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Early in Cathleen Schine’s poignant, very funny novel, effervescent 93-year-old Mamie Künstler demands that her grandson, Julian, drag himself away from the screen of his phone. “I want your attention,” she announces. “I mean here you are.” And boy, is he. The 24-year-old has just broken up with his girlfriend, can no longer afford his rent in Brooklyn and has been sent by his parents to Venice Beach, California, to look after Mamie, who has fractured her wrist. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic arrives, trapping the pair together indefinitely in Künstlers in Paradise.

As a diversion from endless hours of watching MSNBC “like hollow-eyed drug addicts,” Mamie begins to tell Julian stories of her life, beginning with her emigration from Vienna at age 12 with her parents and grandfather in 1939. The family delayed their departure for as long as possible, rarely leaving the house during that time. As Mamie explains, storytelling is “what Grandfather and I did to amuse each other. We told stories when we were stuck in the house.” Once the family began their journey “off to a land of make-believe,” Mamie says, “I was amazed, enchanted! I was like Odysseus on Calypso’s island!”

Mamie’s tales of her adopted country read like a who’s-who of old Hollywood: repeated encounters with Greta Garbo (who becomes an important person in Mamie’s life), tennis lessons with composer Arnold Schoenberg and Thanksgiving dinner with Aldous Huxley, actor Anita Loos and Adele Astaire (Fred’s older sister). Schine’s sharp wit is constantly on display, as when Mamie interrupts her narration to comment on Julian’s lack of familiarity with many of these celebrities: “We will have an intermission while you google.”

Few authors could pull off the storytelling format of Künstlers in Paradise, but Schine does so seamlessly and marvelously, creating a multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history. In addition to a cavalcade of humor, there is great and sobering substance amid the stark contrasts, conveyed in the slightest touch of Schine’s well-crafted prose: “The physical beauty of Venice and the moral ugliness of America were more difficult for Julian to reconcile. On the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer kneeling on his neck, the jacaranda trees burst into bloom, canopies of unnatural color, a spectacular purple, blossoms lush and bizarre.”

As story after story unfolds, Julian and Mamie are transformed. After Julian hears Mamie describe a Künstler family photo taken back in Vienna, he notes, “She didn’t skip a beat at the mention of Dachau. . . . Or of her cousin who perished there. What an intricate, convoluted bundle of emotional strands she must carry around inside that heart.”

As Mamie concludes in her own delightful way, “I do not believe in life after death. . . . I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death: it is all so improbable.” Künstlers in Paradise is truly a trove of unexpected rewards.

Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history.

Stephanie Clifford’s second novel, The Farewell Tour, is both a dual-timeline redemption story and an epic journey through a half-century of country music. 

At 57, country music star Lillian Waters—or Water Lil, as she’s known to her fans—is drinking too much and feeling her age, and she’s unable to write any new songs. Even worse, she keeps alienating almost everyone in her life. In short, Lillian’s washed up. When a doctor gives her more bad news—her voice is deteriorating due to polyps—she decides to hit the road one last time for a farewell summer tour. 

Lillian’s manager, Stanley, puts together a ragtag band of backup musicians and books some county fairs, but the tour gets off to a comically bad start. To try to salvage it, Lillian calls on her old friend Charlie Hagerty, a session musician and songwriter, and he agrees to join. 

The Farewell Tour alternates between the summer of 1980 (the novel’s present) and a retrospective sweep of Lillian’s life as told by the woman herself, beginning with her Depression-era childhood on a subsistence farm. Like real-life midcentury country legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, Lillian overcomes a hardscrabble background and abusive early years, though she’s the daughter of Swedish immigrant farmers in Washington rather than from Appalachia or the Deep South. Obsessed with the country music that she first hears as a girl, Lillian sets out to beat the long odds, learning to play the guitar, writing her own songs and performing on radio stations. Over and over, she faces sexism and misogyny in her quest to make it big. But at the center of this epic story is a quiet mystery, a childhood episode that Lillian can’t quite let herself remember.

Full of marvelous period details about World War II-era Tacoma, Washington, and its proto-country music scene, as well as glitzy 1970s Nashville, Tennessee, The Farewell Tour covers a huge amount of ground, with a correspondingly large number of supporting characters, a sometimes dizzying array. Music fans will appreciate the references to real 20th-century country stars and industry players. Lillian herself is an appealing mix: determined and hard charging, blustery and often unable to get out of her own way. Like a country ballad, The Farewell Tour offers a bittersweet testament to the healing power of old love, long friendships and heartfelt songs.

