The devil’s in the details of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (Doubleday, $26.95). Taking direction from American slave narratives, the novel confronts the linked heritage of slaveocracy and democracy seeking to ensnare the fugitive teenage orphan, Cora. Cora’s flight from a Georgia plantation and from the slave catcher, Ridgeway, propels her towards fleeting notions of freedom on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. As a subversive text, the novel undermines historical fiction with its fantastic literal dimension of locomotives, train tracks, and subterranean stations; it also outdoes the historical Underground Railroad’s metaphorical network of passageways, covert conductors, and secret safe houses. Colson’s ornate craft deftly depicts America’s reign of terror, inspiring reconciliation.
What if today was the day that you decided to turn your life around? Make the small changes you always wanted to, in order to become the woman you always wished you could be? Maria Semple’s protagonist Eleanor Flood, upon waking one morning, makes that promise to herself in Today Will Be Different (Little, Brown, $27). But, then, life has a way of charting its own course. Eleanor, a former cartoon illustrator, is attempting to resurrect her memoir from the depths of a creativity block. Over the course of one day, Eleanor is confronted with a former coworker who brings up some repressed secrets, a (faking) sick child finding his own identity, and a husband who has been skipping work behind her back for the past week. It is a novel that is light-hearted and quirky, while quietly raising the stakes throughout the day. Fans of Semple’s previous hit, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, will love and identify with Eleanor’s struggles to maintain balance between a creative career, raising a child, and keeping a marriage fresh and exciting.
In Heroes of the Frontier (Knopf, $28.95), Dave Eggers tells the story of Josie, who has left her dental practice and taken her two young children in a rickety RV (affectionately called “the chateau”) and fled to the wilderness of Alaska. Their adventure is exciting and memorable, but the most appealing aspect of Eggers’s novel is the depiction of Josie’s kids, Ana and Paul. Ana is an indefatigable force, likely to break anything she touches. Paul is an old soul, wise beyond his eight years, and his sister’s constant guardian. Together the three of them forge a unique and hilarious camaraderie. This is a book that pushes all the right buttons: heart, adventure, intelligence—all woven together to create a great novel.