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Difficult-to-put-down novels

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields, Henry Holt and Co., US $28.00, Pp 280, February 2019, ISBN 978-1250197412
Willa & Hesper by Amy Feltman, Grand Central Publishing, US $26.00, Pp 304, February 2019, ISBN 978-1538712542
The age of light by Whitney Scharer, Little, Brown and Company, US $28.00, Pp 384, February 2019, ISBN 978-0316524087

The Cassandra is set in the 1940s and revolves around a young woman with exceptional ability. Mildred Groves — or the Cassandra — is gifted with the ability to foresee the future but she is unfortunate enough to have been born in a family with stifling environment in a small town in the state of Washington. As World War II continues, Mildred leaves her parents’ home and finds work at a top-secret research facility but only to be tormented by visions of what the mission was about. Her visions tell her the mission will do horrible things to the humankind. Working as the secretary to a top scientist at the Hanford Research Center in the early 1940s, she slowly discovers the nature of the scientific research being conducted at the research center. Hanford is a big research facility on the banks of the Columbia River in South Central Washington where they test and manufacture a mysterious weapon to be used in the war. Very few people like the generals and top scientists know about the mission which is based on processing plutonium to be used in the first atomic bombs. In the beginning, she believed herself to be lucky to have found such a good job. But, as her visions keep becoming more and more intense with the passage of time, she is unable to decide what to do next. As the scientist at the mission come closer to achieving their goal, she decides to put her physical and mental health and even her life at risk and question her bosses in power. Sharma Shields has weaved a true 20th-century story around the classic Greek myth. Exploring man’s propensity to destruction, she shows how humans can also challenge the power. It will not be easy to put it down once you start this well-researched and stylishly-written novel.

About the author

Sharma Shields is the author of the short story collection Favorite Monster, winner of the 2011 Autumn House Fiction Prize, and the novel The Sasquatch Hunters’ Almanac, winner of the Washington State Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon ReviewThe Iowa ReviewElectric Literature, and more. Sharma Shields holds an MFA from the University of Montana.  She lives in Spokane with her husband and children.

*****

Willa & Hesper is set in Brooklyn, New York, where Willa and Hesper met for the first time at a late-night dinner and fell in love. Both of them are MFA students and aspiring writers. In the beginning, they have a roaring romantic affair but, as time passes, Willa understands Hesper better. Willa is an emotional girl and feels hurt often at small things, while Hesper is a little flirt. As Willa learns more about her, she starts withdrawing slowly. Hesper also starts losing interest in Willa. As Willa tries to overcome her trauma, Hesper has to fight her own fears and demons. Hesper goes back to her ancestral town of Tbilisi, Georgia, to learn about her family’s history. Heartbroken Willa joins a group trip for young Jewish people to visit Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland to overcome her emotional breakdown. But, the trip to Germany and Poland proves more disastrous than staying at home in New York. She has to reconcile with her past, her ancestors’ past and her romantic past in order to move forward. Hesper seems to have developed some sort of feeling of guilt when she tells her father “I ruin people.” The feeling takes her away from other people. “I don’t want to have to look at them after they’re broken.” At one place Willa questions love in general and Hesper’s love in particular when she says, “loving me had an expiration date” The story ends in 2016 when America elects Trump as its president. What place queer people have in Trump’s America? Willa & Hesper is a gripping story of two queer women who wrestle with their demons and queerness in the age of Trump. Amy Feltman has proved to be a gifted writer who has written intimate but fictional portraits of the two young queer women who seek identity and faith. It is an important addition to gay and lesbian fiction.

About the author

Amy Feltman graduated with an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University in 2016 and now works at Poets & Writers Magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The Believer logger, The Toast, The Millions, The Rumpus, Lilith Magazine, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story, “Speculoos” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and was long-listed for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She lives with her partner in Astoria, NY.

*****

Set in the 1930s, Whitney Scharer’s debut novel The age of light is the story of Vogue cover model’s journey from being in front of the camera to being behind the camera. This journey of a few feet makes a gripping, mesmerizing story. Photographer Lee Miller goes to Paris in search of a new identity as an artist where she wants to make art instead of being part of it. Her journey to freedom takes us from the cabarets of bohemian Paris to the battlefields of war-torn Europe during World War II. On the way, we discover radical new photography techniques for documenting the liberation of the concentration camps. Lee is the first war photographer. In Paris, many luminaries like Picasso and Cocteau are attracted to her. When she meets famous Surrealist — Man Ray — in Paris, he shows interest in using Lee Miller as a model but she asks him to hire her as his assistant and teach everything he knows which he accepts. The room where Lee meets Ray is full of men whose lusty eyes are focused on Lee. The only man in the room wearing a suit is Ray who rescues her from other men’s leering eyes. Man Ray is a charismatic but egotistical person. Lee is just 22 at this time and Ray is close to 50. As they work together in the darkroom, they become attracted to each other that would change everything for Lee. Now the big question for Lee is whether she can reconcile romance with artistic ambitions. When her editor asks her to write about her years in Paris as Man Ray’s student and about some of his photos from that time, she agrees but will talk about only her photos. The age of light is a story of a woman’s struggle to live in her own right. It is a mesmerizing feminist novel. If you want to read a meaningful story, this may be what you are looking for.

About the author

Whitney received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2004. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals including New Flash Fiction Review, Cimarron Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. Originally from Colorado, she now lives outside Boston with her family. Her first novel, The Age of Light, is based on the life of pioneering photographer Lee Miller.

Most of the biographical notes in our reviews are provided by the publishers.

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