced that his parents were nearby and were sending him out at night to work. But I never saw his parents, and one night I spied him sleeping on a sidewalk, a piece of cardboard his bed. I don’t think I ever beat him in a game.

Throughout these travels I met hundreds, if not thousands, of children who lived on the street. Sometimes they were sick or had a physical deformity. But most of them were simply homeless—abandoned into extreme poverty. Bright, eager, and unafraid to laugh with a stranger, they taught me so much. I owe them so much.

My encounters with street children inspired my new novel, Dragon House. Set in modern-day Vietnam, Dragon House tells the tale of Iris and Noah—two Americans who, as a way of healing their own painful pasts, open a center to house and educate Vietnamese street children.

I’m quite excited about Dragon House. David Oliver Relin, who lived in Vietnam, and is the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea, let me know that he thought it was “a sprawling, vibrant novel.” Robert Olen Butler, who fought in the Vietnam War, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of short stories about Vietnamese Americans, told me that Dragon House is “a strong, important work from a gifted writer.” Such feedback from two wonderful writers, and two people who spent a significant amount of time in Vietnam, means a great deal to me.

It is my hope that Dragon House will be a success, and out of that success something good can happen. I plan on donating some of the funds generated from my book to an organization called Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. This group works with children in crisis throughout Vietnam. Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation offers disadvantaged children a wide range of services and support to help them break out of poverty, forever, by getting them back to school and helping them achieve their best. If you would like more information on Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, and what I am doing to help, please visit my website.

I appreciate the support of everyone who reads Dragon House, because the success of my novel will allow me to help street children in Vietnam, and to raise the level of awareness of the perils that street children face around the world.

My very best wishes to you.
John Shors

 

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of traveling. A time existed, after I graduated from college, when I taught English in Japan and then backpacked around Asia. I had little money and tended to stay in rooms that cost a few dollars a night. With nothing more than a couple sets of t-shirts […]
Behind the Book by

A single act of defiance from a daughter. An impulsive decision from a father, made in a burst of anger. A life changed forever. 

“There’s a scene in your story that’s unrealistic. The one where your main character’s marriage was arranged so quickly. In those days, matchmaking could take years, especially between old, wealthy families.”

This was the feedback from a family friend who read the manuscript for Three Souls during its early stages of editing. This friend grew up in a very traditional family and had majored in Chinese literature. If my novel’s depiction of Chinese family life in the years before World War II passed her critical judgement, I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Grandmother was married under such unusual circumstances that the story of her betrothal made its way into family legend—and into my novel.

However, the scene she had flagged as unrealistic was actually based on a true event. It is in fact almost a word-for-word retelling of how my grandmother became a bride. Grandmother was married under such unusual circumstances that the story of her betrothal made its way into family legend—and into my novel.

Grandmother was born into a wealthy, progressive, and well-educated family. At the turn of the century, when the Qing Dynasty was drawing its last gasps, the Qu clan began sending their sons to university in Japan and Europe, and their daughters to private girls’ schools in China. Grandmother possessed a keen mind, worked hard for her grades, and cherished a modest ambition to teach school one day. Her father, however, would not allow his clever daughter a career. It was not for lack of money or because the right sort of schools were not available; there were some very well-respected women’s universities in China she could’ve attended. Women of their family, he declared, did not work.

Determined to take control of her destiny even if it meant disobeying her father, Grandmother found a surprising ally when she confided in her own grandmother. The old woman gave her money for tuition and a train ticket. But in such a large household, secrets were impossible to hide. Grandmother made her escape but only got as far as the railway station before she was caught and dragged home. She had openly defied her father’s authority during a time when the family patriarch’s word was law.

Her punishment came a week later.

In a fit of anger, her father had arranged her marriage to the son of a man he had just met on a business trip. The wedding, which followed almost immediately, sealed her fate. She moved to the small town where her husband and his family lived, far away from her beloved sisters and the cultured sophistication of the Qu estate. It must have felt like live burial.

The Qu family was considered modern because their sons were educated to Western standards. But then as now, Western values were adopted unevenly, selectively and not at the same pace—especially for women. Thus Grandmother knew there was more to life than the closed-in world of courtyards, but she had to remain within that world. She may have seethed at this injustice, or perhaps her spirit was broken after the failure of her one rebellious act. Whatever her feelings, once she was married, Grandmother quietly slipped into the role she had been raised to perform: of dutiful wife, daughter-in-law and mother.  

When I began writing Three Souls, I knew it had to include this unwanted marriage and the circumstances leading up to it. The story refused to take shape until the day an image came to me: a young woman’s ghost perched in the roof beams of a small temple, looking down at her own funeral. I knew immediately this had to be the opening of the novel.

