KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Jean Zimmerman

The dummies employed by ventriloquists have an odd split personality — they're either funny or terrifying, sometimes both at once, and this kind of bifurcated existence slips into The Ventriloquists, E.R. Ramzipoor's lively novel of the WWII homefront in Europe. It's the story of a group of resisters aiming to lampoon the Nazis by publishing a fake edition of a real newspaper, which had been turned into a mouthpiece of the occupation. Ramizpoor based the plot on actual events that took place in Brussels, reality providing the underlying horror for the satirical conspiracy.

Mackenzie Johnston, anthropology student, lives with her parents, "a disgraced baby bird returned to the nest." Author Caite Dolan-Leach takes her time in her second novel, We Went to the Woods, revealing what exactly has driven Mackenzie to take refuge in her childhood bedroom. Appearing on a reality TV show called The Millennial Experiment, she ill-advisedly outed a transgender castmate, a move which unleashed a torrent of internet animus and got her kicked out of her graduate program.

A faint tang of snobbery hangs about the term "beach read," as if, given the choice, we'd all prefer to sprawl out on a blanket in the Hamptons with War and Peace, say, or Infinite Jest (those might be properly termed littoral reads). But it takes more than sand to make a beach read: It needs a certain weightlessness, an ephemeral quality, with no heavy lifting required. Readers won't find themselves having to go back over particularly dense passages in order to keep up. Toes in the sand, sun in the sky, not a thought in our heads — that's a beach read.

Which one of us hasn't imagined putting down on paper a narrative of our ancestors? It's a go-to premise for almost all newbie novelists, who are naturally certain their own family histories will prove enthralling to others. Deb Spera, a successful television producer, has deep roots in the very real town of Branchville, S.C., and draws on those roots in her first work of fiction, Call Your Daughter Home.

Never take rides from strangers, counsel the wise elders. By this time, though, author Elizabeth Gilbert is no stranger, but a friend eager to take readers along on one joyous ride after another — fiction, memoirs, whatever moves her. City of Girls, Gilbert's latest novel, has the faint whiff of the expected, beginning with the almost obligatory use of the word "girls" in a title, a trend that shows no sign of abating. What's next? The Girlish Girls of a Girl's Girlhood?

The Farm might serve only as an echo-chamber treatment of The Handmaid's Tale, were it not for author Joanne Ramos's deft way of creating characters. She peoples her book with figures who are appealingly engaging — or, at times, engagingly repellent.

So was that real?

I hear variations on this theme all the time from readers. Titrating fact and fantasy can give a story a mysterious energy. Writers fetch up those details that sate the senses, allowing us to touch and taste, hear and feel how things were once upon a time. A woman steps out in Gilded Age New York City. Would she wear muslin or silk, petticoats or a hoop of whale baleen? Short kid gloves or long satin ones? How deep is her decolletage? All the particulars, please!