Like a country music ballad, The Farewell Tour offers a bittersweet testament to the healing power of old love, long friendships and heartfelt songs.
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Biddy lives on the secret island of Hy-Brasil at the beginning of the 20th century, her only human contact being the kind but mercurial Irish magician Rowan (when he isn’t a raven) and his companion, Hutchincroft (when he isn’t a rabbit). Hy-Brasil has been particularly blessed by magic, which seeps into existence from some unspecified ether, suffusing the world with good fortune and happy circumstances. However, magic has been growing scarce, and mages have become misers. Rowan has been doing what he can, leaving the island to raid his fellow magicians’ storehouses and let a little luck back into the world. Until, one day, he doesn’t come back, and Biddy must leave the island for the first time and go to England in order to find him.

A pandemic project for author H.G. Parry, The Magician’s Daughter was clearly influenced by the enforced isolation of lockdown and the inescapable fear that the world might actually be a dismally unjust place. There are subtle allusions to the Victorian novels that are Biddy’s collective almanac to the world beyond Hy-Brasil, from workhouses and tubercular young women to subversions of traditional gender roles that somehow still end in marriage. But Parry has not crafted a dystopia. Rather, she infuses the book’s industrial-era grime with a literal manifestation of optimism: magic. 

The Magician’s Daughter is beautifully crafted, balancing a lushly detailed 1912 London with a narrative leanness. It’s reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—if Susanna Clarke were an optimist. It’s a story about an imperfect world that desperately wants to be better, where true evil is an aberration and even monsters may be redeemed. Biddy meets various mages on her journey to find Rowan, and most of their grievances are petty things, twisted beyond recognition by too many decades of coiled resentments and having to fight off one anothers’ magic. Even the villains are more greedy and corrupt than anything, motivated by human failings rather than inhuman desires. In these pages, idealism is a virtue and the world can be saved by the magic in an ordinary girl’s heart.

This is not the kind of fantasy that exposes society’s ills or probes some deep philosophical conundrum. Rather, it is representative of the escapist optimism that COVID-19 seemed to engender. In the face of an unrelentingly depressing reality, where every headline portends some creative new doom humankind must overcome, Parry writes of climbing out from the impending abyss. And she does it well enough that even devotees of fantasy’s darker halls will take solace in this little corner of storybook endings and happily ever afters.

Even devotees of fantasy’s darker corners will take solace in The Magician’s Daughter, a little paean to storybook endings and happily ever afters.

As Emilia Hart’s debut novel opens, it’s 2019, and 29-year-old Kate Ayres is plotting her escape from both London and her abusive boyfriend. She’s recently learned she has a secret place to run to: Her great-aunt Violet, an eccentric entomologist whom Kate barely remembers, has died and bequeathed her niece Weyward Cottage in the remote village of Crows Beck, Cumbria. 

The story then drops back to 1942, when 16-year-old Violet Ayres is confined to the grounds of her father’s Cumbrian estate, Orton Hall, and looked after by a governess and nanny. Violet’s father won’t let her visit the nearby village of Crows Beck or go off to school, though Violet doesn’t know why. He disapproves of the way the girl spends so much time outside, climbing trees and rescuing animals, and he warns that Violet is beginning to turn out like her mother, who died when Violet was a toddler. 

Interspersed among Kate’s and Violet’s stories is the first-person account of Altha, a young woman from Crows Beck who is being tried for witchcraft in 1619.

These three timelines—2019, 1942 and 1619—braid together the quests of Weyward’s women, keeping the tension high as each character faces danger and difficult decisions. As Kate and Violet begin to understand their connections to other women of Weyward Cottage and to the natural world, each also begins to rely on her own strength.

Featuring beautiful descriptions of the plants, animals and insects of rural Cumbria, Weyward also makes good use of objects, such as family pieces passed down through generations. And as befits a gothic story, the novel includes plenty of tropes—the madwoman in the attic, an anxious main character, a dark and crumbling mansion, even a servant named Miss Poole (an apparent nod to Jane Eyre). Most of the novel’s men are portrayed as unremittingly villainous, and some readers will wish for a little more complexity there. Still, Weyward is a satisfying, well-plotted historical page turner and a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature.” It’s perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.

Weyward is a welcome addition to the feminist field of “witcherature,” perfect for fans of Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary.
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In A Tempest at Sea, a twisty and turbulent installment of Sherry Thomas’ perennially entertaining Lady Sherlock mystery series, a glamorous Christie-esque cast sails into danger on the open seas.