I also knew the ghost had to be the novel’s narrator because my grandmother’s sad story has haunted me since the day I first heard it. Furthermore, it felt right to make the protagonist a ghost who could not be seen or heard, unable to impact events in the real world. She was like all those generations of Chinese women who’d had to act behind the scenes, working indirectly to influence outcomes, nudging circumstances through undetected means to achieve their goals.

In life, my grandmother had no champions. With Three Souls, I wanted to give her some small token of recognition to acknowledge her talent and the difference she might have made, if not for an impulsive decision made in anger by an all-powerful parent.  

Canadian author Janie Chang was born in Taiwan and grew up in the Philippines, Iran and Thailand. She now lives in Vancouver with her husband. Three Souls, her debut novel, was based on her grandmother's life in 1930s China. Find out more on her website.

“There’s a scene in your story that’s unrealistic. The one where your main character’s marriage was arranged so quickly. In those days, matchmaking could take years, especially between old, wealthy families.”

This was the feedback from a family friend who read the manuscript for Three Souls during its early stages of editing. This friend grew up in a very traditional family and had majored in Chinese literature. If my novel’s depiction of Chinese family life in the years before World War II passed her critical judgement, I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Behind the Book by

Born in America to Afghani parents, author Nadia Hashimi grew up hearing her parents’ stories of the thriving Afghanistan they left in the 1970s. But when she finally visited decades later, she found a struggling country that bore little resemblance to their memories—especially in the way women were treated. Because of the increasing restrictions on female freedom, the custom of  bacha posh, the practice of dressing a daughter as a son, has become common. Hashimi’s first novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, traces that modern tradition back to its possible origin, a time when women dressed as men to guard the king’s harem. Here, the author explains how these two cultural flashpoints inspired her debut.


Nadia HashimiIn 2002, I took my first trip to Kabul, Afghanistan. I was accompanied by my parents, who had left the country in the early 1970s, a peaceful and progressive time in the nation’s tumultuous history. We reunited with family, explored conditions of local hospitals and searched through piles of rubble where a family home once stood. It was a bittersweet experience for us all, especially my parents, who often felt foreign in their own homeland. This was not the country they had left behind. The decades of war in Afghanistan set the nation back in a devastating way. My mother and her sisters all attended college and worked alongside men in the airline industry, international organizations and engineering companies. From what we have seen on the news in the last few years, it is hard to imagine such an Afghanistan ever existed.

I was raised in a family that valued education above everything else. As a woman, it’s painful for me to hear that girls were barred from attending school under the Taliban regime. It’s heartbreaking to hear that girls and women have become victims of the country’s many plagues: opium addiction, widespread corruption, poverty, domestic violence and child marriage.

These are not problems unique to Afghanistan. They are found all around the world, in developing and developed nations. But in the landscape of a country ruined by decades of war, these crises have exploded.

The custom of bacha posh allows girls to dress as boys until puberty, but does a taste of freedom make the restrictions of life as a woman harder to bear?

I happened to read a New York Times article that explored the Afghan bacha posh tradition (converting young girls into boys by cutting their hair, changing their names and donning boys’ clothing). The community accepts the charade because there is a collective understanding that a family needs sons to have honor and to have someone who can go to the market freely or work outside the home. It struck me that the bacha posh tradition was an incredibly problematic practice. It gave young girls a taste of life as a boy in a deeply patriarchal society. But what would happen when that “boy” hit puberty? That’s when these boys are converted back to girls, sent back into their homes and stripped of the liberties they enjoyed for a few years.

Is it better to have tasted that liberty, if only for a short time? Or does that make life as a woman even harder to bear?

The article also touched on a time in Afghan history when women were disguised as men to serve as guards for the king’s harem. A storyline began to form in my mind, linking two different girls, in two different times, both dressed as boys in Afghanistan. Rahima is a young bacha posh who is married off by her opium-​addicted father to a local warlord. Her great-great-grandmother, Shekiba, is an orphan of the cholera epidemic who is forced to rely on her own strength and determination to survive and finds herself serving as a guard in King Habibullah’s harem. Rahima’s will is strengthened by learning her ancestor’s story. She knows she is the legacy of a formidable woman, and that knowledge helps her survive her bleakest days. Through their connection, I wanted to trace the history of women in the country.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell is a novel with two stories steeped in tragedy, but if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear the rumblings of a brighter tomorrow coming. I could not bear to tell the story if I did not believe that to be true.

