When Jeremy meets Alexandra, he believes her light may be enough to eclipse the shadows of his past. Once an operative in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Jeremy was given a new identity as a social worker, counseling clients and manning crisis hotlines. His former life is kept a secret.
Alexandra works at an image management company with entire countries as its clientele, but her true passion is the search for her missing brother, Shel. When he reaches out to her, she is still not sure that he has been found; his mind is filled with government conspiracy theories that he spouts in disjointed, cryptic ramblings. Beholden to a promise, Alexandra keeps his reappearance a secret from Jeremy, even as she deals with fears that her brother is going mad. The atmosphere becomes taut as the couple’s secrets creep toward the surface of their otherwise picturesque life.
References to real-world events, including the London terrorist bombings, help to track the timeline of the couple’s life together, offering tangible touchstones within the book’s gossamer language. Stirring similes—hair is “thick as a paintbrush on the pillow,” and Jeremy’s knee bounces “like a sewing machine needle”—meld with lines that hitch the breath. Alexandra, her trepidation building as she listens to her brother’s rantings, describes the feeling as “like the moment before a dropped object hits the floor;” elsewhere, Jeremy, upon meeting with a friend from his time as an operative, observes “the world was deadly, and they were pretending to be gentle men.”
Tracy O’Neill’s novel is, at its core, about love in the time of paranoia. It questions whether it is possible to authentically connect in an age oversaturated with connection, and acknowledges that no clear answer can be provided. Probing the shifting nature of love and family in a time where nothing can be hidden, but when all have something to hide, Quotients is a novel that lingers in the consciousness long after the final page.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (April 27, 2020)
Ashley E. Sweeney’s novelization of the Donner Party fuses history, realism, and luminous prose.
Ada is nineteen when she’s orphaned just after her wagon caravan leaves Missouri for California. Instead of turning back, Ada joins the Breen family with the Donner party, sharing the workload with Ma Breen.
Aware of impending winter, Donner persuades several families to take an alleged shortcut. Ada is reluctant, but she follows out of loyalty to the Breens. Donner’s shortcut proves to be more hype than actuality, stranding the group in the mountains as twenty-foot blizzards and starvation take their toll.
As the book juxtaposes the party’s desperation against their desire to remain human, its tension is near unbearable. Accounts of friendships, holiday celebrations, and other efforts to carry on normal routines, even while dead friends lie in the snow between huts, leave lasting impressions.
Seen through Ada’s eyes, the world unfolds as a minute-to-minute experience. Her accretion of details, feelings, and observations results in intense realism. Hundreds of miles from any settlement, Ada receives rags and newspapers hoarded for personal hygiene as the greatest gift that one woman can give another. Her observations of nature are vibrant and infused with feeling, capturing majestic beauty as well as the eerie pull of vast emptiness.
Both the book’s real-life and its fictional characters are made convincing. They act, have personalities, and converse in interesting ways. The best-known historical characters are background players in Ada’s story, though, with only her new family, the Breens, stepping into larger roles. Ada’s tale is absorbing, and her fortitude and concern for others is an anchoring force.
Majestic, moving, and layered with beauty and horror, Answer Creek is a bittersweet and satisfying historical novel.
SUSAN WAGGONER (April 27, 2020)
Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky is a charming novel set in a remote Armenian village that’s perched on a mountaintop. Though the story acknowledges its tragedies, it also captures the warmth and resilience of a close-knit community.
The story begins with fifty-eight-year-old Anatolia lying on her bed convinced that she is dying. Along comes Vasily who, not knowing of Anatolia’s illness, asks her to marry him. She says yes to make him go away so she can die in peace. When she doesn’t die, she finds that she lacks the courage to turn Vasily down. As it develops the couple’s story, the narrative branches out to include the lives of other villagers and the history of the town and its families.
The dual portrait of the couple and the village is focused and full of variety. Anatolia and Vasily’s story unifies the narrative, while frequent digressions into village history, including war, famine, and natural disasters, result in a rich sense of the community’s past and present. Vignettes describing the lives of other villagers and their interactions with the larger world deepen the novel’s sense of time and place. Depictions of daily village life, aging houses and roads, and the beautiful but treacherous mountain landscape are lively and lush. The novel teems with minor characters whose quirks are at times amusing and at times heartbreaking.
Touches of fabulism enter the story: one character can see the spirits of dead people, and another can sense upcoming disasters. These supernatural elements result in an atmosphere of otherworldliness that highlights the community’s near total isolation.
Narine Abgaryan’s fable-like novel Three Apples Fell from the Sky is a warm-hearted story about family, friendship, and community.
REBECCA HUSSEY (April 27, 2020)
“If there are to be stories about me, if I am to be a tameless girl, then let the story be mine,” says Florence “Floy” Hutchings in Joanna Cooke’s biographical novel Call Me Floy.
Headstrong, eleven-year-old Floy’s story is set during the early years of Yosemite National Park; it follows her passionate dream to be one of the first people to ever scale Half Dome. Trapped in the confines of San Francisco, where she’s made to wear dresses, Floy longs for Yosemite, where she grew up. Just as she plans to sneak back, her father announces their return, and Floy’s dream is reawakened.
Enlivened by rich similes, the book’s Yosemite sweeps across the page. Floy’s connection with the land and its difficult beauty pervades her story. Knowing how to survive in this place gives her power, and Floy revels in reading the signs of the trails.
Floy’s perspective takes note of the rampant sexism that was only partially broken by the wilds of Yosemite. While safety, necessity, and familiarity sometimes take precedent, allowing some bold women and girls the opportunity to be adventurers, wear trousers, and ride astride, opportunities dwindle as Floy is asked to assume the roles and manners of a woman of her time. As she feels her role change, she also sees the reactions of tourists towards her Native American friend Sally Ann; people brand her as either “dirty” or a mere curiosity to be ogled.
Restless, energetic Floy stands at the center of massive change—for herself, for the country, for Yosemite, for the Native Americans, and for the rights of women. Those vital forces come together in Joanna Cooke’s novel, driving Floy on her epic, complex coming-of-age adventure.
CAMILLE-YVETTE WELSCH (April 27, 2020)
In Borja Gonzalez’s subtle, surreal A Gift for a Ghost, two girls form a connection despite living 160 years apart.
Teresa lives in 1856 and is preparing to make her society debut. She follows her mother’s instructions and memorizes suitable poems. But Teresa isn’t like her mother or her sisters; she also enjoys writing poems about “vampires, crypts, and dementia.”
Through a mysterious, magical link, Teresa comes into contact with Laura, a modern-day, enthusiastic, somewhat disaffected teen who likes to wear costumes. Upon their first meeting, Laura is dressed as a skeleton. She’s taking the first steps toward creating a punk rock band with her friends, and Teresa’s poetry feeds into her bizarre song lyrics, with neither girl aware of the other’s true identity.
Parallels are drawn between Teresa and Laura as they work to find themselves under very different circumstances. At times, Teresa speaks in what seems like modern language, using “stiff” for a dead body or profanities that a young aristocrat would be unlikely to utter, but such choices serve to emphasize just how out of place she feels.
The book is haunting—not because Laura spends time dressed as a ghost, but because of the heartbreaking sense of alienation that it depicts. Its characters are drawn without faces, hands, or feet, but their states of mind are conveyed without a misstep. Such is the case on one page of nine panels, in which Laura, in her ghost sheet, orders ice cream; the sequence captures her uncertainty and awkwardness.
A Gift for a Ghost is an uncommon fantasy that speaks to the perennial, difficult-to-verbalize issues that teenagers face.
PETER DABBENE (April 27, 2020)