by Monique Roffey
Right after they marry in England in 1956, Sabine and George Harwood move to post-independence Trinidad for a job that George has been offered. Fifty years later they’re still there. Now both in their middle 70s, George is, as he’s always been, happy with his life and loving his adopted country, while Sabine has never been able to adjust to the oppressive heat and the culture of the island. Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Penguin, 2011), which was a finalist for the Orange Prize, switches back and forth between time periods and narrators (so that both husband and wife get their say). In 2006, when George finds a cache of Sabine’s old (and unsent) letters to Eric Williams, Trinidad’s charismatic prime minister, it sets off a series of events that will shake the foundations of their marriage. But the true main character in this novel is Trinidad itself: its people, its customs, and its contradictions. Roffey’s explorations of longtime marriages, race, and the lingering effects of colonialism are insightful and often painful to read.
by Michael Parker
Oh my, it’s hard to describe how happy it makes me to find a novel like The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker (Algonquin, 2011) in my piles of books to be read. It doesn’t happen often; and when it does, it’s transporting. Once I read the first paragraph or two, I found it all but impossible to put down. Parker’s novel takes flight from the two historical facts it’s grounded in: Theodosia, Aaron Burr’s beloved daughter, who was married to the governor of South Carolina, disappeared in 1813 off the coast of North Carolina while she was traveling by ship to New York to see her father. One hundred and fifty years later, the remaining three residents of a tiny North Carolina barrier island decide to leave their homes and property and move to the mainland. Through the lives of its characters, this elegantly written tale reflects on the nature of race, love, regret, dependence, fear, sorrow, honor, and envy—the eternal challenge of being human. The characters, even the minor ones, are fully formed; the setting is so vividly described that you feel you know it intimately, and Parker’s writing is purely wonderful. Here’s a brief quotation that will give you a sense of the way he makes words work:
He said he knew she was sorry. He said in the way people say, “I know you’re sorry,” which makes you understand how pitiful you would be to them were they in the mind to pity you.
Guest Blog by Jean Hays Mishler
In the trilogy To Color the Wind: The Wolf Head Amulet, The Golden Stag, and King’s Capture, Barbara Glynn has created a fantastic world. The heroine, Jesipam, endears herself to the reader immediately with her quick wit, cunning, and outside-of-the-box thinking. Only a child, she is thrust into adult responsibilities when she and her sister are cast out of court, thanks to a tempestuous king who is also their father. Alone amid strangers, Jesipam must make new alliances, keep her sister safe and fed, and discover how to use and control her own strange magical powers. Along the way, she tirelessly works to regain the life to which she is entitled.
Tirshaw, a rich world of desert, spices, and magic, where communication happens via “thread tubes,” will entice young readers with its unusual people and customs. Three “houses” of differing life values contend for power. Jesipam cleverly weaves her way among the houses, and in the process gives the reader a clear view of this complicated political landscape. This fantasy series gives an entertaining glimpse into a new world, but also serves as metaphor for many current events where politics and value clashes cast large shadows on individuals and their life opportunities.
Even though I am an adult, I found Glynn’s writing captivating and could not put the books down. Her skillful suspense kept me turning the page and waiting at the mailbox for the next book delivery. I highly recommend these books, especially to young readers, as the heroine is such a great role model for that age group.
Jean Hays Mishler is a writer and singer who primarily makes her living teaching private voice lessons. If you are interested in hearing her music, listen here: www.mosaicthecd.com.
by Linda Medley
Castle Waiting, and its sequel, Castle Waiting 2 (Fantagraphics, 2006 and 2011), were originally available as a series of award-winning individual comic books. I’m hopeful that they’ll gain a much-deserved wider reading audience now that the collection has been brought together and republished in two beautifully produced volumes. Beginning with a Sleeping Beauty-like backstory of her cursed birth, the tale extends outward as the hobgoblin-infested castle where Sleeping Beauty grew up becomes a sanctuary for anyone in need. Each of the motley crew at the heart of these tales has sought out the confines of the castle looking for support, friendship, and comfort. They include Jain, a pregnant aristocrat on the run from an arranged marriage; Beakie, a merchant; a horse-headed knight named Sir Destrier; a group of bearded nuns (who were once part of a circus); as well as various other, equally distinctive characters. In the second collection, we continue to learn more about all the appealing characters before they came to Castle Waiting; we also follow their ongoing interactions with one another. The black and white drawings are precisely drawn, with small endearing touches that render each character entirely unique. The dialogue is clever and filled with subtle grace notes of drollness and humor. The set will be especially appealing to readers of all ages who enjoy seeing and reading traditional fairy tale tropes teased and played with, all with a sense of good-humored fun. Once you’ve read them, I know you’ll join those of us who are eagerly awaiting the appearance of Castle Waiting 3.
by Stewart O’Nan
Stewart O’Nan’s novels just keep getting better and better (and they were good to start with). If you missed Snow Angels, his 1995 debut, remedy that situation soon. I loved Last Night at the Lobster, and now Emily, Alone, his newest novel, is just about all that a reader looking for three-dimensional characters, terrific writing, and a true-to-life plot could ask for. It seems to me that those of us—and I am one —who are drawn to character-driven novels are really voyeurs at heart; we want to get inside a character’s head and understand what makes them tick. O’Nan’s novel satisfies that desire. Emily Maxwell, 80-year-old widow, mother, grandmother, and loyal support to her late husband’s sister, Arlene (although she doesn’t always like her), returns. (O’Nan first introduced Emily in his earlier book, Wish You Were Here, but it’s not necessary to read it to love this one.) O’Nan gives us a vivid picture of Emily’s slowing-down life: the museum visits, the funerals of friends, a trip to the flower show, doing the crossword puzzles she loves, worrying about her aging dog Rufus, listening to classical music, and, after Arlene’s stroke, caring for her sometimes difficult sister-in-law. O’Nan is spot on as he makes us understand the push and pull, tension and love, of three generations of a family, as he describes, for example, Emily’s attempt to remain close to—but not dependent on—her two grown children and four grandchildren. She tries—and sometimes succeeds—in not resenting when thank-you notes don’t arrive promptly (or at all), or when long-lived family traditions are thrown to the wind by the younger generation. In this glimpse into one family’s life over the course of most of a year, O’Nan shines a light into all our lives. Fans of Evan Connell’s masterpiece, Mrs. Bridge, or Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge are natural readers for this powerful and moving novel.