Due to this month’s rather late book posting, I decided to double down and include TEN book picks for March. That’s right. TEN! This month’s books include the return of Mohsin Hamid, the secret life of H.P. Lovecraft, secret stories smuggled out of North Korea, lost books of the Holy Grail, mothers and daughters separated by an ocean, the rebirth Robert Louis Stevenson’s unwritten novel, and more.
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Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (March 7th)
From the author of 2007’s thoughtful rumination upon the roots of fundamentalist Islam, Exit West is Mohsin Hamid’s latest work, and it effectively uses magical realism to frame the current refugee crisis facing the world. Hamid’s novel follows two characters, Nadia and Saeed, who live in a city that suddenly explodes with violence and destruction. In the midst of the surrounding chaos, the couple hears stories of magical doors that whisk people far away to unknown, but possibly improved, lives. In a leap of faith, both Nadia and Saeed jump through a doorway and must face the life and world existing on the other side. A story packed with love, adventure, and what promises to be a brilliant investigation of what it means to be a refugee, Hamid’s Exit West must not be missed.
Edgar and Lucy – Victor Lodato (March 7th)
Victor Lodato, author of 2009’s award winning Mathilda Savitch, has written a new novel that is equal parts mystery and adventure, and rather than spoil any details, I will simply provide the eerie description given by St. Martin’s Press, the book’s publisher:
“Eight-year-old Edgar Fini remembers nothing of the accident people still whisper about. He only knows that his father is gone, his mother has a limp, and his grandmother believes in ghosts. When Edgar meets a man with his own tragic story, the boy begins a journey into a secret wilderness where nothing is clear—not even the line between the living and the dead. In order to save her son, Lucy has no choice but to confront the demons of her past.”
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea – Bandi (March 7th)
Fictional stories about life in North Korea are few and far between, which is unsurprising given the infamously secretive and isolated nature of its current regime. Beyond Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, thoughtful attempts at representing the daily realities of life within the borders of this tyrannical, cult-like nation have been wanting in the fictional world.
Enter Bandi, a pseudonymous figure whose collection of stories entitled The Accusation was smuggled out of North Korea at the risk of the author’s life. The stories themselves follow a number of characters living during the reign of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, most of whom are dominated by the growing power of the party and subsequently disillusioned by its abandonment of communist principles.
This is the kind of collection that comes along only once in a lifetime. If you don’t read it for the stories themselves, then read it as an attempt to better understand the world around us, even in its darker varieties.
The Night Ocean – Paul La Farge (March 7th)
Have you ever wanted to read a novel about H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, William S. Burroughs, and L.C. Spinks? Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, named after a famous Lovecraft short story, provides just that. Marina Willet’s husband, Charlie, is obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, and he specifically fixates on the summer of 1934 in the famous writer’s life, when he lived for several months with Robert Barlow, a gay teenage fan of Lovecraft’s work. Charlie soon spirals into the twisted labyrinth that is Lovecraft’s life, and when he turns up missing, Marina must follow his trail to find the truth about both Charlie and Lovecraft, whose historical and modern fates have become tightly intertwined.
The Hearts of Men – Nickolas Butler (March 7th)
From the author of national bestseller Shotgun Lovesongs (2015),Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men initially drew my attention becuse of its connection to Boy Scout camp (the Clerk is an unashamed Eagle Scout). It seems, however, that this novel goes much deepr than a simple story of camp and growing up. It follows Nelson, the bugler at Camp Chippewa in 1962, and Jonathan, who become lifelong friends. Later, after horrific experiences in Vietnam, Nelson returns to Camp Chippewa to become Scoutmaster, while Jonathan leads a rather normal life–marries, starts a business, raises children and grandchildren. Yet, when an unthinkable event occurs at Camp Chippewa while Nelson is in charge and Jonathan’s grandson and daughter-in-law in are in attendance, characters are whittled down to their purest forms, showing both the depths and limits of the human spirit.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See (March 21st)
Similar to her focus upon the Yao people in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Lisa See’s new novel The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane looks at the lives and customs of the Akha, whose existence revolves around the growing and harvesting of tea. More specifically, See follows the experiences of a mother and daughter who have been separated by circumstance on opposite sides of the Pacific. When Li-Yan is impreganated by a foreign tea merchant, she leaves her baby in a nearby city and journeys out on her own, while the baby, Haley, is adopted overseas and grows up as an affluent California girl. Over time, both Li-Yan and Haley want to know more about the family they lost, and they find their ways to one another through the tea that supports and imprisons their people. See’s novel is about more than simply charting another ignored ethnic group; it is about the bonds between mothers and daughters, even when the world itself seems to have come between them.
