When people think of Japan and World War II, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are probably what come to mind. For some reason, people seem to forget the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, but it claimed more lives than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, left millions homeless, and burned down half of Tokyo. Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Gods of Heavenly Punishment revisits these attacks through the eyes of multiple narrators: Cam, a pilot who participated in the Doolittle Raid; his wife, Lacy; Anton, an architect who helped build some of the great buildings in Tokyo and who was then hired by the government to figure out the best way to burn Tokyo down; his son Billy, a soldier in the army who is sent to Tokyo during the Occupation; and a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl named Yoshi, who serves as the thread that holds all of the stories together.
The book moves forward chronologically, but each chapter alternates to a different point of view. As a result, readers get to imagine World War II from different perspectives: that of the anxious wife awaiting the return of her husband; of the soldiers (on both sides) who signed up for service for a variety of reasons and must bear witness to the aftermath of war; of the architects of all of the destruction, and most importantly, of the survivors.
Alex Carter has worked hard to build her career, and she has her dream two-story home to prove it. All of a sudden, it looks like it might come crashing down: her company is facing a massive restructuring and her job might be on the line, and she and her boyfriend finally decide to call it quits. She’s thirty-five years old and is starting to hear the ticking of her biological clock, so it’s not an ideal situation for her. While friends and family are pressuring her to get a man and settle down, she’s getting desperate enough to toy with the idea of getting a sperm donor.
Then she runs into her old flame, Nathan. She can’t deny that the chemistry is still there, but because of the way their relationship ended, she can’t fully trust him even though he seems to have matured into a thoughtful adult. As a control freak, Alex always has it in the back of her mind that she can do everything herself. She likes the idea of settling down, but when it comes to actually handing over the reigns and letting someone else take care of her for a while, she can’t bring herself to fully make that leap.
In 1972, James Lowe told his best friend that two seconds were going to be added to the time. It was something he read about in the papers, a fun fact of sorts, but the information made eleven-year-old Byron Hemmings nervous. How could extra time possibly be added into existing time? It would throw everything off kilter. While James soon seems to forget the information, Bryon begins keeping vigil over clocks and watches, waiting to witness the exact moment when those two seconds would be added.
As Byron’s mother is driving him and his sister to school, it happens. The two seconds are added during that ominously foggy drive. Byron witnesses something during those two seconds and he knows that life will never be the same, but his mother and sister don’t seem to notice and carry on as if nothing happened. In the weeks ahead, Byron will be consumed as he tries to carry the secret of what he saw.
As the novel unfolds, the chapters alternate between two different points of view. The main one is Byron’s; much of the book is told through the eyes of his shattered eleven-year-old innocence. The other narrator is Jim, a man in his 50s who has spent his life in and out a local mental health facility that recently had to close its doors; he suffers from emotional issues and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Jim focuses on he numbers 2 and 1 and is convinced that if he doesn’t perform his daily rituals, people will get hurt. The tie between the two is unclear at first, though it becomes clearer as the book progresses.
A woman disappears, leaving no trace except her car at the edge of her cliff; she’s written off as a suicide. In the months that follow, her mother discovers a secret manuscript that her daughter wrote and is convinced that it sheds some insight into her daughter’s disappearance: that manuscript is The Bride Stripped Bare.
And that’s all in the first two pages. The rest of Nikki Gemmell’s book is comprised of the actual manuscript of The Bride Stripped Bare. The chapters are labeled as a series of lessons that read like a diary. It begins with a couple on a honeymoon; the narrator has had her share of lovers, but none know her as intimately as her new husband, Cole. Still, she has secrets that even he doesn’t know about.
By all outward appearances, the narrator is a picture-perfect good wife. She’s given up her teaching job and now stays at home; soon, she expects they’ll start a family. Cole brings in enough money for her to do as she pleases, and she spends her days working on turning a scandalous Elizabethan-era diary that’s been passed down in her family into a novel. But the doldrums of married life are weighing on her. It’s a chillier marriage than the one she’d envisioned, and her thoughts keeps straying to past lovers. The book she’s working on doesn’t help: the Elizabethan woman who penned it was vocal about her desires. It isn’t long until the narrator begins flirting with her own desires in the form of a handsome stranger named Gabriel.
In the Land of the Living, Austin Ratner’s second novel, is a multigenerational story told by the men of the Auberon family. It starts out with Isidore and his brothers, who all suffer the cruelties of their abusive father, Ezer. Their mother dies suddenly when they’re all still very young, and as per his history of coldness and abuse, Ezer ships the boys off for a while. Holding everything together is Isidore Auberon, who in many regards becomes mother and father to his siblings. He’s filled with hatred for his father and pushes himself hard to make something of his life.
Isidore works as a garbage man through high school, putting up with the smell and the sacrifices the whole time with the goal of getting into Harvard. He’s a brilliant young man and succeeds, then sets his eyes on medical school. For a while, he’ll have it all: the beautiful young woman who will become his wife is the daughter of his mentor, a well-regarded (and well-connected) doctor who can smooth Isidore’s way through medical school. The good fortune doesn’t last, however, and as Isidore’s part in the story starts to fade out, we’re introduced to his son Leo, who becomes the star of the book.
Like Isidore, Leo will also grow up having his share of daddy issues, albeit for different reasons. He’s like his father in a lot of ways, and he too will grow up wanting to go to medical school at either Harvard or Yale. But as for his personal life, he always seems to put up a wall. He’s not really close with anyone — least of all his brother, with whom he’s always had a strained relationship — and he’s frequently on the verge of angry melancholy. When his brother invites him to take a cross-country road trip, Leo sees it as a chance to reconnect and come to an understanding of what their family went through.