Afghanistan was once a country where sisters held the same potential as their brothers. Things fell apart in the years of bloodshed, and girls have suffered unimaginably. I wanted to give a voice to those girls of Afghanistan, the ones who are bartered in marriage before their time, denied a chance to sit in a classroom and turned into mothers before they can live out their childhoods.

Change is coming, though. We have our first female pilots, generals, political leaders, performers, scientists and athletes in decades. I am hopeful that they will forge the way to a future where Rahima’s story will be a tale from Afghanistan’s darker past.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Born in America to Afghani parents, author Nadia Hashimi grew up hearing her parents’ stories of the thriving Afghanistan they left in the 1970s. But when she finally visited decades later, she found a struggling country that bore little resemblance to their memories—especially in the way women were treated. Because of the increasing restrictions on female freedom, the custom of  bacha posh, the practice of dressing a daughter as a son, has become common. Hashimi’s first novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, traces that modern tradition back to its possible origin, a time when women dressed as men to guard the king’s harem. Here, the author explains how these two cultural flashpoints inspired her debut.

Behind the Book by

Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, writer Tiphanie Yanique spins her debut novel from that country's rich history. The saga of one remarkable family across generations, Land of Love and Drowning draws from folklore as well as real-life events, and the result is a magical first novel. In a behind-the-book essay, Yanique explains how she combined the truth from old wives tales with the facts from history books to create a unique truth.


"The master race in front!” The shouting men barged onto the bus in their uniforms. The passengers shrunk down out of shock and fear as the men broke down the wooden sign that read “Coloreds” at the back of the bus. The men themselves were nonwhite, but their uniforms were those of the U.S. Army. This made what the men were saying very strange and very frightening. The bus driver ducked from behind the wheel and ran into the street.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands there are many stories about the anti-segregation disruption caused by the local men who served in the military during World War II. This one in particular is the story I was told about what happened when some of the men from the so-called West Indian Companies were stationed in New Orleans. My great uncle Sigurd Peterson Sr. and my grandfather Andre Galiber Sr. were both part of this civil disobedience. Sigurd was mostly Danish, but he had a brownish tinge to his skin, either from being born and raised in the Caribbean or because of the remaining diversity in his bloodline. Andre was mostly black, descended from Africans, but there were also Asians and white Europeans in his ancestry.

These soldiers, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, had never experienced segregation before—certainly not in a formal way. Their shouts of “master race” was newly acquired jargon . . . a racist jargon to be sure, but shouted from their darker faces and Caribbean mouths it was subversive enough to get them put in jail or lynched. But actually, what race were these men anyway? Some of them seemed white. Others looked black. Yet they were declaring themselves to be of the same race.

That the men declared themselves the master race was peculiar because they were of mixed racial background. If they were of the master race, then it meant that everyone could be, perhaps that everyone was. These men tore down the sign of bigotry, but they didn’t erect another. Later, Jesse Owens, the African American gold medalist who at the time served in the state department as a sort of consultant on race relations, was brought in to calm the Virgin Islands soldiers and explain the reasoning behind segregation. The soldiers booed Owens until he had to be escorted out.

"An old wives’ tale is generally thought to come from myth and superstition, and so should be considered with derision. . . . In my family, however, it is the older women who are the historians."

As is the case with many former soldiers, no one wanted to openly talk about the conflicts they had. Sigurd and Andre never offered this story. But there was the story anyway, corroborated by many of the women who knew them. The soldiers had been twice segregated. Not only separated by white and black, they were also set aside in their own West Indian companies, segregated from the other American companies, the white and the black ones. They and their compatriots had participated in a vital struggle. I researched this episode and others in books I dug up in the library and found in the bookstores. But I first learned it from the wives, girlfriends and daughters of these men.

Land of Love and Drowning is narrated by the “old wives” of the island. They are the ones who receive and pass on the stories, including this one about the soldiers in New Orleans. An "old wives’ tale" is generally a label given to a story thought to come from myth and superstition, and so should be considered with derision. But worse, an old wives’ tale is one that is often considered false in part because it is told by old women.

In my family, however, it is the older women who are the historians. So in Land of Love and Drowning I made the old wives the authoritative narrators. Other narrators (a male, and two younger women) tell their versions. But it is the old wives who, because of their age, have a long view of the history and, because of their intimate relationships (lovers and mothers), have the deepest understanding of the community. They are not the always the political actors in the novel but they are the recorders. They are the historians.

I wrote many parts of Land of Love and Drowning based on the history I first learned from my grandmother. It is was the story of the male soldiers, my real ancestors, who helped me frame the novel within the political framework of the Virgin Islands becoming American. Virgin Islands soldiers fought aggressively and publically against Jim Crow—and they did so while in U.S. military uniform. These men in my family helped make a small part of history that sealed the Virgin Islands to Americanness. But I needed the old wives to tell me the history to begin with. 

