The Burning Girl.
By Claire Messud.
Aug. 2017. 256p. Norton, $25.95 (9780393635027).
After the fierce complexity of The Woman
Upstairs (2013), Messud presents a more concentrated, no less emotionally intense novel
about an adhesively close friendship between
two Massachusetts girls and its tragic unraveling. Fatherless Cassie, whose
mother is a hospice nurse,
is tiny, radiantly pale, and
audacious. Julia, Messud’s
wise-beyond-her-years narrator, is sturdy, voraciously
observant, and quick-witted,
the doted-on daughter of a
dentist and a writer. During
the summer before seventh grade, the girls’
volunteer efforts at an animal shelter end in
a bloody mess. They then instigate even riskier adventures trekking out to and exploring
a long-abandoned women’s mental asylum.
Over the next two years, Julia thrives in school;
Cassie does not. The boy Julia likes likes Cassie.
Cassie’s mother finds a nightmare of a boyfriend, and Cassie disappears behind a carapace
of secrecy and stoicism that conceals deepening
despair. Julia’s concern over Cassie intertwines
with her musings on the suffering of the asylum patients as she discerns that growing up
female “was about learning to be afraid.”
Messud’s entrancing, gorgeously incisive coming-of-age drama astutely tracks the sharpening
perceptions of an exceptionally eloquent young
woman navigating heartbreak and regret and
realizing that one can never fathom “the wild,
unknowable interior lives” of others, not even
someone you love. —Donna Seaman
YA: Messud’s exquisitely realized young
characters and their tough initiations into
adolescence are captivating and profound.
A Catalog of Birds.
By Laura Harrington.
July 2017. 256p. Europa, paper, $16 (9781609454036).
Nell Flynn is in her senior year of high
school when her best friend disappears and
her older brother reappears. No one from
their small town in upstate New York knows
what happened to Megan, and her mysterious
absence is an added burden
for Megan’s boyfriend, Billy
Flynn, just back from Viet-
nam after a fiery crash left
him with debilitating burns
on the right side of his body.
Nell is pleased to have her
brother home, but the com-
panionable Billy, who taught
her how to appreciate nature, is no more.
Once an accomplished artist and amateur
field scientist, Billy is faced with the loss of
his writing hand, as well as much of his hear-
ing, smell, and taste, all casualties of chemical
warfare. As months go by with no sign of
Megan and little progress with Billy’s rehabili-
tation, his family and friends try everything
to keep him from drifting further away, while
he struggles to find meaning as everything
he loved is now out of reach. Stunning natu-
ral descriptions provide a rich backdrop for
Harrington’s (Alice Bliss, 2011) beautifully ar-
ticulated coming-of-age story, which captures
the pain of loved ones grappling with the after
effects of war. —Cortney Ophoff
YA: Nell’s struggle to accept changing
realities in her family as she approaches
her high-school graduation, as well as her
pain at losing her friend, will resonate
with teen readers. CO.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth.
By Nathan Englander.
Sept. 2017. 272p. Knopf, $26.95 (9781524732738).
Equal parts political thriller and tender
lamentation, the latest from Englander
(What We Talk about When We Talk about
Anne Frank, 2012) explores, in swirling,
nonlinear fashion, Israeli-Palestinian tensions and moral conflicts. The General, who
is never named but is clearly former prime
minister Ariel Sharon, lies in a coma, his
thoughts hovering over past glories and a
horrifying gunshot. By his side is Ruthi, his
devoted assistant, whose pot-smoking, TV-obsessed son has found a plum job guarding
the disappeared Prisoner Z in a secret prison
in the Negev. An American spy who in a moment of either moral courage or traitorous
intent turned against his Israeli backers, Z
was on the run in Europe but tripped up
when he fell in love with a fearless waitress
from an ultrawealthy Italian family. Discerning the connections between these narratives
provides much of the drama, which turns on
the logic of human weakness and intractable
opposition. Ultimately, Englander suggests
that shared humanity and fleeting moments
of kindness between jailer and prisoner, spy
and counterspy, hold the potential for hope,
even peace. —Brendan Driscoll
The Doll Funeral.
By Kate Hamer.
Aug. 2017. 336p. Melville, $25.99 (9781612196657).
On Ruby’s thirteenth birthday, she learns
that she’s adopted, and her heart sings; she
sends up a whispered wish for her real parents
to rescue her from her abusive home. After a se-
vere beating, Ruby runs away and finds refuge
with three siblings who have been abandoned
by their eccentric parents, but their house
holds secrets that throw
Ruby for yet another loop.
Ruby’s story is overlain with
a gossamer of the supernatu-
ral so delicate only she can
see it and the lost souls it
conceals. These figures haunt
the narrative, particularly
Ruby’s friend Shadow Boy,
as she endeavors to survive the world’s harsh-
ness. Her original quest to find her real parents
gradually distills into a search for love, during
which she assumes the responsibility of helping
the mired spirits move on. Hamer (The Girl in
the Red Coat, 2016) handles language beauti-
fully, fashioning effortlessly evocative sentences
that place the reader beside Ruby, like one of
her many ghosts. Her narrative is intercut with
that of her birth mother’s and the slightly cryp-
tic monologues of Shadow Boy, all necessary
threads in a well-designed whole. An unblink-
ing light shines through this tenacious girl,
who makes a goddess of Siouxsie Sioux and
dreams of the mother she never knew, for she
refuses to be broken. —Julia Smith
YA: Ruby’s search for belonging and her
experiences with adolescent “firsts” make
this a perfect fit for teen readers. JS.
By Anita Hughes.
Aug. 2017. 288p. St. Martin’s/Griffin, paper, $15.99
American divorcée and business owner Lily
Bristol arrives in Sardinia for her new store
opening and gets the surprise of her life: her
ex-husband, Oliver, who booked the suite
while they were still together, got there first.
And to make matters worse, he has a young
woman with him. Determined not to let
her time abroad be ruined, Lily focuses on
her store opening and embraces the Emerald Coast, with the help of her butler and
new friend. But she can’t help thinking of
the memories she and Oliver shared over the
years. And as their time in Sardinia extends,
Lily and Oliver find themselves in each other’s
company more often, making for mixed emotions that have both of them questioning their
breakup—but ultimately leaving Lily wanting
more for herself than another broken heart.
Hughes’ (Christmas in Paris, 2016) uplifting
tour of past love and future endeavors, set in
a dreamy getaway of excitement and self-discovery, makes for an ideal, quick beach read.
By James McBride.
Sept. 2017. 320p. Riverhead, $27 (9780735216693).
McBride’s (Kill ’em and Leave, 2016) short
stories joyfully abound with indelible char-
acters whose personal philosophies are far
wiser than their circumstances allow, includ-
ONLINE ALERT! Visit Book Club Central,
ALA’s new resource for book-group leaders
and readers, at www.bookclubcentral
.org. You’ll find discussion resources,
book group how-to’s, and much more. Hon-
orary Chair Sarah Jessica Parker unveiled
her first “SJP Pick” reading recommenda-
tion, No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco),
Powell Watts, last
month at ALA’s
in Chicago. Booklist
is a proud partner
of BCC. Continued on p. 18