A Tempest at Sea is the seventh adventure of Charlotte Holmes, a brilliant detective who solves mysteries while pretending to be the assistant of her brother, Sherlock, who in Thomas’ series does not exist and is merely the front for Charlotte’s exploits. The sleuth has recently faked her death in order to hide from Moriarty, a criminal mastermind whom Charlotte has tangled with in prior books. But now British spymaster Lord Remington has offered her a chance to return to her former life with his protection if she can find a missing dossier. The documents are soon to leave the country on the RMS Provence, protected by Moriarty’s minions. Charlotte disguises herself as a wealthy dowager and boards the ship, but then things get even more complicated. Two days into the voyage, one of the most notable passengers, a volatile self-made millionaire with a shady past, is shot dead. Charlotte and her beau, Lord Ingram, must get to the bottom of what happened, in addition to finding the dossier and protecting Charlotte’s secrets.

Thomas’ confidence and ease at the helm of the series is obvious, and she’s clearly having fun playing with the tropes and stock characters of the historical mystery subgenre. A Tempest at Sea recalls treasured Agatha Christie novels like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, which feature a divergent group of personalities assembled for a luxury voyage that soon turns deadly. The Provence is a state-of-the-art, first-class-only steamer vessel spiriting old money and new to a host of disparate destinations, and the mystery makes the most of this setting. It’s the ultimate locked-door location—days from land, in international waters—and unlike the equally popular country house setting, there’s no escape, no reprieve and few hiding places.

There are rumblings of trouble among the passengers even before their departure, with entitled, resentful old money bumping up against the nouveau riche (both literally and figuratively). Everyone seems to harbor a secret agenda, and Thomas excels at developing these characters, especially their petty biases. Charlotte’s mother shows up and proceeds to act out against those of lesser station, and an aristocratic passenger loudly embarasses the sister of the eventual murder victim. Even in these minor skirmishes, the danger is palpable.

Though it’s not all smooth sailing—there are occasional gaps in logic, even if the charm of the characters, settings and twists outweighs them—it’s a joy to see the well-oiled Holmes team spring into action and to watch Ingram and Charlotte’s romantic relationship thrive.

It’s a joy to see Charlotte Holmes spring into action (and to watch her romantic relationship thrive) in Sherry Thomas’ A Tempest at Sea.

It’s 1940, and Millie and Reginald Thompson face a difficult decision: How can they best protect their 11-year-old daughter from the trauma of World War II? Reginald’s own youth was marred by the worries of World War I, and he’ll do anything to protect his daughter’s childhood. He convinces Millie to send Beatrix to live with a family in the United States, far from the bombs that threaten the Thompsons’ London neighborhood. They’ll see her again after the war.

Beatrix arrives in Boston as a reserved preteen, but the Gregory family soon draws her out. She fits like a stair step between the family’s eldest son, William, and the younger, Gerald. During the five years she spends in New England, Bea gains confidence as she competes with the boys and finds support from parents Nancy and Ethan, who ensure that Bea has a safe place to call home. Bea is thriving in her new world, even if she doesn’t quite understand her own parents’ decision to send her away. But then, as the war winds down, Millie abruptly calls Bea back to England, and upon Bea’s return, both families struggle to understand their relationships to one another, formed in the crucible of war. 

Told from alternating perspectives of each family member over the course of nearly four decades, Beyond That, the Sea explores the ways that formative experiences remain with us throughout our lives. Several years after the war, Bea describes to William how it felt to return to her home country: “It was familiar, too, it was in my bones. As though this place is part of who I am. As though I was always meant to be here. As though I belong.” As Bea learns, the people we love remain with us, even after we lose touch. The Gregory family becomes a part of her, just as she carried her parents in her heart after leaving England. 

Debut novelist Laura Spence-Ash’s masterful character development enlivens the Thompson and Gregory families and all of the love and tension between them.

Debut novelist Laura Spence-Ash’s masterful character development enlivens the story of the Thompson and Gregory families and all of the love and tension between them.
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Vietnamese writer Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel to be translated into English, the award-winning The Mountains Sing (2020), spun an epic family saga centered on the Vietnam War. Her luminous new novel, Dust Child, is less spacious but still focuses on reverberations from that war. Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the war.