RELATED IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.

Land of Love and Drowning is narrated by the “old wives” of the island. They are the ones who receive and pass on the stories, including this one about the soldiers in New Orleans. An old wives’ tale is generally a label given to a tale thought to come from myth and superstition, and so should be considered with derision. But worse, an old wives’ tale is one that is often considered false in part because it is told by old women.

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In the spirit of the season, we have gathered a group of new novels that delightfully explore the elusive nature of love. If you’re looking for fresh insights concerning the inscrutable ways of Cupid, then peruse the books below. Here’s to true love!

A VERY LITERARY ROMANCE
Fans of old-fashioned amour will cozy up to Love Letters. The novel’s leading lady, Laura Horsley, is a bibliophile to the bone. When her bookstore closes and she finds herself out of a job, she impulsively joins the organizing committee of a literary festival. A misunderstanding leads the committee to believe that she has inside connections to Dermot Flynn, a celebrated writer notorious for his love of privacy. Laura, who has adored Dermot’s work since her university days, is dispatched to Ireland to sign him up for the festival. Can she charm the reclusive author into participating? It’s an incredible mission, and one that seems doomed to fail when Laura finally meets the difficult Dermot. Wrestling with his latest work, he’s moody and gruff, yet Laura finds him irresistible, and as she tries to commit him to the festival, the events that transpire defy her wildest fantasies of fandom. With Laura, British author Katie Fforde has created a spirited heroine the reader can’t help rooting for, and she spins her adventures into an unforgettable story. This hilarious romance will convince the harshest cynic that love conquers all.

DATING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
A shrewd depiction of romance in an era of instant connection, Teresa Medeiros’ Goodnight, Tweetheart demonstrates the ways in which courting via computer can expedite seduction—but also trick the heart and muddle the mind. So it goes for the story’s central character, novelist Abby Donovan. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Abby’s a writer with serious aspirations. How, then, to account for her addiction to Twitter, the famous social networking site that’s a bit, well, frivolous?

Led to the website by her publicist, Abby intends, at first, to tweet only for promotional purposes, but business gives way to romance when she connects with the bookish “MarkBaynard,” a charmer who can pack poetry into the briefest tweet. As the two forge an online relationship, Abby finds it increasingly difficult to concentrate on her work. Her story unfolds, in part, through tweets and direct messages, as she compulsively corresponds with a guy who seems, onscreen, like Mr. Right. But how much does Abby really know about Mark? The mysteries and questions Medeiros puts into play are timeless, and they give extra depth to this cleverly crafted tale.

L’AMOUR PARISIAN
A poet, food critic and radio personality, Hervé Le Tellier is known in France as a Renaissance man. His 15th book, a piece of chic, contemporary fiction called Enough About Love, chronicles the turbulent romantic lives of a group of well-to-do Parisians. Elegant, accomplished and on the brink of 40, Anna has a solid marriage and a pair of adorable children. Yet when she meets Yves, an offbeat writer, she’s more than a little intrigued. Likewise, Louise—a successful lawyer, wife and mother—experiences sparks with Thomas, who happens to be Anna’s psychiatrist.

Blindsided by emotion, the lives of all four lovers are transformed virtually overnight. This provocative novel unfolds in brief chapters, each of which offers the perspective of a different character, creating a richly textured mosaic of incident and emotion. For Anna and Louise, the comforts of family are threatened by surprising and potent passion. It’s a classic battle—sudden desire versus the long-cultivated bonds of monogamy—and Le Tellier uses the conflict to explore the difficult decisions that so often accompany love. A wise and witty writer, he brings Parisian flair to this tale of romantic entanglement.

LOVE WITHOUT LIMITS
A sensitive rendering of a remarkable friendship, The Intimates, Ralph Sassone’s accomplished debut novel, examines love in its many varied forms and the demands it makes on the human heart. Kindred spirits, Robbie and Maize gravitate toward each other in high school, but romance fails to blossom between them. Instead, they become steadfast friends, attending the same college and supporting each other as they enter the “real world.” Both struggle to make sense of adolescence even as they embark upon adulthood. Maize—at heart a sensitive writer-type—goes into real estate in New York City but finds the experience, to put it mildly, disillusioning. Meanwhile, Robbie, who has vague designs on the publishing industry, explores romantic relationships with men.

Although Robbie and Maize are driven by desires that change with time and experience, their special intimacy—a passionate yet platonic tie—endures. With authenticity and an eye for the subtle machinations that can make or break relationships, Sassone has produced a moving, often funny novel that beautifully reflects the complexities of love.

