Yes, the days are still short, but there's more light than there used to be; the promise of spring keeps us hopeful during these brusque and dismissive days of late winter. In a similar way, while there are more terrible books being published than ever, some writers continue to offer us novels reminding us why the written word--when used with grace, wit, wisdom, and fierce intelligence--matters. Here are four new works by women writers to see us through until the sun goes down after dinner and we can start reading outdoors again.
1. Finding Casey by Jo-Ann Mapson (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Mapson, a Southwest writer with a voice as rich and deep as a New Mexico sunset, handles grief and joy the way an expert weaver handles threads of different hues. There's a rich and complex plot--centered on the ways the lives of women are never quite finished but are instead woven into one another's pasts and futures, complete with ghosts and premonitions--and writing so sharp it leaves the reader breathless with emotion. "What good ever came of anger?" wonders the narrator, who is frightened by the emotion. "None. Only rage and age and nag inside that word." People's private lives are never private and, as it turns out, neither are their deaths. And there are connections between unlikely characters, beautifully and satisfying imagined by Mapson, which make the heart cheer.
2. Kipling and Trix by Mary Hamer (Aurora Metro Books, 2012)
Winner of the Virginia Prize for Fiction, Hamer's novel is based on the real-life relationship between the Nobel Prize winning British author Rudyard Kipling ("Jungle Book," "Gunga Din," "The Man Who Would be King") and his sister Alice, known as "Trix." As Kipling wrote about the complicated, fragmented and intimate childhood, "badly-treated children have a clear notion of what they are likely to get if they betray the secrets of a prison-house before they are clear of it." An adult life the two also shared--in Naulakha, a house built by Kipling in Vermont where he lived with his wife Carrie and their children, Trix sometimes slept in her brother's bedroom and soaked in his own bath--was no less fraught. Hamer, a writer and historian whose accomplishments include teaching at Cambridge University and writing five previous non-fiction books, did research for the novel so thorough that she credits the collections at libraries from Harvard to Cape Town, as well as thanking the Kipling Society itself for their support. Although based closely on historical fact, Kipling and Trix is a tour-de-force of imaginative fiction as well as a lyrically written, if often harrowing, tale of surprising passion.
3. The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society by Darien Gee (Ballantine Books, 2013) is a romp: character driven, it's populated in part by folks you might have already met if you read Gee's earlier and wildly successful novel, Friendship Bread. To be fair, I am only able to recommend a novel about scrapbooking (a task about which I possess even less personal experience than, for example, skydiving) because it is written by the likes of a storyteller as clever and adroit as Gee. Her extraordinary ability to encapsulate a lifetime's limitation in a few phrases or summarize the nuances of a mother/child relationship in a conversational exchange lasting only a few poignant and memorable passages makes her latest novel a gratifying read.
4. Habits of the House by Fay Weldon (Macmillan, 2013)
Fay Weldon, who was awarded a CBE by the British government for her services to literature, is the worldwide bestselling author of 28 novels which have been translated into dozens of languages. She's also known for her work on television, including the BBC miniseries adaptation of her novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil and as the writer of the pilot episode for the first "Masterpiece Theatre" television. "Upstairs, Downstairs." Her latest novel revisits "Upstairs, Downstairs" territory but, in new millennial fashion, dishes the details about what goes on behind the closed doors of the aristocracy and unhesitatingly, wittily, and with imagination, describes what happens beneath their petticoats as well. Actual historical figures make cameo appearances and the readers learn far more about the politics of Edwardian England (and early 20th-century America) than the breezy, seductive, and delightfully readable prose would have us believe. The first of a trilogy, Weldon's Habits of the House is diverting and subversive. What else could you possibly need to get you through the rest of the season?