You get in your car, drive to work, park, and go inside. An ordinary day—except, back at home, someone is chopping your wife to bits, the opening gambit in Brundage’s (A Stranger Like You, 2010, etc.) smart, atmospheric thriller.
Here’s the thing about creepy old farmhouses: they’re full of ghosts, and ax murderers lurk in the tree line. Art history professor George Clare is a rational fellow, but when he moves into the country to teach at a small-town college, he finds his colleagues making odd assumptions: since he knows a thing or two about Swedenborg, then he must be game for a séance. Catherine, his young wife, whose “beauty did not go unnoticed” even out among the yokels, has long since sunk into a quiet depression. They have problems. She doesn’t live long enough to grow to hate the country, though she senses early on that the place they’ve bought from a foreclosed-on local family is fraught with supernatural danger: “Until this house,” she thinks, “she’d never thought seriously of ghosts, at all. Yet, as the days passed, their existence wasn’t even a question anymore—she just knew.” Yup. Question is, who would do her in, leaving a single grim witness, the terrified daughter? There’s no shortage of suspects on the mortal plane, to say nothing of the supernatural. Part procedural, part horror story, part character study, Brundage’s literate yarn is full of telling moments: George is like a “tedious splinter” in Catherine’s mind, while George dismisses her concerns that maybe they shouldn’t be living in a place where horrible things have happened with, “As usual, you’re overreacting.” But more, and better, Brundage carries the arc of her story into the future, where the children of the nightmare, scarred by poverty, worry, meth, Iraq, are bound up in its consequences, the weight of all those ghosts, whether real or imagined, upon them forever.
With a storyline that tightens like a constrictor, this is a book that you won’t want to read alone late at night.
“Did I say he was dead? What I said was, he is…gone.” Welcome to an odd world in which the dead never quite go away, and the living are—well, not quite there.
Readers of horror know, even if characters in movies and books do not, that it’s never a good idea to go up to the attic, even when it’s euphemized as “the upstairs junk room.” Bad things happen in such dark interior spaces, as the characters in Straub’s long opening story learn; in a narrative marked by a tenuous hold on time and an even more tenuous one on reality, an unfortunate young man finds that hypnosis is maybe not such a good idea after all, leading to an event that, the protagonist tells us, “virtually destroyed my family.” And not just virtually. Straub (In the Night Room, 2004, etc.), who, this collection ably reveals, has affinities with both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, likes nothing more than a good, taut, psychologically charged yarn that raises more questions than it answers: “I thought of myself as a work of art,” a denizen of one fairy tale–like story remarks. “I caused responses without being responsible for them.” In a Straub-ian world, proper responses include puzzlement, nervousness, and fear, to say nothing of indulging in coprophiliac moments that are going to ruin some unfortunate housekeeper’s day. Denial is also allowed; as another of Straub’s characters yelps, bewildered at the thought that Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener” should be esteemed enough to be taught in school, “I never went to any college, but I do know that nothing means what it says, not on this planet.” That’s exactly right, one reason not to trust Straub’s narrators, whose worlds include an unhealthy amount of free-floating anger and not a little craziness—though if anger and craziness can bring a taxi-flattened cat back to life, then so much the better.
Dark, brooding fiction from a master of the form. And take our word for it: don’t go up to the attic, even if it is just a junk room.
Class, cliques, and cattiness converge in this New York fable based on the lives of Truman Capote and his greatest fan, Babe Paley.
As it happens, Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife, 2013, etc.) puts more honey than vinegar in her rendering of the disarming palship between the openly gay author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his much-married “Bobolink”—Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley, the outwardly towering, inwardly cowering Upper East Side matron he squired around town for a quarter century. A chorus of the couple’s BFFs provides commentary on their history, as Benjamin spirals chirpily through the hedonistic '50s, '60s, and '70s, cherry-picking scenes of their first, chance weekend together at the Paleys' compound in Jamaica (“So many wanted to catch him at it! Watch as genius burned!”), thick as thieves over lunch at Le Cirque, or swapping confidences about their narcissistic mothers—more craved than kisses—at slumber parties in the Hamptons, all the way through to the publication of Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, and his infamous Black and White masquerade ball. The event that allegedly drove them apart—when Truman mauled Babe and her set in thinly disguised print—has been raked over repeatedly by critics, filmmakers, and biographers (including Babe’s friend Slim Keith—one of the Kenneth-coiffed swans alluded to in the title), so it's no surprise when the novel re-creates some iconic moments leading up to the rift: such as when Truman notices for the first time that Babe's husband—CBS executive William S. Paley—smiles "like a man who had just swallowed an entire human being." (Capote recognizes a keeper—and files it away “in his photographic memory, to be used at a later date.”) The character Benjamin takes most imaginative liberty with, naturally, is Babe—the cool cucumber in Mainbocher who (the chatter went) could brush off her husband’s wolfishness with practiced ease and neither bleeped a word against nor spoke to her literary pet again after he published "La Cote Basque 1965."
