Jennifer Braverman is a confident New Mexico med student who starts to crumble when her brother drowns himself in Seattle. Deserting her husband and driving to the site of the suicide, she rattles back and forth from the present to her lonely past, when she lived in a mud house and her hippie parents raised her in rags, calling her Juniper Tree Burning.
This lush first novel is part family drama, part fairy tale (Brothers Grimm, not Disney), with Jennie as a Cinderella who expects no happily-ever-afters as she recalls bizarre stories from her childhood. Entertaining but unflinching, Burning is a revelation of the ugliest acts we commit against ourselves and those who love us. And it's an unsentimental song of grief and forgiveness. (Simon & Schuster, $25)
Bottom Line: Blaze of glory
Edited by Andrew Carroll
Many a soldier's writings have wound up in museums and libraries, but Carroll, the founder of the all-volunteer Legacy Project, gathered 50,000 battlefield letters from America's attics and garages by asking for them via a Dear Abby column.
The nearly 200 letters here, spanning wars from Civil to Gulf, capture stench and honor, gore and affection in equal measure. The authors—"I have been in one of the hardes [sic] battles that ever was fought in the new world but I never want to get in another one," writes a Civil War soldier at Shiloh—prove with every spelling error that denial of eloquence makes that eloquence endure. No American reader can be unmoved. (Scribner, $28)
Bottom Line: A distinguished service
by Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby is under a lot of pressure. Can he be the next... Nick Hornby? Wisely he has chosen not to try. After his first novel, High Fidelity, became the standard field guide to charmingly disaffected boy-men looking for a little (but not too much) affection, he is giving infidelity a go, with a woman narrator: Katie Carr, a London mom and doctor married to a sneering columnist who is angry both professionally and as a hobby. She tumbles into a love-free affair and considers divorce.
But then boy meets guru. Carr's husband, David, made saintly by a gifted New Age faith healer called DJ GoodNews, invites the swami to move in—and starts giving away possessions and inviting the homeless to stay. Imagine a reworking of Pay It Forward, only this time it's intentionally funny: What do right-thinking, left-leaning folks like Katie do when the poor are no longer a topic to be frowned about over a nice Chardonnay but are stealing the milk money? This is a surprising novel of ideas that balances spiritual, political and familial questions, and it's an exciting departure for a quietly excellent writer. (Riverhead, $24.95)
Bottom Line: Good to the last page
by Laura Fraser
Discarded by her husband, San Francisco journalist Fraser takes off for Italy to figure out what went wrong. On the Italian island of Ischia she indulges in a casual fling with an older Frenchman, a professor who revels in her full figure and worldly ways. Although he's married, the pair hook up periodically in Milan, Los Angeles, London and Casablanca for sex, food and lofty conversation. There are lush meals and heavenly settings aplenty, but the descriptions in this hybrid memoir-travelogue are often perfunctory. And its second-person narration is a curious choice for such an intimate tale. (Pantheon, $22)
Bottom Line: A lukewarm affair
by Robert B. Parker
Beach book of the week
Actors from Henry Fonda to Kurt Russell have tried on Wyatt Earp's boots. Now Parker, on leave from his Spenser detective series, delivers a fresh take on the western marshal. Swapping his usual wisecracking for a Hemingway-like spareness, Parker makes Earp not necessarily likable—no bully but at his best behind a Colt .45. Amid political rivalrics in Tombstone, Earp invites trouble by shacking up with a liberated showgirl reminiscent of Spenser's squeeze Susan Silverman. The minimalist showdown at the O.K. Coral is almost anticlimactic, but Rhapsody's psychological portrait is a sure shot. (Putnam, $22.95)
Bottom Line: Saddle up for western noir
- Michelle Vellucci,
- Kyle Smith,
- Anne Moore,
- Samantha Miller.