Book clubs: New in paperback
The truth is stranger than fiction in American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, a hypnotic work of journalism by Monica Hesse that was one of the best books of 2017. In 2012, a series of arsons in downtrodden Accomack County, Virginia, put the locals on edge. Old, abandoned buildings—and there were plenty in Accomack County—were targeted, and in the end approximately 70 were destroyed. When Charlie Smith, a mechanic with a police record, was convicted of the arsons, he plead guilty, and Hesse, who reported on his hearing for the Washington Post, decided to delve more deeply into his case. Hesse learned that Smith’s girlfriend, Tonya Bundick, a mother of two fighting to make ends meet, had assisted with the fires. Set against the backdrop of a community in decline, the tale of Smith and Bundick’s relationship and the repercussions of their crimes make for a captivating page-turner. A gifted storyteller, Hesse delivers a compelling portrait of Accomack County and the lovers who tried to burn it down.
WONDROUS AND STRANGE
Set in mid-1800s Peru, Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks is a bewitching blend of fantasy and history that readers will find hard to resist. Merrick Tremayne, a former opium smuggler for the East India Company, is homebound in Cornwall thanks to a wounded leg. When peculiar things begin to happen on his property (a statue inexplicably moves, for one thing), he decides to join an expedition to Peru to retrieve cinchona bark, which contains quinine—a necessity for treating malaria. In the mountainous regions of Peru, Merrick meets with more wonders when he and his mysterious guide Raphael arrive at the remote enclave of Bedlam, where statues move and the barrier between life and death is a simple line of salt. Pulley blends fact and fiction with ease, bringing real-life explorer Sir Clements Markham into the narrative and delivering lush descriptions of South America. Ambitious in scope with an appealing protagonist at its center, Pulley’s novel is a delightful excursion.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Written with humor, compassion and a remarkable understanding of the female heart, The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson tells the story of a graphic novelist named Leia Birch Briggs. At 38, Leia is unmarried and unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand at a comic book conference (he was dressed as Batman—can you blame her?). Leia has yet to share the big news with her conservative family, but she soon finds her affairs overshadowed by other happenings. Leia’s stepsister, Rachel, is dealing with a marriage on the rocks, and Leia’s grandmother, Birchie, is sliding into dementia. When Leia arrives at Birchie’s Alabama home to help, she discovers that her family has a secret that could change her life forever. A rewarding work of fiction that explores race, gender, the complexities of kinship and the challenges of letting go, Jackson’s novel is sure to get book clubs talking.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.