Elegant Babe's thoughts, if not her lips, are unsealed at last. Those unaware of the scandal get CliffsNotes; and everyone else gets a chance to judge whether a swan’s muteness can be more interesting than her gripe.
Brown completes his science-fiction trilogy with another intricately plotted and densely populated tome, this one continuing the focus on a rebellion against the imperious Golds.
This last volume is incomprehensible without reference to the first two. Briefly, Darrow of Lykos, aka Reaper, has been “carved” from his status as a Red (the lowest class) into a Gold. This allows him to infiltrate the Gold political infrastructure…but a game’s afoot, and at the beginning of the third volume, Darrow finds himself isolated and imprisoned for his insurgent activities. He longs both for rescue and for revenge, and eventually he gets both. Brown is an expert at creating violent set pieces whose cartoonish aspects (“ ‘Waste ’em,’ Sevro says with a sneer” ) are undermined by the graphic intensity of the savagery, with razors being a favored instrument of combat. Brown creates an alternative universe that is multilayered and seething with characters who exist in a shadow world between history and myth, much as in Frank Herbert’s Dune. This world is vaguely Teutonic/Scandinavian (with characters such as Magnus, Ragnar, and the Valkyrie) and vaguely Roman (Octavia, Romulus, Cassius) but ultimately wholly eclectic. At the center are Darrow, his lover, Mustang, and the political and military action of the Uprising. Loyalties are conflicted, confusing, and malleable. Along the way we see Darrow become more heroic and daring and Mustang, more charismatic and unswerving, both agents of good in a battle against forces of corruption and domination. Among Darrow’s insights as he works his way to a position of ascendancy is that “as we pretend to be brave, we become so.”
An ambitious and satisfying conclusion to a monumental saga.
A deft personal account of a career spent reporting from the Middle East, witnessing the evaporation of peace and stability.
NBC chief foreign correspondent Engel (War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, 2008, etc.) takes a confident, thorough approach to this fusion of memoir and journalistic narrative, beginning with evolutionary overviews of both Islam and the modern Middle East. Looking back, he concludes that his own youthful, improvisational journalistic beginnings in Egypt in 1997 coincided with the impending downfall of dictators like Saddam Hussein. “Saddam was the first of the Arab big men to go,” he writes. In cleanly structured chapters, the author explores his reporting during particular flash points, beginning with ominous early examples of fundamentalist terrorism, through the Syrian war and the spread of the Islamic State group, illustrating a harsh thesis of entropy fueled by successive American administrations: “Bush’s aggressive interventionism and Obama’s timidity and inconsistency completely destroyed the status quo.” Engel’s personalized viewpoint supports this claim, presenting a coherent episodic narrative alongside his own high-risk career. He was offered a position as Palestinian-affairs correspondent for a French press agency in time to witness the violent Second Intifada. From there, he often wound up in harm’s way, as when he found himself the last American correspondent in Baghdad at the outset of the second Iraq War, leading to employment as a foreign correspondent for ABC. The depth of Engel’s experience is clear, yet his boldness may have led to an overconfidence that contributed to his 2012 kidnapping in Syria. “Those [experiences] gave me a false sense of security, and I guess I got greedy,” he writes. “In journalism, you never want to get greedy.” Engel seems capable and likably frank, in contrast to his pessimistic conclusions: “A lot of killing remains to be done before leaders of stature emerge—and before the fires of chaos are tamped down once again.”
An intriguing journalistic memoir built around a lucid, alarming overview of where the Middle East has been and where it is heading.
The abduction of one of their own rouses the members of MI5’s dead-end Slough House (Dead Lions 2013, etc.) to action once more.
As she’s the first to tell everyone, recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish has never been “a joe,” a field agent. She’s just the assistant to Jackson Lamb, who lords it over Slough House as if it weren’t the penultimate stop on the path from success in the Security Service to disgrace and oblivion. But that doesn’t stop her ex-lover Sean Donovan from scooping her up in a van, locking her in a room an hour outside London, and demanding for her return a copy of a most sensitive intelligence file. Naturally, River Cartwright, the colleague Catherine designates as the one she’d be most likely to trust with her life, makes a hash of his attempt to meet the ransom demand and ends up in a little room of his own being worked over by Nick Duffy of the Dogs, the service’s internal police. That’s no slur against him, though, because the savviest agent in the world (something River’s never come close to being on his best day) would never have suspected the truth about the rabbit hole Catherine’s tumbled down. Her kidnapping, it’s gradually revealed, is both more and less than it seems—less, because her abductors couldn’t be more considerate, except for the one who quickly gets killed; more, because the service itself is so torn between narcissistic careerists and warring factions battling for control that its fate, and presumably that of her majesty’s government, seems to hang in the balance.
Even readers who don’t care for the endless bureaucratic infighting will have to admire this tour de force, in which virtually every single player—good guys, bad guys, all the turncoats and in-betweeners—is somehow connected to British Intelligence.