Eveningland – Michael Knight (March 7th)
As a master of the short story form, Michael Knight made his name with two award winning collections, Divining Rod (1998) and Dogfight & Other Stories (1998). With Eveningland, Knight returns to his Mobile, AL roots in a collection of interlinked stories that chart the lives of “the right kind of Mobile family” in the years before the arrival of a destructive hurricane. At the risk of simply rewording Atlantic Monthly Press’s blurb, I’ll include it copied here:
“Grappling with dramas both epic and personal, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the “unspeakable misgivings of contentment,” Eveningland captures with crystalline poeticism and perfect authenticity of place the ways in which ordinary life astounds us with its complexity. A teenaged girl with a taste for violence holds a burglar hostage in her house on New Year’s Eve; a middle aged couple examines the intricacies of their marriage as they prepare to throw a party; and a real estate mogul in the throes of grief buys up all the property on an island only to be accused of madness by his daughters. These stories, told with economy and precision, infused with humor and pathos, excavate brilliantly the latent desires and motivations that drive life forward.”
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley – Hannah Tinti (March 28th)
In this story of family, deceit, and histories that must be uncovered, even as they should be forgotten, Hannah Tinti uses twelve bullet scars on Samuel Hawley’s body as the structure for her newest novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. After a lifetime spent on the run, Hawley finally decides to settle down as a fisherman in a small town with his daughter Loo, but it doesn’t take long for Loo to become curious about her family’s past. As she digs deeper, she quickly learns that her family was not who or what she had ever thought. When Loo uncovers the truth, the sins of the father are soon visited upon the family, and both Samuel and Loo must work through the reckoning that has followed them even to that sleepy town.
The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson – Brian Doyle (March 28th)
At the beginning of his young career, Robert Louis Stevenson spent some time in San Fransisco, waiting for his one great love to divorce her husband and return with him to Scotland. While he waited, he imagined writing a soaring adventure novel about his landlady’s husband, who would travel the world and have wild adventures that only a writer like Stevenson could invent. Stevenson never went on to write this tale, even as he became arguably the greatest adventure fiction writer of all time. Now, Brian Doyle has brought Stevenson’s imagined novel to life, blending the life of a young Stevenson with the adventures of the eponymous John Carson, as both wander the streets of nineteenth century San Francisco and try to find their callings in life.
As a novel about both Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my favorite all-time writers, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World promises to be a tale that lovers of books and literary history won’t want to miss.
The Lost Book of the Grail – Charlie Lovett (February 28th)
Following in the footsteps of A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Charlie Lovett’s new novel The Lost Book of the Grail is a love story wrapped in a myth and submerged in a world of book adoration and preservation. In this story, Arthur Prescott, a bibliophile to the highest degree, is a Grail lore enthusiast and curator of the rare book collection at the Barchester Cathedral Library. When young American Bethany Davis arrives and begins digitizing the library’s collection, Arthur believes he has found an enemy; however, worlds collide when both Arthur and Bethany realize that they have a common interest–Grail lore. The unlikely duo soon joins forces to find a lost manuscript, the Book of Ewolda, and the adventure that ensues is a love letter to books and book culture as much as it is a page-turning pleasure to read. If you have any love at all for old libraries and the joy of finding something lost within the stacks, then this book is a must read for this month.