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10 Books That Reveal Secret Worlds

This second novel in a planned trilogy lacks the breadth and richness of Erdrich at her best, but middling Erdrich is still...

THE ROUND HOUSE

Erdrich returns to the North Dakota Ojibwe community she introduced in The Plague of Doves (2008)—akin but at a remove from the community she created in the continuum of books from Love Medicine to The Red Convertible—in this story about the aftermath of a rape.

Over a decade has passed. Geraldine and Judge Bazil Coutts, who figured prominently in the earlier book, are spending a peaceful Sunday afternoon at home. While Bazil naps, Geraldine, who manages tribal enrollment, gets a phone call. A little later she tells her 13-year-old son, Joe, she needs to pick up a file in her office and drives away. When she returns hours later, the family’s idyllic life and Joe’s childhood innocence are shattered. She has been attacked and raped before escaping from a man who clearly intended to kill her. She is deeply traumatized and unwilling to identify the assailant, but Bazil and Joe go through Bazil’s case files, looking for suspects, men with a grudge against Bazil, who adjudicates cases under Native American jurisdiction, most of them trivial. Joe watches his parents in crisis and resolves to avenge the crime against his mother. But it is summer, so he also hangs out with his friends, especially charismatic, emotionally precocious Cappy. The novel, told through the eyes of a grown Joe looking back at himself as a boy, combines a coming-of-age story (think Stand By Me) with a crime and vengeance story while exploring Erdrich’s trademark themes: the struggle of Native Americans to maintain their identity; the legacy of the troubled, unequal relationship between Native Americans and European Americans, a relationship full of hatred but also mutual dependence; the role of the Catholic Church within a Native American community that has not entirely given up its own beliefs or spirituality. Favorite Erdrich characters like Nanapush and Father Damien make cameo appearances.

This second novel in a planned trilogy lacks the breadth and richness of Erdrich at her best, but middling Erdrich is still pretty great.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-206524-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Finding nourishment, kosher-style, clever chick lit expands its usual boundaries.

JUJITSU RABBI AND THE GODLESS BLONDE

A TRUE STORY

Coming-of-age memoir from Newsweek and Daily Beast senior correspondent Dana.

The author, a leggy transplant from Pittsburgh, had snagged a great apartment and a great boyfriend in New York City. She had great hair, great clothes and a great job reporting for Daily Beast. Tina Brown, no less, was her mentor. Her way was lit by Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and, of course, Carrie Bradshaw. Brainy, hip and looking good, all was going according to plan until a spoiled romance ended in a classic breakup. And so our clever princess left the joint Manhattan apartment to share a place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, land of the orthodox Jewish community of Lubavitch. There was Cosmo, her roommate, a bright rabbi, given to acting not at all like a Jewish, or even a jujitsu, rabbi. What was Rabbi Cosmo doing, after all, chewing on raw bacon or wrestling with a girl? No wonder Dana, deracinated in Brooklyn, became a tad confused. She loved cake and clothes and was in thrall to the gods of glamor. Her Good Book was Vogue. Her High Holy Days took place during Fashion Week; its rituals were celebrated. And yet, with the warm family life and the heartfelt spirit she encountered, there was undeniably something wonderful going on in Crown Heights. Readers will find Dana’s depiction of Lubavitch life quite accessible, despite her frequent use of sparsely translated terms like shidduchtreyf, nudzhing or tznius.

Finding nourishment, kosher-style, clever chick lit expands its usual boundaries.

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-399-15877-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Amy Einhorn/Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

A great revival of an older genre, the treasure hunt, and associated adventures.

JUNGLELAND

A MYSTERIOUS LOST CITY, A WWII SPY, AND A TRUE STORY OF DEADLY ADVENTURE

Wall Street Journal editor Stewart (Hunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans' Most Dangerous Man, 2008) makes use of the legacy of a 1930s explorer and adventurer in a new attempt to locate a fabled city in the tropical rain forests of Honduras.