In the opening chapter, set in Ho Chi Minh City in 2016, Phong is a middle-aged man applying for visas for his family to emigrate to the U.S. under a program for children of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers, so-called Amerasians. Phong’s application is rejected because of a youthful infraction. In later chapters, Quế Mai develops a visceral sense of Phong’s life as an outcast, “a child of the enemy,” a “dust child” who is half Black American, half Vietnamese.

In the book’s second chapter, also set in 2016, we meet Dan and Linda, who are flying to Ho Chi Minh City for a vacation. Linda hopes the trip will help her husband, who was a young helicopter pilot during the war, with his PTSD. Returning to the country for the first time since the war, Dan wants to discover the fates of his Vietnamese girlfriend, who went by “Kim,” and the child he fathered with her, a secret he has kept from his wife for many years.

In the third chapter, set in 1969, we meet 20-year-old Trang and her 17-year-old sister, Quỳnh, working in the family’s rice fields. Crushed by debt from their father’s illness, the sisters decide to go to Saigon to work. They wind up working as “bar girls,” catering to American soldiers, and Trang takes on the alias “Kim” for her work in Saigon’s boisterous Hollywood Bar.

With this setup, the novel’s plot takes on a sense of urgency. How are these characters connected? Will they find one another, and if they do, what will be the outcome? At certain junctures, the plot creaks and shudders as it turns. But Quế Mai provides readers with wonderful linguistic play, and through her deft and illuminating descriptions of the intimate details of her characters’ personal lives and difficult choices, we end up caring deeply for them and hoping for their well-being. 

In the novel’s afterword, Quế Mai writes movingly of her research into the challenges of Vietnam’s disparaged Amerasians and how she drew inspiration from the many stories she heard and documented. Through her imagination, she has transformed those stories of dust into something akin to gold.

Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the Vietnam War.
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It seems that everything in Kate Morton’s captivating novel Homecoming leads us back to a statement made by a character in the 2021 film The Lost Daughter: “Motherhood is a crushing responsibility.” In Morton’s world, even the longing for motherhood can be a crushing responsibility, one that can be passed along to the next generation, and the next.

The secrets around the Turner-Bridges women—Nora; her daughter, Polly; and granddaughter, Jess—are real doozies. Those secrets start to emerge, tendril by tendril, after Nora suffers a fall and Jess flies from her London home to Sydney to be with her. Neither Nora nor Jess is close with Polly, and Nora has named Jess as her next of kin, rather than her daughter. Odd, but not unheard of.

As a child, Jess had free rein of Nora’s large and beautiful home, Darling House, but was forbidden from accessing the attic. She snuck up there anyway and never unearthed anything shocking. But now, as she waits for Nora to recuperate, she discovers something so terrible about their family that it upends everything she believed about herself, her mother, her grandmother and the world in general. The echoes of the event have resounded for six decades and warped the lives of the Turner-Bridges women in ways they don’t even realize. Someone even wrote a book about the calamity, though it wasn’t published in Australia.

One of the delights for readers of a mystery is picking up little crumbs of evidence along the way. As Homecoming gallops toward its close, you may think you know what’s coming, and the foreknowledge is both ghastly and thrilling. In a book like this one, there are a lot of ways the story can take a turn toward the preposterous or at least the improbable. Just one word of advice: Find a map of Australia. It’ll be a big help.

One of the delights for readers of a mystery is picking up little crumbs of evidence along the way. As Homecoming gallops toward its close, you may think you know what’s coming, and the foreknowledge is both ghastly and thrilling.

Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood are best friends and sixth-formers at the English public school Preshute College, an Eton-like boarding school. It’s 1914, and the Great War has begun killing their schoolmates. The school newspaper, The Preshutian, lists the names of dead and wounded older friends. Meanwhile, outside of school, young women hand white feathers to young men in civilian clothes to shame them into enlisting. 

Gaunt and Ellwood banter, tease, deal with hazing and get drunk with their classmates, but they also harbor secret worries: Gaunt is German and Ellwood is Jewish, marking them as outsiders, more vulnerable in an England at war. What’s more, they can’t admit that their bond is more than friendship— “the love that dare not speak its name.”

Pressured by his mother and sister, Gaunt enlists even though he’s not yet 19, and suddenly he finds himself at the Belgian front, a far-too-young leader thrust into trench warfare. Soon after, Ellwood, starry-eyed with the idea of honor, enlists too, despite Gaunt’s letters urging him against the idea. What follows is an epic war story that depicts the unremitting savagery, trauma and stupidity of World War I. At the same time, In Memoriam tracks an epic love story, as Gaunt and Ellwood sort out their feelings, not knowing if they’ll ever see each other again as their classmates continue to die awful, senseless deaths. 

