“The Yellow House”
by Sarah M. Broom
Grove Press, $26
“The Yellow House was witness to our lives,” writes Sarah M. Broom in her remarkable memoir. “When it fell down, something in me burst.”
Many years in the making, “The Yellow House” is the beautifully written story of a place, and of the lives that flowed in and out of it like a river. In 1961, Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, then a very young widow with small children, bought a weary, modest shotgun house on Wilson Avenue in New Orleans East for $3,200; money from her late husband’s insurance policy. She remarried and raised a total of 12 children and stepchildren in the house over the years; the youngest was Sarah, who grew up gazing around the neighborhood and the city with a writer’s eye.
That narrow house at 4121 Wilson no longer stands; badly damaged by the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina, it was demolished by the city. But it lives in these pages.
“Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?”
by Brock Clarke
Brock Clarke’s new novel owes an affectionate debt to Graham Greene’s “Travels with My Aunt”; it’s the story of a lost, middle-aged man whose life gets an upheaval thanks to the arrival of his previously unknown aunt, who whisks him off on a trip to Europe. That man, Calvin Bledsoe (he was named for his mother’s favorite theologian), works as a blogger in the pellet-stove industry, has an ex-wife named Dawn who isn’t very nice, and in the book’s opening scenes has become a 49-year-old orphan after his mother dies in a bizarre accident. Enter, at the funeral, Aunt Beatrice, who has a way of sweeping her nephew into adventure, whether he wants to or not.
Clarke, author of “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” has a playful gift with words. The book has the feel of a manic pile-on but enjoyably so. At its heart is a man looking for a life a little bigger than the one he’s got — and finally daring to find it.
by Jon Clinch
Atria Books, $27
“Marley was dead, to begin with,” is the famous opening sentence from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” efficiently dispensing with Ebenezer Scrooge’s former business partner (the flesh-and-blood version of him, anyway; he turns up as a ghost later). Now Marley gets a whole novel, from a skilled author who’s entered the backstory-of-literary-characters realm previously: His debut, 2007’s “Finn,” told the backstory of Huckleberry Finn’s father.
And it’s a good one; told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Marley and a younger, less bitter Scrooge and ranging from 1787 to Marley’s deathbed in 1836. Clinch has fun with Dickensian names, but mostly this is a tragic tale of a young man slowly hardening into stone, and of a familiar character’s outline being filled in with new, darker colors.
by Angie Cruz
Flatiron Books, $26.99
“Dominicana,” a coming-of-age story of a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has a richness that comes from long simmering. In its early pages, it’s 1965, and 15-year-old Ana leaves her rural home to marry the vaguely dangerous-seeming Juan, who is twice her age and drinks a lot. Ana, in her heartbreaking innocence, imagines that her New York life with Juan will be glamorous.
Told in first person, in an unadorned voice both childlike and wise, the book takes us inside the mind of its very young narrator. A small miracle happens in the book’s pages; not quite a happy ending, but the emergence of character who wasn’t there before. By the novel’s end, readers find a woman bravely setting forth on a new life.
“Twenty-One Truths About Love”
by Matthew Dicks
St. Martin’s Press, $26.99
“Twenty-One Truths” is the story of a regular guy named Dan facing trouble at work, in his marriage and his soon-to-be-expanding family. It is told, entirely, in lists. And darned if the gimmick doesn’t work, at least for a while.
Dan is both a sad sack and a charmer: We learn that he bought the bookstore because he hoped it “would make me less ordinary”; that he dislikes Ethan Hawke, “people who talk about alcohol like it’s an interesting topic” and Etch A Sketches; and that he thinks of himself as “an unfunny David Sedaris.” As the list format increasingly gets tired, I nonetheless persevered to the end, wanting to be sure things would work out OK for Dan, of whom I’d become rather fond. A quick, light read, and an unexpected pleasure.
by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, $28
The Irish-born writer Emma Donoghue has an uncanny way of writing about children. In “Akin,” Michael is a surly preteen New York boy who through a series of catastrophes has no one to look after him but an elderly great-uncle, Noah, a retired professor and widower living on the Upper West Side. The two have never met before, but (rather implausibly) head off on Noah’s long-planned visit to his hometown of Nice, France, where he hoped to figure out some stories about his mother’s wartime years.