The author found a walking stick and map that once belonged to Theodore Morde, who claimed to have discovered Ciudad Blanca, the White City, in 1939. Stewart’s research also produced the logs and records, which included interviews with Indian inhabitants and uncovered Morde's great knack for storytelling. Even Stewart and his experienced archaeologist guide Chris Begley were unsure about what they had found and whether they followed Morde's trail to the city he claimed to have discovered. But they have crafted a clear trail to follow on the way. Set against a background of the latest military coup in Honduras and the activities of narcotraficantes, corporate jungle destroyers, pirates, robbers and other human predators, as well as deadly snakes and insects and almost impenetrable jungle, their modern search bears eerie parallels to the trail made by Morde and his companions. Back then, the United Fruit Company was on the march, and exiles from Nazi Germany were trying to scratch a living from the unforgiving terrain. Stewart left his wife and daughter in Brooklyn and traveled to the Mosquito Coast, from which he set off overland. Modern transportation, however, seemed less reliable than the river routes followed by the earlier crew, and the modern explorers embarked on an exciting journey in search of landmarks, tribes and, in the depths of the jungle, the Monkey-men, worshipers of the Monkey God.

A great revival of an older genre, the treasure hunt, and associated adventures.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-180254-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

A smart entry into the modern thriller pantheon, at once slick and gritty.

GHOSTMAN

An ice-in-his-veins fixer trawls Atlantic City for a missing bundle of cash in this watertight debut thriller.

Jack Delton, the hero of this novel—and, presumably, more to come—is a “ghostman," an expert at disappearing and helping others disappear. He’s a free agent with a full armory of skills that help him kill a man, cross borders, take on entirely new personalities and be smugly unimpressed with criminal overlords. But his botch of a big-money bank heist in Kuala Lumpur five years ago means he owes a favor to one of those honchos, Marcus, who’s looking for a bag of cash that disappeared with a gunman when a casino robbery went sour. The clock’s ticking: The bundle is a “federal payload” containing a packet of indelible ink set to explode in 48 hours. Jack is a superb sleuth and an entertaining explainer of the variety of ways one can torment or kill somebody (a jar of nutmeg can be terrifyingly deadly, it turns out), and Hobbs ensures he’s in a heap of trouble fast: Marcus is watching closely, and Jack is also in the cross hairs of an FBI agent and a rival criminal, the Wolf, who's guarded by Aryan Brotherhood thugs. Straight out of the gate, Hobbs has mastered the essentials of a contemporary thriller: a noirlike tone, no-nonsense prose and a hero with just enough personality to ensure he doesn’t come off as an amoral death machine. Jack loves Ovid, hates heroin and cripples his pursuers—but not so badly that they won’t have a chance to come back in a future installment. The federal payload deadline gives the plot its essential urgency, but Hobbs is even better in the Kuala Lumpur interludes—heart-stopping scenes that illustrate how small mistakes can turn catastrophic.

A smart entry into the modern thriller pantheon, at once slick and gritty.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-95996-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2012

A valuable contribution to the literature of the Drug War.

EL NARCO

INSIDE MEXICO'S CRIMINAL INSURGENCY

Accomplished, chilling account of the murderous growth of Mexican drug cartels.

Mexico City–based journalist Grillo has reported from the region since 2001; his experience is evident in his easy, wry familiarity with the political and social currents of Latin America. He argues that “the Mexican Drug War is inextricably linked to the democratic transition” of 2000, in that the country’s recently elected governments were unprepared to contend with ruthless criminal gangs that had complex regional feuds and allegiances. Grillo examines how the violence of the last several years has exploded in a comprehensible and even predictable way: “Residents of northern Mexico have not turned into psychotic killers overnight after drinking bad water. This violence exploded and escalated over a clear time frame.” Beginning with the Zetas’ recruitment of soldiers in the late 1990s, the author argues that gangsters concluded they could outgun the forces of order. The war that followed, over territory and smuggling routes, pitted Sinaloan gangsters, who’d traditionally managed cannabis and opiate production, against the upstart northeast gangs, and cycles of horrifying bloodshed have followed ever since, with an estimated 35,000 dead. Unfortunately for everyone, the nascent democratic government was persuaded to adopt the American “drug war” model, resulting in a startling deterioration of the social fabric—retaliatory actions by gangsters have resulted in numerous massacres, including attacks on civilians and police officers. Yet seizure rates prove that the cartels “can still operate at full capacity while they fight bloody battles,” suggesting a shocking futility at the heart of the violence. Grillo even documents how Mexican culture has been transformed, discussing dark “narco religions” and the violent yet jaunty narcocorrido music.

A valuable contribution to the literature of the Drug War.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-60819-211-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2011

Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it’s offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.