Author Alice Winn so deeply inhabits her characters, their vanishing prep-school world, the end of empire and the arrival of brutal modern war that it’s hard to believe this is her first novel. In Memoriam feels like an old-fashioned door stopper, with a huge cast of background characters, almost all of them young men (Gaunt’s sister is the only significant female character), and some surprising, even melodramatic plot points as it follows the historical trajectory of the war and its aftermath. The story’s points of view toggle between Gaunt and Ellwood, though the novel’s heart belongs to sardonic, tender Gaunt.

Winn draws on real life not only for war details but also for Ellwood’s character, who seems loosely based on real-life English war poet Siegfried Sassoon. He writes his own poems and quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and Rupert Brooke. These verses—along with fictional letters and newspaper articles, especially The Preshutian’s somber roll call of the dead and wounded—underline the impossibilities of both war and life as a gay man in early 20th-century England. 

In Memoriam is a gorgeous novel, both a meditation on the futility and trauma of a war that sent a generation of young men to their deaths and a gripping love-in-wartime story, with a bittersweet yet hopeful conclusion.

In Memoriam is a gorgeous novel, both a gripping love-in-wartime story and a meditation on the futility and trauma of World War I.
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“Never meet your heroes” is a sentiment that’s probably been around as long as celebrities have existed, and Lex Croucher’s Infamous is a perfect illustration of why.

Edith “Eddie” Miller is a Jo March-esque heroine, a young woman with literary aspirations in Regency England. She’s awed to the point of speechlessness when she meets gifted, charming, roguishly gorgeous poet Nash Nicholson and he invites her to become part of his inner circle of artists, writers and revolutionaries. It’s everything Eddie’s always wanted, and it’s a splendid distraction from how her deep, devoted friendship with Rose Li seems to be crumbling. They’ve been inseparable since they were little, but now they’re expected to grow up, participate in social events, accept suitors . . . get married. Rose, in fact, seems on the verge of an engagement to a man who’s perfectly nice, perfectly dull and (in Eddie’s opinion) perfectly dreadful. Eddie doesn’t know why something in her rebels at the thought of Rose building a life with someone else. She also doesn’t know why their “practice” kisses with each other seem to affect her so powerfully. All she knows is that life is pulling her in two different directions, and she’ll have to decide what matters more: patching up her increasingly strained relationship with Rose, or focusing on the glittering world that Nash offers.

As in their debut novel, Reputation, Croucher’s sharp, vivid and enchanting writing bursts off the page. But their most magnetic, intoxicating characters are always the ones you’re not sure you should trust. As things start to fall apart in the story, a sense of dread weighs down the more enjoyable aspects of the novel. Eddie’s a charming protagonist, but her single-minded determination can be frustrating. It’s a credit to Croucher that they made me care enough to yell at the pages, trying to get Eddie to see what was, inevitably, coming—but the fact that I did care made the story hard to read in parts. Nineteenth-century Eddie may have never heard of #MeToo, but 21st-century me certainly has.

Nevertheless, Infamous is a very engaging read and an empowering one, as well. Eddie’s hero may let her down, but in the end, the only way to move forward is simply to become her own hero.

Lex Croucher’s sharp, vivid and enchanting writing bursts off the page in Infamous, their second Regency romance after Reputation.
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Some books make you stop, take notice and question: question the narratives we’ve been told about our history and the narratives we’ve told ourselves about ourselves. Victor LaValle’s latest novel, Lone Women, is one such book.

Lone Women tells the story of Adelaide Henry, who keeps a secret locked in a steamer trunk at the foot of her bed. After the deaths of her parents, she moves from California to Montana to make a life for herself. The deal is simple: If she can farm a plot of land for three years as a homesteader, the land is hers. But Montana isn’t what the pamphlets said it would be. The winters are harder, and the people—though kind—have harsh edges. Still, Adelaide finds friends in the form of Grace, a single mother on the next homestead over, and Bertie, a saloon owner who happens to be the only other Black woman in the area. As Adelaide settles in, she begins to think that she can forget what lies within her trunk. But secrets have a way of getting out, no matter how hard you try to keep them in.

There’s nowhere to hide in Victor LaValle’s vision of the American West.

