In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23). Kathleen Cambor's fine first novel, "The Book of Mercy," exposed the tangled fortunes of a family unraveling in contemporary Pittsburgh. Her equally impressive second novel, "In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden," doesn't venture far from Pittsburgh, although it takes place about a century earlier. "In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden" re-imagines the events leading up to the Johnstown Flood of 1889, one of the worst catastrophes in American history. To tell the story of the flood, Cambor creates two fictional families -- the Fallons and the Talbots -- and plays out their lives among the actual historical figures who dominated life in late-19th-century Pennsylvania. It can't be easy to sustain the suspense in a novel where the resolution is foreordained, but Cambor acquits herself admirably.
Desirada by Maryse Conde (Soho, $24). In 11 previous works of fiction and nonfiction, the prolific Caribbean writer Maryse Conde has given voice to some of the world's most oppressed populations. Conde's latest novel, "Desirada," depicts a mother and daughter from Guadeloupe who emigrate to France and the United States yet never quite let go of the past. Brought up on the island of La Desirade, where lepers of Guadeloupe were also quarantined, Reynalda yearns to leave at an early age. However, when she gets her chance and moves to La Pointe for work, she suffers a brutal rape at the hands of her employer. After delivering Marie-Noelle and handing her off to a local woman to raise, Reynalda flees to France, where she works as a housekeeper. Once she is financially stable, she sends for her daughter. Embittered and toughened by her experience, Reynalda wants to teach her daughter to move beyond the past. Fluently translated by Conde's husband, Richard Philcox, the novel weaves deftly between these stories, powerfully evoking Marie-Noelle's desire to connect with her roots. A born storyteller, Conde sensuously captures the ways the past holds sway over emigres even as it resists their strongest efforts to possess it.
Fire in Beulah by Rilla Askew (Viking, $25.95). The aftermath of World War I was a turbulent and hate-filled time in America. The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a revival, and bloody race riots broke out in more than 20 cities -- including Washington -- in the summer of 1919. Against this brutal backdrop, novelist Rilla Askew has created "Fire in Beulah," a haunting, engrossing portrait of two families -- one white, one black -- whose lives are woven together and, ultimately, shattered. They are beset by a series of wrenching events that climax in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, an urban holocaust that was among the worst in U.S. history. Askew's concern goes beyond race, however, and this is primarily the tale of two troubled women harboring dark (and interrelated) secrets about their true identities.
-- Washington Post