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Susan McCloskey has worked at Bookshop Santa Cruz since graduating from UCSC in 2000. She is the former Event Coordinator at Bookshop and continues to consult for the store. In her other life, she is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. She believes in story, and loves the meld of working with books, narrative, and people.
This novel stunned me with its originality and power. At its end, I realized I would be forever haunted—truly, there is no better word to describe the vibration left behind after reading this book. Fusing fact and fiction, the novel is based on a true crime that took place in 1931. Along the way, there are photographs (lifted from real archives) of the characters and the settings that surrounded them. Closing the cover, I did not feel weary about the world, but rather grateful and in awe of those who take the time to find the beating hearts amid the chaos.
Emmy is a shy, sheltered 16-year-old when her mom, Kate, sends her to eastern Washington to an aunt and uncle she never knew she had. Fifteen years earlier, Kate had abandoned her sister, Beth, when she fled her painful past and their fundamentalist church. And now Beth believes Emmy’s participation in a faith healing is her last hope for having a child. Emmy goes reluctantly, but before long she knows she has come home. She feels tied to the rugged landscape of coulees and scablands. And she meets Reuben, the Native American boy next door. Here is a novel where land and place exist as their own characters; it is a quiet and lovely gem of a book.
This masterpiece tells the story of two children on opposite sides of World War II. Its chapters are short, captivating portraits that interweave narratives and build, one voice on top of the other. The bombs that fall in this book reverberate as real; the hope and love and bravery are originally told and vividly depicted. There are comparable titles that will give you some idea of All the Light We Cannot See’s power—The Book Thief, The English Patient—but this story is its own. No words or review can really capture the poignancy it holds. Put it at the top of your list.
I have been a fan of Elizabeth McCracken ever since I read her novel The Giant’s House, a National Book Award finalist. McCracken’s vision is of a world slightly askew, and she has a wonderful way of blending the astringent and the sharp together with deep tenderness and understanding of longing and yearning. From the first story in this collection—an evocative and brittle but compassionate not-quite-ghost-story about a grieving mother—to the title story, which deals with a father’s acceptance of his daughter’s brain injury—McCracken writes with a no-holds-barred sensibility. The result is a unique and admirable collection that can be read and reread.
Roxanne Gay’s first novel is a searing story of a politically and economically divided Haiti as seen through one family’s terrifying ordeal. Mireille, a Haitian-born young woman, is on vacation from Miami and visiting her upper-class parents in Port-au-Prince when she is kidnapped at gunpoint. Her captors usually extract hefty ransoms from their wealthy victims, but Mireille’s proud father refuses to pay until it’s nearly too late, and Mireille ends up suffering days of excruciating torture. Her eventual freedom is only the first step in the family’s uncertain recovery. Gay’s portrayal of Mirelle’s healing from a shattered state is powerful and harrowing. The brutality of the book is something that a reader needs to be ready for, but this is a deeply talented author with an unflinchingly told tale.
Brand new in paperback, Mark Slouka’s novel has a grit and depth that lasts long after its final word. The plot seems deceptively simple: It is a tale of two friends in 1968, coming of age in a working-class town; one is a runner, the other a fighter. Yet there is an undertow to Slouka’s narrative that evolves as we get to know the main characters, Jon and Ray, and the loyalty and desperation that forms between these two in the wake of their flawed fathers and distant mothers. This book breathes life. You cannot help but love these boys and get caught up in their quest. This novel is for the reader who knows that the miracle lies in the footfall, that it is the finish line that is the wonder, instead of the win. A beautiful and piercing read.
Hannah Kent might be a time traveler—that’s how vivid and immediate this historical novel feels upon reading. Based on a true story, Burial Rites is set in Iceland in 1829 and tells the story Agnes, a maid charged with murder and condemned to die. She is sent to live on a family farm and work hard labor until her execution day. The beauty in Kent’s story is revealed in the relationships that form between the family members and Agnes and in what is unveiled as trust slowly builds. This story is as much about human relationship and recognition of one another as it is about what really happened on the night Agnes was accused of murder. A gripping tale that deepens as it goes along, this is one of those books that makes history come alive.