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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Ayelet Tsabari's The Best Place on Earth

TsabariThe Best Place on Earth, winner of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and editors’ choice of the New York Times Book Review, is a debut collection of short stories by Israeli author Ayelet Tsabari.  Reminiscent of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the stories reflect the desire for love and connection in a world torn by strife and uncertainty.

Stories are character-centered and often deal with an adolescent or young adult. Usually the narrator, like the author, is a woman of Yemenite descent. Tsabari masterfully captures the essence of what it is like to be young. For example, in the opening story,” Tikkun” (Hebrew for “repair” or “rectify”), a man in his 30s spots the free-spirited woman with whom he had an affair. Ten years have passed since that time. The narrator explains:

Natalie and I were twenty-two when we met…We felt we were a part of a generation and that life had been made just for us and we’d never be sick and never grow old and nothing bad would happen to us. Now, more than a decade later, Rabin is dead after being assassinated at a peace rally; suicide bombs explode in buses and cafes…Natalie is a married Orthodox and I’m unemployed and dating a twenty-four-year-old.

Similarly, in “The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” Iraqi missile attacks are a backdrop for this Bildungsroman. In it, a 13-year-old boy harshly judges his globe-trotting sister after he is left contend with a tragic family situation amidst nights spent in a bomb shelter. Tsabari masterfully tells the story from the boy’s point of view while allowing the reader to understand the reasons for his sister’s rootlessness.

Sara's Picks


Kathleen Grissom's Glory Over Everything

GrissomThe Kitchen House was a surprise New York Times best seller in 2010. The novel tells the story of a young Irish girl, Lavinia, whose parents died during the family’s sea voyage to The United States. Taken in initially to work in <i>The Kitchen House</i> of a large tobacco farm in Virginia, Lavinia later becomes a servant in the main house. In time, the mistress of the house, Mrs. Pyke, treats Lavinia as a daughter. Unknown to many, another kitchen slave, Belle, is actually the daughter of Mr. Pyke. For all of us who wondered what happened to the characters after the novel ended, Glory Over Everything is the much awaited sequel. The books can be read in sequence, or as stand-alone novels.

Philadelphia, 1830. James Burton lives as a wealthy white silversmith. Born Jamie Pyke, he is Belle’s son. When he was a child, Jamie was taken in by the Burton family, and treated as their son. No one in town (especially not the Burtons) knows that Jamie was born on a southern plantation, and that he is the child of a mixed race servant who was forcibly impregnated by her white master.

Jamie, who passes as white, reluctantly returns to the south to retrieve Pan, his beloved servant and the young son of a black friend. Pan had been training as staff in Jamie’s house, and during an ill-advised trip to the docks, he was abducted by slavers and taken south. Jamie’s journey to find Pan takes him perilously near the area where he himself had lived as a slave, and he fears for his servant’s safety as well as his own.

The author writes about their journey, and she includes drama, intrigue, and romance, which give the saga added dimension. I especially enjoyed the information about the Underground Railroad, and wish that it was a bigger part of the book.

Southern Fiction  Nancy's Picks  Historical Fiction  American South  American Fiction


Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown

ChoWhat a treat Cho’s first novel is! It reads as a delightful story, yet is full of truths of history, politics, social structure, and race and gender discrimination.

The setting is Regency England. While many citizens have some degree of magical powers, the nation’s supply of magic is declining. Following the death of the Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias’ guardian and mentor, Zacharias, a young freed slave and a proficient magician, has earned the staff that only the head of The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is able to use. He befriends Prunella, a young biracial Indian woman with exceptional magical powers; but, in England, women are not permitted to practice magic.  Zacharias struggles to continue his responsibility of serving his country using magic. He travels to Fairyland to find the source of the loss of the supply of magic.  He combats jealousy within the Royal Society and the actions of a variety of magical demonic creatures.

The novel is full of interesting and compelling characters. There are true friends and mortal enemies. There are fairies, dragons, familiars, mysterious orbs and stones, flying magic transport clouds. The story is a blend of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, magic, and romance. It is well structured, and fast paced.  There is mystery, danger, suspense, but also wit and humor.

Cho is an award winning short story writer; this novel is the first in a planned trilogy. I am eager to know what these characters will do next and how England and the world will prosper through magic. Meanwhile, if you want to read another excellent novel with similarities in setting, although differences in tone, try Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Retellings  Magic  Historical Fiction  Historical Fantasy  Historical  Gail's Picks  Fantasy  Dragons


Iain Pears' Arcadia

PearsWriters Theatre is performing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia through May 1. Stoppard’s 1993 play and Pears’ 2015 novel of the same name show many similarities. Characters move between worlds and time. Mystery and fantasy and poetry abound. Mathematics and scientific discoveries dominate the discussion and the action. Both works are multi-stranded stories that move well beyond Webster’s definition of arcadia as “a region or scene of simple pleasure and quiet.” Both the play and the novel are varied and thoughtful treats for the mind, told with wisdom and humor.

Pears’ Arcadia does not follow a linear structure. The book features three worlds, with some characters inhabiting more than one. It is a delightful romp through the woods in a pastoral world, a fascinating foray into a world of scientific advances and social disarray, an everyday story set in Oxford in the 1960’s. The novel moves beyond the expected boundaries of time and place; what is past, present, or future in any world is not clear.

The role of the Storyteller is central to the novel, as is Henry Lytten, a 1960s Oxford don, who writes fiction and invents a story about a place called Anterwold. In another part of the book, Anterwold exists as a real place. Oral history, the Story, and the scholars who interpret it are at the core of that world.  Of the other major characters, Angela Meerson is a psychomathematician who invents a machine that has the power to change worlds (parallel worlds and/or time travel), and Rosie Wilson is a young girl who is a key player in more than one world and time period.

Time Travel  Mystery  Historical Fiction  Gail's Picks  Fantasy  British Literature


Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible Curtis Sittenfeld April 19 1Eligible is a well written and clever modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  In Sittenfeld’s version, instead of England, the Bennet family’s childhood home is in Cincinnati, but some of the daughters now live in New York City and other family lives in California.  It is much faster to travel by air than it was to travel at all in Jane Austen’s time, and the multiple locations add to the interest of this novel.  Sittenfeld writes with wit and wisdom, as does Austen.  Most of the former author’s characters have the same names and the same temperament as the latter’s. 

But, Eligible stands on its own as a novel.  The five unmarried sisters range in age from 40 to 23.  Meeting and dating may be through friends or clubs, in bars, online, or any of the ways of the 21st century.  The men include doctors (Fitzwilliam Darcy is one), a reality-TV star, a publisher, and the owner of a CrossFit gym.  The women include a journalist, a yoga instructor, a business executive, and unemployed CrossFit enthusiasts.  The characters are more experienced in the ways of the world than were Austen’s characters, and some of them are older, but they are not more emotionally wise, nor do most of them have more common sense.  Sittenfeld reimagines the characters and gives them voices appropriate for our times.  Romance and complicated relationships abound. 

Read Eligible to read Curtis Sittenfeld, not to read Jane Austen.  If you want to read more modern retellings of classic fiction written by accomplished authors,  for another Jane Austen work try Emma: a Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith, or for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, set in a future sci-fi world, try Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn.


Romance  Retellings  Gail's Picks  Contemporary  Classic