LaValle combines historical fiction with horror to create a tapestry of desolation, wonder, despair and hope. Lone Women isn’t set in the American West as we know it—or at least not the male-dominated American West that is portrayed in midcentury Westerns. LaValle is determined not to whitewash the past, showing not only the full spectrum of people who settled as homesteaders, including women of color, but also the wreckage of Montana’s boom and bust development. He treats the reader to explorations of ghost towns alongside canny character studies of the types of people who would choose a life as hard as the one of a homesteader.

LaValle’s descriptions of the Montana wilderness are as stark and expansive as the land itself, making it painfully clear how someone could get prairie fever or freeze to death out in Big Sky Country. When it comes to Adelaide’s secret, his prose takes on the feeling of a waking nightmare, full of horrific discovery. LaValle explores the themes of shame and ostracization through not just Adelaide’s secret but also the expertly revealed reasons why many of Adelaide’s new friends aren’t fully accepted in town.

A powerful study in setting and character with a healthy dose of horror, Lone Women will forever change the way you think about the Wild West. 

A powerful study in setting and character with a healthy dose of horror, Lone Women will forever change the way you think about the Wild West.
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In the 1940s, a girl and her younger brother are sent from their home in a Polish ghetto to live with a Christian couple in the countryside. Born as Mira, Ana must change her identity to blend into her new home, while 3-year-old Daniel becomes Oskar. After the war, a Jewish woman kidnaps the children, as well as many others, and takes them on a long, difficult journey to a kibbutz in Israel so they can be raised in the Jewish faith.

While many books have been written about children transported to various places for safety during World War II, Jennifer Rosner’s moving, well-researched second novel takes a penetrating look at the myriad murky moral choices involved and the lives of these children after the war, including their lasting sense of displacement, confusion and conflicting allegiances. Fans of Rosner’s award-winning debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings—about a Jewish mother and daughter hiding in Poland during World War II—will be pleased to see the author exploring these related strands of history. 

Rosner follows Ana and Oskar for decades, revealing the ways their age difference affected their very disparate responses to their turbulent early lives. Meanwhile, she also explores the stories of two other characters: Roger, a Jewish boy taken to a Catholic convent in 1940s France but later sent to live with extended family in Jerusalem; and Renata, a postgraduate archaeology student at Oxford University, who is excited to be on an excavation in 1968 Jerusalem. 

Each of these characters must reckon with secrets and the often unintended consequences of their pasts. At first, it’s puzzling to understand how Renata’s 1968 life relates to those of Roger, Ana and Oskar, but by the book’s conclusion, the connection is clear. Rosner does an excellent job of not judging the actions that adults take on behalf of her child characters while also deeply exploring the consequences. 

“Maybe there is no real home for a person who has been passed mother to mother to mother,” muses Ana in the 1960s. An excellent choice for book clubs, Once We Were Home gives readers much to ponder.

Fans of Jennifer Rosner’s award-winning debut novel, The Yellow Bird Sings—about a Jewish mother and daughter hiding in Poland during World War II—will be pleased to see the author explore some related strands of history.
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There are magical islands in Rachel Heng’s Singapore, replete with fish; there are competing political factions and questions of power and control; there are familial relationships and love interests in a world that is being dissolved and rebuilt. This is the realm of Heng’s second novel, The Great Reclamation, upon which she casts a remarkable story.

In 1940s Singapore, British rule is drying up—but so, too, are the fish in the novel’s small village. A curious boy named Ah Boon discovers that he has the unique power to see lively, wondrous islands that are invisible to other people. When he shares his discovery with his family and community, their fortunes change, and the fishing village is able to thrive. Ah Boon, though, is focused on Siok Mei, the spunky neighbor girl, and their lives remain entangled while growing up, pursuing education and confronting their changing political realities and global climate.

Layered beneath all of Ah Boon’s adventures and experiences are the rich landscape and the ways humans measure their lives in, around and because of it. From the magical islands’ plethora of fish to the proposal of land reclamation, the landscape acts and responds, speaks and listens, and Heng highlights these interactions in beautiful and surprising ways. Her prose is alive; each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.

Heng captures the individual and collective challenges of being human, evaluates pretense and power shifts, explores what a modern country might become after the disruption and displacement of World War II, and explores our concepts of family and home—and every bit of it is a delight to witness and revel in. The best novels teach us something new and ask us to engage in worlds beyond our own. For me, The Great Reclamation did just that. I don’t remember the last time I finished a nearly 500-page novel in one day, but I could not stop reading. It’s a remarkable journey.

The prose in Rachel Heng’s second novel is alive. Each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.

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