By Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Amistad, 320 pages, $14.99)
It saddens me that, in 2011, authors are still beating the dead horse of slavery. It's been almost 150 years since slavery was abolished, and yet all publishers seem to offer black toddlers, 'tweens and teens are books on slavery or the civil rights movement. Perkins-Valdez's book proves that there's no shortage of slavery tomes in adult fiction, either. The well-written novel "Wench" tells the story of a group of slave women who travel to the historic Tawawa House each summer as mistresses to their owners. For a brief time, Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, Mawu and the others get a reprieve from the harshness of plantation life, but it is only brief. This is not a "get all warm and cozy in the bed" book. Depressing, it's filled with rape scenes, beatings, black families being torn apart and whites reminding these human beings that they are nothing but property. Yet even though their days are long and their lives hard, it is remarkable how the characters forge the bonds of friendship and help each other bear their unbearable lives. It's a tale that's been told many times. Enough already; can't we move on?
THE DISTANT HOURS
By Kate Morton (Atria Books, 576 pages, $26)
Our parents' early lives often seem mysterious and somewhat magical. Such is the case for Edie Burchill. When her mother receives a long-delayed letter, Edie is determined to track down the source. During World War II, Edie's mother, Meredith, was one of the children of London resettled into the countryside for safety. Meredith lived with three sisters and their famous author father in Milderhurst Castle. The sisters -- twins Percy and Saffy, with younger sister Juniper -- still live there, as Edie discovers on an unannounced visit. Why hasn't her mother returned to visit in all those years, and what turned Meredith away from her dream of being a writer? What caused Juniper to fall into insanity? Edie's visit is just the start of the long unraveling of the family's well-hidden past. The castle's secrets pour out in the last 100 pages of nonstop action. Morton has a lovely, wonderfully descriptive writing style. I loved this passage on writing, which Meredith jots in her diary: "She [Juniper] says there are stories everywhere and that people who wait for the right one to come along before setting pen to paper end up with very empty pages. That's all writing is, apparently, capturing sights and thoughts on paper. Spinning, like a spider does, but using words to make the pattern." Morton has mastered that, having spun a tale of pure mystery and delight.
JUDY ROMANOWICH SMITH