Much of “Akin” is Michael and Noah struggling to coexist, which at times becomes less than engaging. But Donoghue is such a fluid, lovely writer that even her lesser books are a pleasure. And, as always, Donoghue’s quite poignant on the idea of home — as both a place and a person. Though Michael and Noah are alien to each other, Noah reflects, they were, “in an odd way, akin.
“A Nearly Normal Family”
by M.T. Edvardsson
Celadon Books, $26.99
This legal thriller, from a Swedish author making his U.S. publication debut, was a wild card for me. Told in three sections — father, daughter, mother — it’s the story of a perfectly ordinary family whose life changed instantly when teenage daughter Stella is arrested and accused of a violent murder. The book races us through the accusations, the legal machinations, the toll on the family and a carefully doled-out flashback to what really happened on the night in question.
Edvardsson tells much of the story through short, punchy dialogue. Stella’s parents are Adam, a pastor, and Ulrika, a lawyer — their professions are key here — and both of them immediately spring to their beloved only child’s defense. When “A Nearly Normal Family” is over, you feel a little deflated. But you definitely feel like you’ve been somewhere.
by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated by Sondra Silverston
Little, Brown, $27
I slipped into “The Liar” like falling into a velvet milkshake; Israeli author Gundar-Goshen’s writing is rich and delicious. Its story is familiar yet riveting: A teenage girl — an ordinary girl, one who works in an ice-cream shop and worries about pimples and wishes she were part of the popular clique at school — tells a lie; one that turns out to have big consequences.
While Gundar-Goshen paces it like a thriller, you read “The Liar” for its playfulness and for its wisdom about truth and lies and guilt. Nofar, “drowning in her ordinariness,” needs the lie to make her bigger, brighter, but she fears being found out. “Children always find out. Perhaps, like whales, they possess a kind of sonar that calculates the distance between the story and the facts. The word ‘liar’ is whispered, then spoken, then shouted across the yard. In the end, it is hung around the child’s neck, like a collar.”
“Heaven, My Home”
by Attica Locke
Mulholland Books, $27
In a followup to “Bluebird, Bluebird,” Texas Ranger Darren Mathews’ continues to have troubles in life, and his lieutenant wants him to investigate a missing child — whose family has ties to criminal white supremacists in the rural area.
Like its predecessor, “Heaven, My Home” is a nuanced, moody and artful tale, centered on a flawed yet utterly real hero whose actions often aren’t heroic. Locke deftly weaves a story thick with characters and conflicting motivations, in language that’s sometimes startlingly lovely. And Mathews, making his way through the complex thicket of his life, thinks poignantly about the idea of home in the language of blues, which gives this book its melancholy rhythms. “(E)ven in the house where he’d grown up, home was always a reach back in time, glassed as it was in memory. It was still an idea he couldn’t exactly touch. Fodo could sometimes reach it, a pot of peas and ham hocks on the stove. Stories too. But music did it every time. Texas blues were the way home.”
by Cathleen Schine
Sarah Crichton Books/FSB, $27
“The Grammarians” examines the relationship between a pair of redheaded, identical twin sisters who share a love of language and grammar. Laurel and Daphne grow up as “two little Professor Higginses,” obsessed with words and “My Fair Lady” and speaking their own special twin language. As adults, they make their way to Manhattan in the 1980s: Daphne becomes a grammar columnist known as the People’s Pedant; Laurel is a teacher who finds her way, like coming home, to becoming a writer.
It’s a pleasant meander through two not-quite-conjoined lives. (“My sister is me if I were different,” concludes Daphne, accurately.) What makes it delicious is its playfulness with language: the definitions from Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” that open every chapter; the young twins figuring out what words they liked best; the sparkle of the conversations. And I paused for a while over Laurel’s description of her young daughter’s development, saying she wanted to be present “to hear Charlotte pulling the world toward her, word by word.”