The Floating World by C. Morgan BabstAs Hurricane Katrina approaches the Louisiana coast, the Boisdoré family only partially evacuates -- Creole artisan cabinetmaker Joe and his high-society white wife flee for Houston, while their eldest daughter, Cora, refuses to leave. Six weeks later, the family is in pieces: Joe and Tess have separated, and Cora, who's always struggled with mental illness, is nearly catatonic. When her sister finds a body in the house that Cora had sheltered in during the storm, the question morphs from "What happened to Cora?" to "What did Cora do?" Set in a vividly depicted, devastated, and racially divided New Orleans, The Floating World is a complex, reflective debut.
Smile: A Novel by Roddy DoyleUnemployed, recently separated, and at loose ends, Victor Forde is having a pint in his Dublin neighborhood pub when he's approached by a man who claims that they attended school together. Though Victor does not remember him, the association nevertheless forces Victor to recall brutal memories from the past, including those five years at school, where bullies and teachers alike made life miserable. In revealing Victor's past, Irish writer Roddy Doyle creates "a performance few writers could carry off" (The Washington Post).
Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom HanksYou already know Tom Hanks as a two-time Oscar-winning actor; now get to know him as a short story writer obsessed with typewriters. Well, let's be honest -- while it's true that a typewriter features in each tale (and there are 14 photos of the typewriters in question), the focus is actually on the all-too-human characters and the situations they find themselves in. From a tale of four friends building a rocket to visit the moon ("Alan Bean Plus Four") to an ultimately doomed romantic relationship ("Three Exhausting Weeks"), Hanks "writes like a writer, not a movie star" (Kirkus Reviews).
Seven Days of Us by Francesca HornakFor the first time in years, the Birch family will be spending the holidays together in their drafty old home in the English countryside. While the plan is to quarantine themselves (following eldest daughter Olivia's time treating highly contagious patients in Liberia), nothing is simple in this semi-dysfunctional family. Each of the four is hiding a secret -- and their blinkered understanding of each other leads to constant bickering. Quarantine is going to be hard enough, but when youngest daughter Phoebe's fiancé crashes the party (as does a visiting American), all bets are off. Warmly funny, with shifting perspectives and believably flawed characters, Seven Days of Us is a quick, enjoyable read for the pre-holiday run-up.
New Boy by Tracy ChevalierThis retelling of Shakespeare's Othello is set in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the 1970s, a place where even the elementary school is beset by racism, betrayal, and jealousy. Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, is starting his fourth school in six years; though he's immediately ostracized (he's the first black kid in the all-white school), a friendship blossoms between him and the most popular girl in school, setting off bullies who feel the need to police -- and destroy -- this burgeoning relationship. The resulting tragedy unfolds over a single day.
Nutshell: A Novel by Ian McEwanIn a nutshell, here's the plot of Ian McEwan's Nutshell, according to The Washington Post: "a crime of passion based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” narrated by a fetus." Yup, you read that right -- Whitbread Award-winning McEwan has written an interpretation of the classic tragedy with a wholly unique narrator. Though there are certainly moments of wit (our narrator has paid attention as his mother listens to her educational podcasts), disaster looms -- for how can an unborn baby prevent the murder of his father at the hands of his mother and her lover, his uncle?
The Serpent of Venice by Christopher MooreTwo parts Shakespeare -- maybe three -- and one part Edgar Allan Poe, this fast-paced, farcical tale skewers sacred cows; this is no story for Shakespeare purists. Starring royal Fool Pocket (first seen in author Christopher Moore's eponymous Fool), the novel's events include a fabricated Venetian war, imprisonment, and a longed-for elopement. Characters include a very horny sea creature, a solicitous ghost, and Pocket's companions: his friend Drool and the monkey Jeff. Puns, R-rated humor, and narrative quirks pepper a surprisingly complex plot that Shakespeare would never have attempted.
Eligible by Curtis SittenfeldJane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has formed the basis for a number of re-tellings and adaptations, Bridget Jones' Diary possibly being the best known. And like that novel, this one features plucky, flawed characters, complex family dynamics, and the perils of modern life. It's all there -- the impending loss of a family home, embarrassing younger sisters, a haughty suitor, and a cousin's unwanted attentions. Just add some yoga, a former reality TV star, paleo diets, and an Ohio setting, and you have another enjoyable contemporary retelling of a beloved classic.
Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold by Anne TylerAuthor Anne Tyler is on record for disliking Shakespeare's plays; the one she dislikes the most is The Taming of the Shrew, which is why she chose to rewrite it. Setting the story in the modern day, it follows the opinionated and none-too-diplomatic Kate Battista as she becomes a tool in her father's eccentric ploy to save his assistant from deportation. A quick, lighthearted read, Vinegar Girl offers witty dialogue, slightly kooky characters, and Tyler's beloved Baltimore setting.
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