A careful exposé of the libertarian agenda, spearheaded by the Koch brothers, to “impose their minority views on the majority by other means.”
Those other means, writes New Yorker staff writer Mayer (The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, 2008, etc.), are accomplished by a flood of money—$760 million in the last five years alone—pumped into the political system to two immediate ends: to “cripple a twice-elected Democratic president” and “supplant the Republican Party.” It took decades for those floodwaters to rise, during which time, Mayer suggests, Charles and David Koch had come to realize that their unfettered free-market agenda was unpalatable to most Americans. (Refreshingly, on that note, the author affirms that those Americans value fairness.) The brothers, scions of an activist so doctrinaire that he worried the John Birch Society was soft on communism, banded with the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife, “an heir to the Mellon banking and Gulf Oil fortunes,” the Coors family of Colorado, the founders of Amway, and others opposed to any governmental effort to regulate their enterprises, from monitoring pollution to investigating financial practices. The result: that flood of “dark” money, bought-and-paid-for candidates (Mayer names Ted Cruz high among them), and the co-optation of the Republican Party in order to promote the interests of the decidedly 1 percent stratum, which in the meantime still struggled to rebrand itself “as champions of the other ‘99 percent.’ ” Mayer closely documents her charges—about 10 percent of the book is notes—while delivering a swiftly flowing narrative. None of it should surprise anyone who follows the political press, and some of the author’s thunder has been blunted, if not stolen, by Daniel Schulman’s Sons of Wichita (2014). Still, Mayer provides plenty of ammunition for those convinced that the U.S. is no longer a representative democracy but instead an oligarchy.
A valuable contribution to the study of modern electoral politics in an age that Theodore White, and perhaps even Hunter S. Thompson, would not recognize.
A rare honest story about love, ambition, and compromise.
“But what is a demimonde, anyway?” asks Alison Moore in the opening line of this novel by Rebeck, the creator of TV’s Smash and a widely produced playwright. Rebeck’s insider knowledge of the demimonde of entertainment and celebrity is put to excellent use as she tracks the upward trajectory of a young actress from Cincinnati, from cattle-call auditions for a two-line role through a lead in a television series and to the brink of Hollywood superstardom. Every type in showbiz is unmasked here, from the writer—“It’s only two lines but there has to be stakes”—to the columnist—“Hi Jessica, you look fantastic! Can I grab you for a few minutes to talk about your know-nothing role as a gun-toting whore in Evil Dead 12?”—to the actress herself, “light-headed with hunger all the time” on the orders of her agent: “Beautiful food is for you to look at, and other people to eat.” While her stock goes up careerwise, Alison’s personal life is in free-fall. The decision to move to New York abruptly ended her relationship with her high school sweetheart, Kyle, and their inability to recover ends up warping both of their lives. An idealistic doctor and a committed Catholic, shellshocked Kyle ends up in a pediatric practice catering to entitled suburbanites and, worse, married to a woman he doesn’t love. Every time Alison comes home for a visit, they run into each other and bad things happen. Though she’s something of a black sheep in her extended family, where grandchildren Nos. 8 and 9 are on the way, Alison identifies deeply with the Midwest itself, its culture, its values, its nice people with good manners. Even the parties are better, in her opinion.
The snappy dialogue and plot you’d expect from a veteran dramatist plus the rich exploration of character that novels are made for.
A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.
Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”
A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.
A famous novelist’s disappearance upends the life of her American translator.
Novey's surreal debut begins as a mystery: legendary Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda has inexplicably climbed into an almond tree with a cigar and a suitcase and has not been seen since. Upon receiving the news—is she aware, an unfamiliar emailer wants to know, that her author has been missing for five days?—translator Emma Neufeld puts her life in Pittsburgh on hold and hops a flight to Rio de Janeiro to join the search, much to the chagrin of her sweetly dull boyfriend. On the ground in Rio, the situation quickly begins to clarify: Beatriz Yagoda is not only a serious literary novelist, but also a serious online poker player who now owes an angry loan shark half a million dollars, or else. And so, together with Yagoda’s adult children, Raquel (practical) and Marcus (overwhelmingly handsome), Emma embarks on a madcap chase to track down the missing author while fending off the increasingly impatient shark. Meanwhile, Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, burned out by a sea of lesser manuscripts and desperate for another one of hers, finds himself equally entangled: he doesn’t know any more about her whereabouts than Emma and the rest, but he’s been the one responding to her secret requests for cash, and—more importantly—he’s the one with the means to pay off her debts. Stylish, absurd, sometimes romantic, and often very funny, the novel is as much about the writing process as it is about the high-stakes plot. And if it doesn’t always add up to more than the sum of its parts—like a dream, the book is almost overwhelmingly vivid when you’re in it, and the details dissipate quickly when you’re not—taken piece by piece, it’s a tour de force.