SWAMPLANDIA!

A debut novel from Russell (stories: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, 2006) about female alligator wrestlers, ghost boyfriends and a theme park called World of Darkness.

Ava Bigtree is experiencing some hard times in making it through her childhood. Her mother Hilola, a world-class alligator wrestler at the family tourist compound Swamplandia! (which Russell always writes with an exclamation point), died of cancer, so business has fallen off considerably. Perhaps even more significant, World of Darkness recently opened and started draining away customers from Swamplandia! Because the Bigtree family business was on an island off the coast of Florida, no one in the family had much experience with mainland life. Ava, who narrates roughly half the book, would like to follow in her mother’s alligator-wrestling footsteps, but her age prevents her from reviving the business. Her brother Kiwi joins the forces of evil, as it were, by taking a job at World of Darkness—one of its big draws is the Leviathan, a ride in which tourists slide down a seemingly saliva-soaked tongue of a giant whale—but also by getting the education he lacked on the island. Kiwi hopes to send money home but finds after meeting all the exploitative fees charged by his boss that he has almost nothing left. Ava’s sister Ossie (short for Osceola—she’s named after the Florida Indian tribe) starts paying close attention to the results of a Ouija board, finds an old dredge in the swamps near her home, and goes off with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, who had died in the swamps years before. Meanwhile, the patriarch of the Bigtree clan, known as the Chief, abandons the whole sorry business and finds a job at a mainland casino. The narrative becomes a quest of sorts as Ava, accompanied by a bizarre character called the Bird Man, poles through the swamps in a mythic attempt to locate her sister. Throughout this search, Russell evokes archetypal journeys through underworlds and across the Styx.

Quirky, outlandish fiction: To say it’s offbeat is to seriously underestimate its weirdness.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-26399-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2010

Since bin Laden was a significant figure, historians will consult this book as a primary source; they, as well as most...

NO EASY DAY

THE FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT OF THE MISSION THAT KILLED OSAMA BIN LADEN

Books on Navy SEALs have poured off the presses for years, but this one has generated national interest and controversy for a reason the title makes clear.

Sensibly, the author (a pseudonym of ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette) works with military journalist Maurer (Gentlemen Bastards: On the Ground in Afghanistan with America's Elite Special Forces, 2012, etc.), and the result is a fast-paced, professional narrative that will appeal to military buffs as well as general readers. Raised in rural Alaska, Owen yearned to be a SEAL from childhood. He succeeded in 1998, passing the brutal screening and training. After several deployments, he passed another screening to join the SEAL’s specialized anti-terrorism unit in 2004. This is a mostly traditional SEAL memoir filled with nuts-and-bolts descriptions of weapons, gear, training, tactics and short, nasty battles in which (unlike the movies) plenty goes wrong, but (like the movies) many bad guys pay the price. The book’s second half delivers a precisely detailed, vivid account of the Osama bin Laden mission. Luck, good and bad, plays an essential role in any raid. One attacking helicopter crashed, but the veteran team worked around the mishap. On the bright side, the Pakistani hideout was feebly defended. The author does not deny that the SEALs shot every male on sight, bin Laden included.

Since bin Laden was a significant figure, historians will consult this book as a primary source; they, as well as most general readers, will not regret it.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-525-95372-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

Ambitious and very well written, despite the occasional overreach. When it’s made into a film, bet that Kim Jong Il will...

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON

Note to self: Do not schedule a vacation in North Korea, at least not without an escape plan.