In the spirit of the season, we have gathered a group of new novels that delightfully explore the elusive nature of love. If you’re looking for fresh insights concerning the inscrutable ways of Cupid, then peruse the books below. Here’s to true love! A VERY LITERARY ROMANCEFans of old-fashioned amour will cozy up to Love […]
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What sort of voices are shaping Australian fiction? Two new novels offer answers. Both are firsts for their authors, both were nominated for awards before they were even published and both are by women.

But here, the passing similarities end: Jane Harper’s The Dry is a contemporary murder mystery set in a rural town, while Emily Bitto’s The Strays takes the reader to Melbourne in the 1930s.

The Dry is one of the most talked-about debuts of the new year. During the worst drought of the century, Federal agent Aaron Falk is called back to Kiewarra, a small town in West Australia, to investigate a murder-suicide. His high school friend Luke Hadler appears to have murdered his wife and son before killing himself: another farmer pushed to the brink by the punishing weather.

As a favor to Hadler’s parents, Falk reluctantly launches an investigation with the help of local policeman Greg Raco. But most of the old residents of Kiewarra aren’t pleased to see Falk, who was run out of town 20 years earlier after being suspected in the death of his classmate Ellie Deacon. As Falk digs into the circumstances around Luke’s death, long-hidden mysteries and animosities begin to surface. 

Harper’s story is tightly plotted and moves briskly, the tension as brittle and incendiary as the dried-out crops on the Kiewarra farms. Falk is a quintessential detective: introverted, reserved and deeply wounded. But it is the beautifully evoked landscape and the portrayal of a gloomy outpost on the edge of a desert that are the stars of the show. 

[Read a Q&A with Jane Harper about The Dry.]

The Strays plunges the reader into a more cosmopolitan environment. On her first day of school, the socially tentative Lily is embraced by Eva, one of three daughters of the famous painter Evan Trentham and his wealthy wife, Helena. Growing up in a conventional Melbourne home in the 1930s, where an exciting evening is hot cocoa and a jigsaw puzzle, Lily is fascinated by the Trenthams’ rambling garden and the creative chaos of their family life, especially after Helena invites a group of fellow artists into the family home. This experiment in communal living, with its lack of rules and lively conversations and parties, seems delightful at first. But the youngest daughter, Heloise, troubled to begin with, becomes unnaturally close to her father’s greatest rival, with disastrous results. 

The novel is told in a series of flashbacks by the adult Lily, who looks back with a bittersweet mixture of fondness and disgust at the benign neglect under which the girls were raised. When Eva comes back to town for a retrospective of her father’s work, Lily begins to wonder why she was drawn to the Trenthams in the first place. 

Bitto loosely based the Trenthams on the Heide Circle, a group of Melbourne artists known for their unconventional lifestyles and named for the Heide communal house in which they lived. But The Strays is more of a psychological study than a historical one: As Lily begins to understand what happened at the Trenthams, she comes to terms with her role as a bystander to her own life. Told in both the breathless voice of an easily infatuated child and the more measured tones of a wiser adult, The Strays is a powerful tale of the consequences of creativity.

What sort of voices are shaping Australian fiction? Two new novels offer answers. Both are firsts for their authors, both were nominated for awards before they were even published and both are by women.
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Both books examine the easy power of sexual desire and the troubled untangling of domestic ties. And despite the differences in time and place, both novels feature protagonists with a loneliness at their core—acutely aware of what divides them from their family and friends.

Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca may be the ultimate second-wife story, and Lily Tuck uses it as a touchstone for her seventh novel. Sisters relates a very personal story of an unnamed narrator, her family—including her husband and stepchildren—and the all-too-real presence of her husband’s first wife known only as she. It is she that the narrator is fixated on, her marriage, her mothering style, her aptitude at the piano, even her dog. Nothing in the narrator’s experience can equal her husband’s first marriage, his life with her in France, even his affair and subsequent divorce. With a mixture of curiosity, envy and compulsion, the narrator’s preoccupation with her threatens all current relationships, not just with her husband but with his son and daughter as well.

Tuck eschews a climactic confrontation and prefers to quietly highlight the damage caused by obsession, exposing the risks of paying back betrayal with betrayal. Though the conclusion feels abrupt, the story is elegantly told and the portrait of a marriage unflinching.

