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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell

O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view. Iris Lockhart, a young Scottish woman, is suddenly informed that she has the power of attorney for her great aunt, Esme Lennox—who Iris never knew existed. Esme has been locked away in a mental institution for over 60 years—a fact never mentioned by her sister Kitty, Iris’ grandmother, who now has Alzheimer’s. In compelling prose, O’Farrell gradually pieces together the puzzle of Esme’s life up to the age of 16, when her cold and repressive parents sent her away to the hospital that is now closing down. Esme had a bold and independent spirit, unseemly for a girl at that time. That as well as a younger brother who died in her arms and a never-mentioned rape contributed to her lost life—a life “half strangled by what-ifs.” A gripping read with superbly crafted scenes that will blaze in the reader’s memory long after the novel is returned to the shelf.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell

A Letter from Author Mary Doria Russell
For the past three years, when people asked what my next novel is about, I’ve only had to say four words. “It’s about Doc Holliday.” You mention Doc Holliday to guys especially and they just light up. “Oh, man! I love Doc!” they say, and they often mention Val Kilmer’s portrayal in the movie Tombstone.

I love that movie, too, but when I write characters, I’m really writing about whom and what they love. The shining silver wire that runs through Doc is John Henry Holliday’s love for his mother.

Alice Holliday was 22 when her son was born near Atlanta in the summer of 1851. She was still in mourning for her firstborn, “a sweet little girl who lived just long enough to gaze and smile and laugh, and break her parents’ hearts.” I’m sure you can imagine her distress when her second child was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip. Even today, when you know clefts can be repaired, they’re a shock.

In 1851, such children commonly died within weeks, but Alice kept her boy alive, waking every hour to feed him with an eyedropper, day and night, for eight long weeks. Think about that exhausted young woman and the baby with the hole in his face. Locking eyes. Struggling to stay awake. Struggling to stay alive…

When the infant was two months old, his uncle Dr. John Stiles Holliday performed a successful surgical repair of the cleft–an achievement kept private to protect the family’s reputation. You see, in the 1850s, the Hollidays were Georgia gentry whose large extended family would become the O’Haras, Wilkeses and Hamiltons in Gone With The Wind. (Margaret Mitchell was Doc’s cousin, twice removed.) These were people who took “good breeding” seriously, and birth defects were a source of familial shame–for everyone but Alice.

Alice and her son became intensely close. She invented a form of speech therapy to correct his diction. She was a piano teacher who introduced him to the music that would become their great shared passion. She home-schooled him until she was sure his speech wouldn’t be ridiculed, then sent him to a local boys academy, where he excelled in every subject. In the midst of our nation’s ugliest war, she raised a shy, intelligent child to be a thoughtful, courteous gentleman and a fine young scholar who would earn the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery before he was 21.

Alice didn’t live to see him graduate. She died of tuberculosis when John Henry was 15. The loss was staggering, and when he, too, developed TB, he knew exactly what kind of awful death he faced. Hoping dry air and sunshine would restore his health, he left everyone and everything he loved, and went West. He was only 22 when he left Atlanta in 1873.

The Doc Holliday of legend is a gambler and gunman who appears out of nowhere in 1881, arriving in Tombstone with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. But I have written the story of Alice Holliday’s son: a scared, sick, lonely boy, born for the life of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceased to exist at the end of the Civil War, trying to stay alive on the rawest edge of the American frontier.

John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. My fondest hope for Doc is that it will win for him the compassion and respect I think he deserves. Read it, and weep.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being “human.” When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong… Words like “provocative” and “compelling” will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.