Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century.
We first meet Walter Langdon in 1920 as he anxiously surveys his fields. Milk prices are down, and anyway “worry-shading-into-alarm [is] Walter’s ever-present state,” thinks wife Rosanna. The freakish accidental death of a toddler daughter is the only incident here that really justifies Walter’s apprehensions (it wouldn’t be a Smiley novel without at least one cruel twist of fate), but underpinning the comparatively placid unfolding of three decades is farm folks’ knowledge that disaster is always one bad crop away, and luck is never to be relied on. (The sardonic folk tale “Lucky Hans” is retold several times.) The Langdons raise five children to varied destinies. Smart, charismatic Frank leaves home for college and the Army. Steady, sensitive Joe stays home on the farm, its perennial round of backbreaking labor somewhat alleviated by such innovations as tractors and commercial fertilizer. Golden girl Lillian marries a government employee who gets Frank involved in spying on suspected communist agents after the war—ironic, since Rosanna’s sister Eloise is a Trotskyist. Times are changing: Henry, the family intellectual, will clearly end up in academia; Lillian and Frank are both living in Eastern suburbs. Youngest daughter Claire is less vivid than her siblings, and the names begin to blur a bit as the postwar baby boom creates a burgeoning new generation, but for the most part Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft. The novel doesn’t so much end as stop, adding to the sense that we’ve simply dropped in on a continuing saga. Smiley is the least sentimental of writers, but when Rosanna and Walter look at the 23 people gathered at Thanksgiving in 1948 and “agreed in an instant: something had created itself from nothing,” it’s a moment of honest sentiment, honestly earned.
An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.
A Norwegian novelist plumbs his interior life, particularly his troubled relationship with his late father, in this curiously affecting opening to a multipart epic.
“Epic,” though, may not be quite the right word to apply to what Knausgaard (Out of This World, 2005; A Time for Everything, 2009), has accomplished. Though the book, a bestseller in his homeland, is composed of six volumes, its focus is on the author’s quotidian, banal, sometimes-frivolous experiences. One extended sequence follows his ham-handed interview as a teenager of a well-known Norwegian author; another covers his ham-handed attempt to play in a rock band; another tracks his ham-handed efforts to get to a New Year’s Eve party. Sense a pattern? Knausgaard is emotionally clumsy to be sure, but remarkably, almost miraculously, his novel never comes off as a plea for sympathy, as so many memoirs (or memoir-novels) are. He means to strip experiences and emotional responses to their bare essences, and over time, the book evokes a feeling of fully inhabiting a character that typical rhetorical somersaulting often doesn’t. That’s not to say the storytelling is aimless or can’t be emotionally piercing: The book concludes with a long section of Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, clearing out their alcoholic father’s rural home while minding their grandmother, who appears to be succumbing to alcoholism herself. Scrubbing down the impossibly filthy home is dry stuff on the sentence level (“I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream…”), but the slow accrual of detail masterfully evokes the slow effort to reckon with the past. The title, with its echo of Hitler’s memoir, is a provocation, but a considered one—Knausgaard's reckoning with his past is no less serious for lacking drama and outsize tragedy.
A simple and surprising effort to capture everyday life that rewards the time given to it.
The discovery of a body near a spooky wood forces a murder-squad detective in Ireland to confront his own horrific past, in an engrossing if melancholy debut.
This mystery, heavy on psycho-drama, is set in the Dublin suburb of Knocknaree and is the first in a sequence to feature detectives Cassie Maddox and Adam Ryan. Adam has hidden his secret from everyone in the police force except his partner and best friend Cassie. She alone knows that he was the surviving child of three who went missing in the wood in 1984. Adam was found clinging to a tree, his shoes full of blood; there was no trace of his pals Peter and Jamie, nor could Adam remember a thing. Now, 20 years on, Katy Devlin’s battered body has been found by the same wood, where an archaeological dig is in progress, under threat from plans for a new road. The investigation—Operation Vestal—evokes queasy sensations and flashes of recollection in Adam. The relationship with Cassie goes awry after the two sleep together. Adam eventually solves the Katy Devlin murder, but in this meditation on lost innocence, psychopathology and fear, his success is ruined when his own history emerges, leading to demotion.
When not lengthily bogged down in angst, a readable, non-formulaic police procedural with a twist. It’s ultimately the confession of a damaged man.
Even in the insular world of book publishing, murder has its place.
