By Alice Hoffman
[STARS 3.5]

The power of words is a lesson the narrator of Hoffman's 16th novel learns as a child. "They burn your tongue the moment they're spoken, and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you," Hoffman's protagonist (a nameless librarian) tells us in the opening passage of this lush tale of loss and redemption. Hoffman does a masterful job in weaving fairy-tale elements into the fabric of her contemporary characters' lives: After her mother dies, the heroine locks herself in an isolating silence and becomes an expert on a single subject—death—while her brother retreats into the comfort of logic and order and becomes a meteorology professor.

Her cold shell is shattered when, after moving from New Jersey to Florida following the death of her grandmother, she is struck by lightning. Deprived of the ability to perceive the color red and lamenting the sudden synchronicity of her inner and outer worlds ("All I saw was ice; all I felt was the cold of my own ruined self"), she seeks out a fellow lightning-strike survivor. Their passionate affair is the start of her slow journey toward a semblance of happily ever after.

Hoffman's use of language is nothing less than stellar. Whether evoking the sultry landscape of southern Florida or the layers of ice around the librarian's heart, Hoffman reminds us how little distance there is between magic and mundane.

FICTION

By Steve Almond
[STARS 3.5]

Almond is an incredibly seductive writer: A gifted storyteller, he hooks you on the first page and keeps the thrills coming. Author of last year's Candyfreak, a quirky nonfiction hit in which he explored his obsession with Kit Kats and other kid faves, he captivates without attempting to be endearing; you can sink into his tales without being distracted by his craft.

In his second short story collection, Almond offers tales that explore the seemingly mundane along with the improbable. There's a dreamlike dialogue between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; a story about perverse sex, and a strangely tender tale in which a couple breakfasting with their son explain to his old roommate that their family is monitored by benevolent aliens. "Mrs. Wilkes and Jonathon and I, all of us, we feel a part of something larger," the father explains. So delicate is Almond's touch that the reader may feel envious of the three, with their tender spirits and otherworldly caretakers.

SHORT STORIES

By Sue Carswell
[STARS 2]

Daughter of a mental health administrator, Carswell grew up on the grounds of an orphanage that became a home for troubled kids. Though she longed to make friends, her father drew a line separating his four children from his charges. What he didn't recognize was that the author had psychological demons too, including an exaggerated fear of losing her mother. The book's scope is narrow: Carswell can't say much about the children raised next door since she never got to know them. Ultimately, her memoir is a tribute to her saintly mother, who died in 1997.

MEMOIR

The Story of My Life

At 17, Afghan refugee Farah Ahmedi feels blessed: On April 22, the high school junior from Carol Stream, Ill., won a Good Morning America contest inviting viewers to write their life stories. Her prize: $10,000, a 10-city tour and seeing her book The Story of My Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky, hit the shelves.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR STORY I was in second grade in Kabul, Afghanistan, and going to school one day. I was late, so I took a shortcut; I didn't [see the] land mine. I lost a leg. My parents thought I would die, but I went to Germany for about 20 surgeries. I got a prosthesis and a whole new life. But eight years ago my mom and I were at the bazaar, and a Taliban rocket hit my house. My father and two sisters died.

BUT YOU STILL FEEL BLESSED? After a refugee camp, my mom and I went to Chicago and met our mentor, Alyce Litz [a church volunteer from Wheaton], in 2002. She helped me start thinking again and setting goals. She always said 1 should write my story.

DOES YOUR BOOK HAVE A THEME? It's about hope, love, family and angels—about the way one person can help you turn your life around.

  • Contributors:
  • Amy Waldman,
  • Michelle Green,
  • Sue Corbett.