Set against the turbulent politics of Nigeria in the 1980s, Ayobami Adebayo’s debut, Stay with Me, tells the story of a marriage that frays under the forces of fidelity and fertility. Yejide and Akin met and fell in love at university. Four years after they married, Yejide is running a successful salon, and Akin is comfortably employed as well. But they remain childless. The couple tries fertility doctors, healers, pilgrimages and charms until, under the pressure of Nigerian ideals of masculinity, Akin’s family insists he take a second wife, going so far as to bring the young woman to their home. To say this causes havoc would be an understatement. Yet, when Yejide finally does get pregnant, the results take an enormous toll on the couple.

Though the tragedies of Stay with Me are melodramatic in scope, Adebayo displays a quiet empathy when the couple confronts the truth of their fertility problems and struggle with sickle cell anemia (an enormous problem in Nigeria, where one in four people is infected). Stay with Me offers a unique look at a couple coping with biological forces that are out of their control and a marriage that is tested almost beyond endurance.

Though very different in style, scope and setting, these two novels are a welcome addition to the exploration of marriage in fiction, examining the boundaries and the limitlessness of love between two—or even three—people.

 

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

Love, fidelity, jealousy and desire are some of the issues explored in two new novels about marriage—one by a seasoned writer known for her brevity and psychological portraits, the other a debut by one of Nigeria’s freshest voices.

After much discussion and determined lobbying for our personal favorites, the editors of BookPage have reached a consensus on the year’s best books. These are the books we can’t forget—and can’t stop sharing with readers wherever we go.

#1 Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere

In the privileged community of Shaker Heights, wealth and comfort crumble in the firelight of Ng’s brilliant storytelling.

#2 George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo

The incomparable winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize is a heartbreaking, funny, strange reflection on grief after loss.

#3 Elif Batuman
The Idiot

This hilarious debut pulls no punches in depicting the absurdity of campus life and the particularly awkward magic of early adulthood.

#4 Mohsin Hamid
Exit West
Spiced with unexpected magic, this imaginative love story follows a young couple who join a wave of migrants as their city collapses.

#5 Stephanie Powell Watts
No One Is Coming to Save Us

In a riveting riff on The Great Gatsby, Watts’ first novel focuses on the residents of a down-on-its-luck North Carolina town.

#6 Min Jin Lee
Pachinko

Addicting and powerful, this superb novel follows four generations of a Korean family carving out a life in Japan despite racism and war.

#7 Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach

During World War II, one woman becomes the first female diver at the Brooklyn docks. Hold your breath and sink in deep.

#8 Walter Isaacson
Leonardo da Vinci

Isaacson delves into Leonardo’s life and pulls back the curtain of genius on one of the most brilliant men who ever lived.

#9 Ron Chernow
Grant

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author offers a richly detailed, uncommonly compelling biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

#10 Hala Alyan
Salt Houses

At the heart of Alyan’s debut are enormous themes of time and family, grounded by piercing insight and striking, poetic language.

#11 Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing

This intricately layered story with supernatural elements offers a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South.

#12 David Sedaris
Theft by Finding

Beloved humorist Sedaris shares 20 years of observations in this collection of diary entries that toe the line between hilarious and weird.

#13 Nina Riggs
The Bright Hour

With levity and bittersweetness amid the worst moments, Riggs’ account of living with cancer is feisty, uplifting reading.

#14 Dennis Lehane
Since We Fell

Already optioned for film, this bewitching thriller follows an intrepid journalist as she uncovers her family’s darkest secrets.

#15 Scott Kelly
Endurance

After spending a year in space, veteran astronaut Kelly has returned to Earth to tell us what life is like among the stars.

#16 Sherman Alexie
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Don’t trust just anyone to break your heart, but do trust Alexie and this unconventional memoir of his relationship with his mother.

#17 Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Refugees

Nine superb, understated stories from the Pulitzer Prize winner find characters stretched between cultures, countries and desires.

#18 Timothy B. Tyson
The Blood of Emmett Till

The most notorious hate crime in American history receives the insightful, fearless inquiry it deserves.

#19 Suzy Hansen
Notes on a Foreign Country

Hansen’s investigation into U.S. involvement abroad is a compelling look at the consequences of interventionist foreign policy.

#20 Richard Ford
Between Them

Ford’s memoir is a gentle testament to the powerful love his parents had for each other and for their son.

#21 Patricia Lockwood
Priestdaddy

This unforgettable memoir offers a heartbreakingly funny look at an award-winning poet’s unconventional Catholic upbringing.

#22 Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire

Shamsie’s confident, dreamy reimagining of Antigone grasps a throbbing heart of love and loyalty.

#23 Kayla Rae Whitaker
The Animators

Two best friends and successful cartoonists navigate the creative process in this heartfelt debut.

#24 Sarah Perry
After the Eclipse

A daughter attempts to come to terms with her mother’s murder in this emotional true-crime memoir.

