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Book Clubs: Written in the stars
Elsa Hart’s impressive first novel, Jade Dragon Mountain, takes place in China in the early 1700s. Unjustly cast out of Beijing, former imperial librarian Li Du takes up a life of wandering. He makes his way to Dayan, a bustling town on the Tibetan border, where Tulishen, his cousin, serves as magistrate. Thanks to information provided by astronomers, Emperor Kangxi will soon come to Dayan and—to all appearances—order an eclipse of the sun. The town’s inhabitants eagerly await the miracle. But when a Jesuit astronomer is murdered, intrigue sweeps through the community. Tulishen orders Li Du to identify the guilty party—a task that proves a challenge in a town of surprises, where people aren’t who they seem. From this exotic plot, Hart spins a compelling mystery, and she fleshes out the tale with elements of Chinese history and literature. Li’s own story figures into the narrative, pointing to the next installment in the series, out this fall. This is an intoxicating debut from a promising new writer.
A FINAL CHAPTER
Beloved novelist Kent Haruf died in November 2014. His last book, Our Souls at Night, is set in familiar territory: Holt, Colorado, the small town that has provided the backdrop for his previous books, including Plainsong (1999). Addie Moore, a 70-year-old widow, finds herself bonding with Louis Waters, whose late wife was her friend. Addie and Louis are empty-nesters who face lonely nights at home and begin sleeping together—without having sex—to keep each other company. Their friendship stirs up gossip in Holt, and Addie’s son and Louis’ daughter aren’t thrilled about the new chapter in their parents’ lives. But as the two become close, sharing stories and memories, they realize that the attachment they share is more important than other people’s opinions. The narrative moves fluidly through time, flashing back to the pasts of Addie and Louis as their relationship deepens. Haruf’s lean, unembellished prose is the perfect vehicle for the story of their unexpected connection. Fans will find much to savor in this poignant, beautifully executed novel.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Ron Rash’s sixth novel, Above the Waterfall, is a suspenseful, poetic tale set in the North Carolina mountains. Part of a community that’s been forever altered by crystal meth, Les is a vigilant sheriff on the brink of retirement. He finds a likeminded soul in park ranger Becky, who is struggling to escape the weight of her tragic past and shares his deep love of nature. When an oddball character named Gerald Blackwelder is blamed for poisoning a trout stream that lies on the grounds of a popular resort, Becky goes to bat for him. But the case is far from cut and dried, and Becky and Les soon find themselves enmeshed in a dark plot involving family conflict and divided loyalties. This brisk, compelling novel is narrated by both Becky and Les. A chilling portrayal of contemporary Appalachia, it’s the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.