British book editor Sam Clair has her routine—she gets up early to be in the office with her second cup of coffee before anyone else arrives—and she has her staple authors, those trusted to turn out best-sellers year after year. Kit Lovell, a feisty investigative writer deeply rooted in the fashion world, has just turned in one such manuscript, a book exposing the libelous inner workings of fashion giant Vernet, as well as evidence that the death of its head man, Rodrigo Alemán, was no accident. There are many people who would benefit from this never being published, and soon, a courier delivering the manuscript is dead. When Kit’s apartment is broken into, followed by Sam’s, it becomes clear that more than the manuscript’s future is at stake, especially when Kit misses an important work lunch. Sam won’t stand for her best author and good friend being kidnapped—or worse—and she steps in to investigate. Flanders creates a layered mystery in which fingers can be pointed in a variety of directions, from seedy lawyers to Alemán’s own brother. Helping Sam are her spitfire mother, Helena, her sweet but isolated upstairs neighbor, Mr. Rudiger, and Detective Jake Field, with whom she ultimately starts a relationship (though their building attraction is curiously never shown). With so much to wrap up, especially as Kit’s troubles are found to extend beyond his controversial reporting, the end result feels cluttered; in the rush to the finish line, delightful secondary characters get lost in the mix.
The first novel by historian Flanders (The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, 2014, etc.), though a bit frazzled, is full of charm and characters worth visiting again.
After Sophie Talbot creates a scandal, she tries to escape aristocratic society by stowing away in the Marquess of Eversley’s carriage—but she winds up in even more trouble.
Since her father went from being a coal miner to a rich businessman to an earl, Sophie has become increasingly unhappy. Unlike her sisters, who take glee in creating scandal and flaunting the mores of Victorian society, Sophie hates feeling like an outsider and detests the hypocritical aristocracy. But when she goes too far, pushing her brother-in-law the Duke of Haven into a fish pond after she catches him in a compromising position at a garden party, she asks the rakish Marquess of Eversley, nicknamed King, to give her a ride back to Mayfair. When he denies her request, she pays one of his grooms for his livery and hitches a ride on the back of the carriage. But it turns out that the carriage isn't going to Mayfair; when it heads out of London, Sophie is stuck on the road with an angry King and no way home. Changing her plans, she asks King to deliver her to the small town where she spent her childhood, claiming a lost love is waiting for her. Skeptical but intrigued, King agrees, but nothing goes as planned for the antagonistic pair, who snipe at each other along the journey yet somehow turn to each other in times of trouble, even while a sense of pride keeps them from admitting their growing regard and attraction. When King finally takes Sophie back to his home in Cumbria, where he'd been headed all along to see his ailing father, a series of miscommunications drives the couple apart, risking their happy-ever-after. MacLean’s elegant writing, brisk storytelling, and clever dialogue are frosting on the cake of Sophie’s compelling romance, and they'll hook the reader into this new series about the risqué Talbot sisters, who must forge a path through a hostile social structure.
MacLean's latest shines with the intensity, wit, and emotion for which she's celebrated.
In which a zombie imperialist space cop gets caught up in a complex plot to—well, this enjoyable sci-fi outing gets even more complicated than all that.
Those who have seen the film Event Horizon will remember that a starship that got caught up in a time-space-continuum eddy got all, well, weird—or, as its creator puts it, “[w]hen she crossed over, she was just a ship. But when she came back—she was alive!” Debut novelist Leckie’s premise dips into the same well, only her spaceship has become, over thousands of years, a sort-of human that is also a sort-of borg made up of interchangeable-parts-bearing dead people. Breq, aka One Esk, aka Justice of Toren, has his/her/its work cut out for him/her/it: There’s a strange plot afoot in the far-flung Radch, and it’s about to make Breq violate the prime directive, or whatever the Radchaai call the rule that says that multisegmented, ancillary humanoids are not supposed to shoot their masters, no matter how bad their masters might be. Leckie does a very good job of setting this complex equation up in not many pages, letting detail build on detail, as when Breq finds—well, let’s say “herself” for the moment—in an increasingly tangled conspiracy that involves the baddest guy of all, the even more multifaceted head honcho of the Radch. As the action picks up, one just knows there’s going to be some battering and bruising out on the shoulder of Orion.
Leckie’s novel cast of characters serves her well-plotted story nicely. This is an altogether promising debut.
Inheriting an earldom riddled with debt, Devon Ravenel intends to sell everything off and sink back into his feckless life—until he sets foot on the land and feels the seductive pull of responsibility and meets the beautiful widow trying to hold everything together.
Devon detested his cousin Theo, the Earl of Trenear, but he's extremely annoyed when Theo dies and he inherits the title and the ramshackle estate that goes with it. Determined to get every cent he can from his inheritance and then turn his back, he's stunned to discover that he feels an unwelcome responsibility toward his legacy. Figuring out how to save Eversby Priory becomes an exhausting burden, but working toward a difficult goal has a positive effect on him and on his brother, West, who takes on the unofficial role of estate manager. Both men, who had previously avoided emotional attachments, quickly become connected to their three young female cousins who live on the estate and to Kathleen, Theo’s widow, who has been running things with graceful competence since her husband's death. Devon spends most of his time in London, but when he's involved in a devastating train accident on his way back to Hampshire for Christmas, Devon and Kathleen admit to a sizzling attraction despite the fact that she's in mourning and he is resolved to never marry. Kleypas begins a new historical romance series with two damaged characters who might find happiness if they can ever learn to trust themselves and one another. Intricately and elegantly crafted, intensely romantic, and with secondary characters and an epilogue that will leave readers anxiously awaiting more.