#25 Inara Verzemnieks
Among the Living and the Dead

The granddaughter of Latvian refugees pieces together her history.

 

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

After much discussion and determined lobbying for our personal favorites, the editors of BookPage have reached a consensus on the year’s best books. These are the books we can’t forget—and can’t stop sharing with readers wherever we go.

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The old stories stay with us—ancient legends, fables and fairy tales provide the fodder and archetypes for today’s fantasy fiction, superhero movies and Disney musicals. The story of Aladdin is one of the best loved and most adapted of those tales (there are dozens of film and TV versions of the story in English alone), yet its origins are clouded. As professor Paulo Lemos Horta points out in the introduction to Aladdin, a sparkling new translation of the tale by poet Yasmine Seale, the story was introduced to the West via 18th-century France as part of the wildly popular One Thousand and One Nights, translated by Antoine Galland, who claimed the story came from a manuscript given to him in 1709 by a Maronite Christian traveler from Aleppo. Scholars were long suspect of this origin story, until the recent discovery of the memoirs of Syrian adventurer Hanna Diyab, which validate Galland’s version of events.

Whatever its provenance, the story has been adapted, altered, bowdlerized and Robin William-ized over the centuries. Salman Rushdie even uses it in The Satanic Verses. Seale’s elegant new translation of Aladdin restores the tale to its roots. Tapping into her own Syrian-French background, Seale has worked from both Arabic and French sources to produce her captivating translation.

Aladdin, told here with the deceptively simple cadences of classic storytelling, is the tale of a poor tailor’s son who lives with his widowed mother “in the capital of one of China’s vast and wealthy kingdoms.” (This intriguing Chinese connection often has been lost over the years—most film and stage adaptations seem to set the story against an Arab-influenced, Middle Eastern or vaguely Mogul backdrop.) The young Aladdin has developed wild tendencies, and though he is on the cusp of manhood, he still embraces the indolent ways of a street urchin. One day, a Maghrebi magician pretends to be his uncle, and under the guise of showing his nephew the beautiful gardens outside the city walls, he takes Aladdin to a remote room hidden beneath a stone. Giving him a magic ring, the magician sends Aladdin into the room to gather treasure, after which he intends to leave the boy for dead. But Aladdin outwits the magician and takes the jewels he finds, as well as a magic lantern he discovers, and escapes back home. Slowly, Aladdin’s good fortune begins to dawn on him and his mother. When he spies on the sultan’s beautiful daughter, Badr al-Budur, he vows to marry her. With his newfound wealth and the power of the jinnis who inhabit the ring and the lantern, Aladdin is able to win her hand and build a great palace. But the magician—and his equally nefarious brother—will resurface to cause Aladdin all manner of trouble.

This new translation of Aladdin is steeped in magic.

Some aspects of the story will be familiar to lovers of the tale, while others may surprise. Seale crafts a delightful narrative that taps into the simple wonders of the story, evoking the mesmerizing voice of Shahrazad who, of course, is telling this cliffhanger-filled yarn to her sultan husband in order to keep herself alive.

This new translation of Aladdin, steeped in magic and stripped of some of the phony adornments that have diluted its essence over the centuries, is a delightful retelling of the dreams and adventures of the wily young peasant boy who matures to become a beloved ruler.

 

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

This new translation of Aladdin is steeped in magic.

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All of our crushes are fictional characters. But what if we actually had the opportunity to date one of our imaginary loves? Just how good (or bad!) would that first date be? The editors have some thoughts.


Hagrid from the Harry Potter series
By J.K. Rowling

There are so many characters from Rowling’s world who’d be great on a date: Sirius Black, Hermione once she’s 30 (if Ron’s OK with it), either of the Weasley twins. But if I want to feel fancy, I’m taking Hagrid. Sure, his beard is out of control, and he’ll probably smell strongly of damp wool, but he gives the best hugs, and you know he’ll try really hard to make it a nice evening. He’ll get dressed up in his best suit, I’ll bring the (oversize, low-priced) bottle of wine, and he’ll show me his favorite clearing in the forest to watch the moon rise. I fully expect the date to be ruined by whatever magical creature is hidden away in his breast pocket, but that’s just fine with me.

—Cat, Deputy Editor


Nino from the Neapolitan Quartet
By Elena Ferrante

Ah, Nino Sarratore. What shy girl hasn’t had their own Nino Sarratore—the brilliant, somewhat pretentious boy you know would love you if you ever worked up the courage to talk to him. However, with the benefit of having read the rest of Ferrante’s brilliant Neapolitan novels, I know what lurks behind Nino’s appealing exterior. And ladies, he’s not worth any of our time. So this Valentine’s Day, I’ll take one for the team. I’ll go on a date with Nino and let him talk at me and think that I’m falling for his “more brilliant than you” act. And then, after I’ve gained his trust and made him think he’s gained a new acolyte-admirer, I’ll stomp on his heart on behalf of bookish girls everywhere.