The protagonist of Johnson’s (Parasites Like Us, 2003, etc.) darkly satisfying if somewhat self-indulgent novel is Pak Jun Do, the conflicted son of a singer. He knows no more, for “That was all Jun Do’s father, the Orphan Master, would say about her.” The Orphan Master runs an orphanage, but David Copperfield this ain’t: Jun Do may have been the only non-orphan in the place, but that doesn’t keep his father, a man of influence, from mistreating him as merrily as if he weren’t one of his own flesh and blood. For this is the land of Kim Jong Il, the unhappy Potemkin Village land of North Korea, where even Josef Stalin would have looked around and thought the whole business excessive. Johnson’s tale hits the ground running, and fast: Jun Do is recruited into a unit that specializes in kidnapping Koreans, and even non-Koreans, living outside the magic kingdom: doctors, film directors, even the Dear Leader’s personal sushi chef. “There was a Japanese man. He took his dog for a walk. And then he was nowhere. For the people who knew him, he’d forever be nowhere.” So ponders Jun Do, who, specializing in crossing the waters to Japan, sneaking out of tunnels and otherwise working his ghostlike wonders, rises up quickly in the state apparatus, only to fall after a bungled diplomatic trip to the United States. Johnson sets off in the land of John le Carré, but by the time Jun Do lands in Texas we’re in a Pynchonesque territory of impossibilities, and by the time he’s in the pokey we’re in a subplot worthy of Akutagawa. Suffice it to say that Jun Do switches identities, at which point thriller becomes picaresque satire and rifles through a few other genres, shifting narrators, losing and regaining focus and point of view. The reader will have to grant the author room to accommodate the show-offishness, which seems to say, with the rest of the book, that in a world run by a Munchkin overlord like Kim, nothing can be too surreal. Indeed, once Fearless Leader speaks, he’s a model of weird clarity: “But let’s speak of our shared status as nuclear nations another time. Now let’s have some blues.”

Ambitious and very well written, despite the occasional overreach. When it’s made into a film, bet that Kim Jong Il will want to score an early bootleg.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9279-3

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

An upbeat and entertaining survival guide for the end of the world.

THE DISASTER DIARIES

HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE APOCALYPSE

How to survive any possible disaster, from aliens to zombies to everything in between.

If there was a massive earthquake, would you have enough water on hand to last for even a week? In the event of a thermonuclear detonation, would you be able to hot-wire a car quickly enough to escape the shock wave that will kill you? Questions like these (and many more like them) have all occurred to Sheridan (The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game, 2010, etc.) during sleepless nights. A former kickboxer and an experienced sailor, the author’s nightmares finally got the better of him once he became a father. “If something was going to happen,” he writes, “I wanted to be ready.” Using increasingly unlikely theoretical disasters as an impetus, Sheridan set out to learn every possible survival skill, from the most rudimentary (making fire and learning to hunt), to taking a driving clinic for stuntmen, because “when you’re driving a slalom course through a zombie-infested city, you need to…maintain control because if you lose it and crash, now you’re zombie food.” Sheridan is a charming storyteller, and his prose is both thoughtful and playful. He closes the book with a chapter on optimism and the inherent goodness of humanity, stressing that everything he has learned has not made him paranoid and believing that the end of the world is nigh; instead, it’s given him the confidence to face anything and the peace of mind that brings him. “At some point,” he concludes, “when you’ve done your best, you have to get on with your life and trust the universe not to fuck you.”

An upbeat and entertaining survival guide for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Jan. 28, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59420-527-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

THE NIGHT CIRCUS

Self-assured, entertaining debut novel that blends genres and crosses continents in quest of magic.

The world’s not big enough for two wizards, as Tolkien taught us—even if that world is the shiny, modern one of the late 19th century, with its streetcars and electric lights and newfangled horseless carriages. Yet, as first-time novelist Morgenstern imagines it, two wizards there are, if likely possessed of more legerdemain than true conjuring powers, and these two are jealous of their turf. It stands to reason, the laws of the universe working thus, that their children would meet and, rather than continue the feud into a new generation, would instead fall in love. Call it Romeo and Juliet for the Gilded Age, save that Morgenstern has her eye on a different Shakespearean text, The Tempest; says a fellow called Prospero to young magician Celia of the name her mother gave her, “She should have named you Miranda...I suppose she was not clever enough to think of it.” Celia is clever, however, a born magician, and eventually a big hit at the Circus of Dreams, which operates, naturally, only at night and has a slightly sinister air about it. But what would you expect of a yarn one of whose chief setting-things-into-action characters is known as “the man in the grey suit”? Morgenstern treads into Harry Potter territory, but though the chief audience for both Rowling and this tale will probably comprise of teenage girls, there are only superficial genre similarities. True, Celia’s magical powers grow, and the ordinary presto-change-o stuff gains potency—and, happily, surrealistic value. Finally, though, all the magic has deadly consequence, and it is then that the tale begins to take on the contours of a dark thriller, all told in a confident voice that is often quite poetic, as when the man in the grey suit tells us, “There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.” Generous in its vision and fun to read. Likely to be a big book—and, soon, a big movie, with all the franchise trimmings.

 

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-385-53463-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2011

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