A gratifying series starter from a not-to-be-missed romance author.
Three Pines, an appealing Quebecois community, is shaken by the death of a beloved longtime village schoolteacher and unsung artist.
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team find that Miss Jane Neal has been shot through the heart with an arrow. Is it a hunting accident or murder? Gamache sets up shop in the charming village B&B owned by a gay couple but is suspended when he refuses to arrest a local bowman who confesses after his sullen son is fingered for the crime. His longtime associate Beauvoir takes over while Gamache ponders the case. Jane, who never exhibited her work, had just had an astonishing folk art painting accepted for a show. Her obnoxious niece Yolande, who can’t wait to get into Jane’s house, gets a court order to keep the police out. Meanwhile, an equally arrogant trainee has not done her job checking wills, and a new one turns up leaving almost everything to Jane’s neighbor Clara Morrow, a married artist who’d been like a daughter to Jane, whose youthful romance had been quashed by her parents. Because no one had ever been allowed past Jane’s kitchen, everyone’s dumbfounded to find walls, recently covered by Yolande in appalling wallpaper, full of murals. The slight difference Clara notices between the murals and Jane’s painting holds the clue to her murder.
Cerebral, wise and compassionate, Gamache is destined for stardom. Don’t miss this stellar debut.
Murderous muggles are up to no good, and it’s up to a seemingly unlikely hero to set things right.
The big news surrounding this pleasing procedural is that Galbraith, reputed former military policeman and security expert, is none other than J.K. Rowling, who presumably has no experience on the Afghan front or at Scotland Yard. Why the pseudonymous subterfuge? We may never know. What’s clear, and what matters, is that Galbraith/Rowling’s yarn is an expertly written exercise in both crime and social criticism of a piece with Rowling’s grown-up novel The Casual Vacancy (2012), even if her hero, private detective Cormoran Strike, bears a name that wouldn’t be out of place in her Harry Potter series. Strike is a hard-drinking, hard-bitten, lonely mess of a man, for reasons that Rowling reveals bit by bit, carefully revealing the secrets he keeps about his parentage, his time in battle and his bad luck. Strike is no Sherlock Holmes, but he’s a dogged pursuer of The Truth, in this instance the identity of the person who may or may not have relieved a supermodel of her existence most unpleasantly: “Her head had bled a little into the snow. The face was crushed and swollen, one eye reduced to a pucker, the other showing as a sliver of dull white between distended lids.” It’s an icky image, but no ickier than Rowling’s roundup of sinister, self-serving, sycophantic characters who inhabit the world of high fashion, among the most suspicious of them a fellow who’s—well, changed his name to pull something over on his audience (“It’s a long fucking way from Hackney, I can tell you...”). Helping Strike along as he turns over stones in the yards of the rich and famous is the eminently helpful Robin Ellacott, newcomer to London and determined to do better than work as a mere temp, which is what lands her at Strike’s door. The trope of rumpled detective and resourceful girl Friday is an old one, of course, but Rowling dusts it off and makes it new even as she turns London into a setting for her tale of mayhem as memorable as what Dashiell Hammett did with San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon.
A quick, fun read. Rowling delivers a set of characters every bit as durable as her Potter people and a story that, though no more complex than an Inspector Lewis episode, works well on every level.
In his latest suspenser, the prolific King (Joyland, 2013, etc.) returns to the theme of the scary car—except this one has a scary driver who’s as loony but logical unto himself as old Jack Torrance from The Shining.
It’s an utterly American setup: Over here is a line of dispirited people waiting to get into a job fair, and over there is a psycho licking his chops at the easy target they present; he aims a car into the crowd and mows down a bunch of innocents, killing eight and hurting many more. The car isn’t his. The malice most certainly is, and it’s up to world-weary ex-cop Bill Hodges to pull himself up from depression and figure out the identity of the author of that heinous act. That author offers help: He sends sometimes-taunting, sometimes–sympathy-courting notes explaining his actions. (“I must say I exceeded my own wildest expectations,” he crows in one, while in another he mourns, “I grew up in a physically and sexually abusive household.”) With a cadre of investigators in tow, Hodges sets out to avert what is certain to be an even greater trauma, for the object of his cat-and-mouse quest has much larger ambitions, this time involving a fireworks show worthy of Fight Club. And that’s not his only crime: He's illegally downloaded “the whole Anarchist Cookbook from BitTorrent,” and copyright theft just may be the ultimate evil in the King moral universe. King’s familiar themes are all here: There's craziness in spades and plenty of alcohol and even a carnival, King being perhaps the most accomplished coulrophobe at work today. The storyline is vintage King, too: In the battle of good and evil, good may prevail—but never before evil has caused a whole lot of mayhem.
The scariest thing of all is to imagine King writing a happy children’s book. This isn’t it: It’s nicely dark, never predictable and altogether entertaining.