Star's Picks: Fall 2020

SUMMER, Pantheon 2020, is the final installment of Ali Smith’s
seasonal quartet. If you have followed along, beginning with
AUTUMN, 2016, you are well aware of the feat Smith undertook five years ago when she decided to write four novels that weigh in on current events as they unfold. The quartet commences shortly after the Brexit vote and concludes with a letter dated July 1, 2020. With SUMMER, Smith deftly divulges threadlike connections encompassing the books’ recurrent characters and themes, and in so doing, has woven timeless stories of love, art, and decency. Gratified and grateful, I am.  If you are late to the party, it’s lucky for you. AUTUMN, WINTER, and SPRING are available in trade paperback. Do read them in order, please.

In her latest novel, Maggie O’Farrell begins with an enigma, Shakespeare, no less, and lets soar her extraordinary imagination. We the readers are rewarded with HAMNET, A Novel of the Plague, Knopf 2020.


O’Farrell, not unlike Ali Smith at the onset of her seasonal quartet, had no
way of forecasting COVID19 and the timeless thread her tale would pull forward. This makes for a seemingly more urgent read even though the story weaves between two timelines over 500 years ago. HAMNET is a story of parents confronting their worst nightmare, the death of a child, and the tolls it exacts on them and their marriage. O’Farrell lets tragedy propel a narrative of
speculation about the transfiguration of life into art, and there lies the question at the heart of the novel. Why did Shakespeare title his most famous play for the son he lost just years earlier?  HAMNET is meticulously researched and seeping with atmosphere. I encourage you to let O’Farrell’s storytelling transport you much like a 16th-century cinematographer might let fall the pale London sun “reaches down, like ladders, through the narrow gaps on buildings to illuminate the rain glazed streets.”

As this intriguing speculative novel unfolds to its tender conclusion, you the reader will be illuminated, too.

’Tis the season for MAGIC LESSONS by Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, October 2020, and I need a witchy read. This is the long-awaited prequel to PRACTICAL MAGIC, of which I hand sold quite a few copies at SLB during the autumnal seasons to readers who had no idea it was a book first. FYI: All the best movies are books first.  Readers of Hoffman always hoped.we’d learn the story of Marie Owens, the matriarch and weaver of the spell that will haunt the family bloodline for centuries. (I will not disclose the curse, so you must read to learn it for yourself.) And while we learned a bit more with the release of THE RULES OF MAGIC, we were still no closer to learning why such a curse would be generated to begin with.  With the trilogy’s conclusion, we will learn Marie’s story. More importantly, the most important lesson behind the rules of magic is revealed. Have fun with this one!

Don’t let the far-fetched idea of children spontaneously combusting when they become angry scare you off. You absolutely must treat your shelves to the trade paper release of NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson, Ecco 2020. It was the best-selling fiction selection at SLB last year in hardcover for a reason. There is nothing quite like the quirky characters and fantastically surreal storytelling of Wilson. His wildly original story of parenthood and friendship will have you laughing out loud and thinking a little deeper because there actually is a lot to see here. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself re-reading sentences. Wilson is a gifted wordsmith. 

FURIOUS HOURS, Murder, Fraud, And The Last Trial Of Harper Lee by Casey Cep, Vintage Books Sept 2020, is equal parts true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and biography, and it reads as well as a good piece of fiction. Cep dexterously weaves together facts of a serial killer’s string of murders, courtroom documents from his trial, and fastidious notes taken by the attending acclaimed author Harper Lee in rural Alabama in the 70’s. Lee had hoped to tell this story herself, and would stay a year in the town reporting on the case and working on the book she planned to title The Reverend. Lee would work on the book for years to come, but never finishes it. Luckily, Cep is able to deliver this story with aplomb. She deftly inserts nuggets of knowledge throughout the narratives about subjects you never knew you would be curious about much less fascinated with. In doing so, Cep lets the reader come away from FURIOUS HOURS that much the wiser, because a true storyteller understands that the devil is in the details.