—Savanna, Editorial Assistant


Leonard from The Marriage Plot
By Jeffrey Eugenides

Listen, I know he’s trouble. But I am in love with Leonard Bankhead. I love his brilliance, his passion, his intensity and his dark and terrible understanding of the world. If Leonard met me, he would realize that we were meant to be together. No one understands him like I do. Leonard and I are going to a dive bar, we’re getting shots of whiskey, and I don’t care what my mother says about it. We’ll talk about our favorite books and how messed up everything is. We’ll get into a heated argument about if reality television has any worth (it does, and I will introduce him to “Vanderpump Rules,” which he will admit to loving). Later, his career on track, he’ll name a type of algae after the color of my eyes: mud.

—Lily, Associate Editor


Matsu from The Samurai’s Garden
By Gail Tsukiyama

For intelligence and thoughtfulness, I’d turn to the devoted gardener from Tsukiyama’s tender, melancholy second novel, set in 1937. In this story about gracefully weathering loneliness and sorrow, Matsu tends his exquisite garden and frequently journeys to a leper colony, where he continues to care for his beloved. But readers only ever see Matsu through the eyes of Chinese student Stephen, and this gentle man deserves to rise above his secondary-character status. He’s such a classic kind of man that I’d love to see his reaction to a contemporary art museum some summer afternoon. Assuming that I’ve learned to speak Japanese for the date, it would be nice to walk silently through a gallery and debrief afterward. 

—Cat, Deputy Editor


Lilliet from The Queen of the Night
By Alexander Chee

James Bond, Holly Golightly, Jay Gatsby—how much fun would it be to go on a first date (but probably not a second) with one of fiction’s most notorious partiers? For glitz, glamour, scandal and an all-around epic night on the town, it would be hard to beat a visit to 19th-century Paris for a decadent costume party with soprano Lilliet Berne. In Chee’s second novel, Lilliet is a woman of many secrets—too many for a long-term relationship—and drama swirls around her to an improbable degree. But dressed in a fabulous costume and swathed in dazzling jewels—and with the possibility of dramatic escapes and scheming aristocrats—an evening spent with this rags-to-riches diva would be quite an adventure.

—Hilli, Assistant Editor

 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

All of our crushes are fictional characters. But what if we actually had the opportunity to date one of our imaginary loves? Just how good (or bad!) would that first date be? The editors have some thoughts. Hagrid from the Harry Potter series By J.K. Rowling There are so many characters from Rowling’s world who’d be […]
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Top Pick: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An Oprah’s Book Club pick in 2018, Tayari Jones’ electrifying fourth novel, An American Marriage, tells the story of Roy and Celestial, a newly married couple whose future looks bright. Celestial is an up-and-coming artist and Roy is a business executive, but their lives are shattered when the couple travels to Roy’s hometown in Louisiana, where he’s wrongfully accused of a terrible crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Jones presents a poignant portrait of the once-optimistic couple and the injustices they face as husband and wife during Roy’s incarceration. When he’s released after serving almost half his sentence, the pair struggles to resume their lives and regain a sense of normalcy. Told in part through the letters Roy and Celestial exchange while he’s imprisoned, Jones’ skillfully constructed narrative feels all too timely. It’s at once a powerful portrayal of marriage and a shrewd exploration of America’s justice system. 


The Girls in the Picture
by Melanie Benjamin

This richly atmospheric novel follows the friendship between silent-era screen queen Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion as they carve out careers in an industry dominated by men.


Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America
by Catherine Kerrison

Historian Kerrison uncovers the fascinating lives of Martha and Maria, Thomas Jefferson’s daughters with Martha Wayles Skelton, as well as Harriet, his daughter with Sally Hemings who forges a life for herself outside the bonds of slavery. 


Three Daughters of Eve
by Elif Shafak

Shafak explores feminism, politics and religion in modern Istanbul through this complex portrait of Peri, an affluent wife and mother.


Heads of the Colored People
by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award, these shrewdly observed, expertly crafted stories of the African-American experience signal the arrival of an important writer.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Top Pick: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones An Oprah’s Book Club pick in 2018, Tayari Jones’ electrifying fourth novel, An American Marriage, tells the story of Roy and Celestial, a newly married couple whose future looks bright. Celestial is an up-and-coming artist and Roy is a business executive, but their lives are shattered when […]

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Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.

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