This is Atkinson’s fifth Jackson Brodie novel (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.), but fans know that the phrase “Jackson Brodie novel” is somewhat deceptive. Yes, he is the hero in that he is a private investigator—former cop, military veteran—who solves (usually) mysteries. But he is not so much the central character as the grumpy, anxious, largehearted gravitational field that attracts a motley assortment of lost souls and love interests. In this latest outing, Jackson is a half-duty parent to his teenage son while the boy’s mother, an actor, finishes her run on a detective series. Vince Ives is a more-or-less successful middle-class husband and father until his wife leaves him, his boss makes him redundant, and he becomes a murder suspect. Crystal Holroyd—not her real name—has built a brilliant new life for herself, but someone from her past is threatening her daughter. Both Vince and Crystal seek help from Jackson, with varying results. Meanwhile, Jackson’s protégée, Reggie Chase, has risen through the ranks in the police force and is taking a fresh look at an old case. That these stories intertwine is a given. “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is one of Jackson’s maxims; it could also serve as an ironic epigram for Atkinson’s approach to the mystery genre. A small cast of characters collides and careens in a manner that straddles Greek tragedy and screwball comedy. The humor is sly rather than slapstick, and Atkinson is keenly interested in inner lives and motivations. There are villains, certainly—human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children figure prominently here—but even the sympathetic characters are complicated and compromised. Jackson has a strong moral code, but his behavior is often less than ethical. The same is true of Vince, Crystal, and Reggie. The deaths and disappearances that Jackson investigates change with every book, but the human heart remains the central mystery.
A woman comes to terms with how her immigration to America affects her family back home in Jamaica—and herself.
For the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Here Comes the Sun (2016), Dennis-Benn returns briefly to Jamaica before shifting her locale to Brooklyn. It’s 1998, and single mother Patsy isn't able to get a tourist visa at the American Embassy in Kingston until she agrees to leave Trudy-Ann, her 5-year-old daughter, behind. Patsy’s American dreams are not just about a better financial future for Tru; she has long hoped to reunite with the love of her life, her childhood girlfriend, Cicely, now living in Brooklyn. But her dreams are stymied by the difficult reality of finding work in New York—despite Patsy’s best efforts, the only employment she can find is as a bathroom attendant, cleaning toilets—and by Cicely’s marriage to an abusive, overbearing man. Cicely, now a woman “smelling of expensive flowers and looking resplendent in a long purple peacoat cinched at the waist with a belt, a colorful silk scarf wrapped around her neck, still holding on to her Chanel handbag,” would rather stay with her husband than lose the lifestyle his wealth provides her. Tru, meanwhile, is sent to live with the father she doesn’t know. Alternating between Patsy's and Tru's stories, Dennis-Benn allows each character’s experience an equal depth and presence in the book. Slowly Patsy comes into her own, finding work as a nanny, but as Tru comes of age back in Jamaica missing her mother, Patsy, looking after another woman’s child, is haunted by the absence of her own daughter and the choices she must continue to make to survive in America, alone. Although she's lovingly drawn by Dennis-Benn, Patsy has done the single most-damning thing a mother can do in our society: She has abandoned her child. It's a marker of Dennis-Benn’s masterful prowess at characterization and her elegant, nuanced writing that the people here—even when they're flawed or unlikable—inspire sympathy and respect.
Dennis-Benn has written a profound book about sexuality, gender, race, and immigration that speaks to the contemporary moment through the figure of a woman alive with passion and regret.
It's not like Fleishman's estranged wife, a high-powered talent agent, was ever a very involved mother. But now she's dropped off the kids—while he was asleep—and disappeared.
New York Times Magazine staff writer Brodesser-Akner's debut novel tracks Manhattan hepatologist Toby Fleishman through a painful divorce whose sting is mitigated somewhat by the wonders of his dating app. "Toby changed his search parameters to thirty-eight to forty-one, then forty to fifty, what the hell, and it was there that he found his gold mine: endlessly horny, sexually curious women who knew their value, who were feeling out something new, and whose faces didn't force him to have existential questions about youth and responsibility." About 30 pages in, we learn that the narrator is an old friend named Elizabeth “Libby” Slater, whom he met when both were college students on a year abroad in Israel. After the separation, his therapist advised Toby to reconnect with old friends; not having heard from him in years, Libby is at first nonplussed when he calls. A magazine journalist with a stalled career, she lives out in New Jersey, where she's no happier with motherhood than Toby's ex—she describes another male friend's future marriage as "He [would] find someone young and take her life away by finally having children." Toby Fleishman is a man plagued by his height (or at least he is in Libby's account; this narrative strategy raises questions), and he has never recovered from being chubby as a child; he's on a permanent no-carb, no-fat, no-sugar diet which qualifies as an eating disorder. He's a devoted father, but he's also a doctor who's angling for promotion and a man who's trying to take advantage of the unbridled lust of middle-aged women, so his wife's mysterious disappearance is infuriating. And a little scary. Toby is a wonderful character; Libby's narrative voice is funny, smart, and a little bitter as she tells his story, and some of hers as well. You get the feeling she wants to write a novel like (the fictional) Decoupling, an outrageous, bestselling, canonical account of divorce written by one of the stars at her old magazine. Perhaps she has.
Firing on all circuits, from psychological insight to cultural acuity to narrative strategy to very smart humor. Quite a debut!
Someone told Vivian Morris in her youth that she would never be an interesting person. Good thing they didn't put money on it.
The delightful narrator of Gilbert's (Big Magic, 2015, etc.) fourth novel begins the story of her life in the summer of 1940. At 19, she has just been sent home from Vassar. "I cannot fully recall what I'd been doing with my time during those many hours that I ought to have spent in class, but—knowing me—I suppose I was terribly preoccupied with my appearance." Vivian is very pretty, and she is a talented seamstress, but other than that, she is a silly, naïve girl who doesn't know anything about anything. That phase of her life comes to a swift end when her parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg. Peg is the proprietor of the Lily Playhouse, a grandiose, crumbing theater in midtown that caters to the tastes and wallets of the locals with week after week of original "revues" that inevitably feature a sweet young couple, a villain, a floozy, a drunken hobo, and a horde of showgirls and dancers kicking up a storm. "There were limits to the scope of the stories that we could tell," Vivian explains, “given that the Lily Playhouse only had three backdrops”: 19th-century street corner, elegant parlor, and ocean liner. Vivian makes a close friend in Celia Ray, a showgirl so smolderingly beautiful she nearly scorches the pages on which she appears. "I wanted Celia to teach me everything," says Vivian, "about men, about sex, about New York, about life"—and she gets her wish, and then some. The story is jammed with terrific characters, gorgeous clothing, great one-liners, convincing wartime atmosphere, and excellent descriptions of sex, one of which can only be described (in Vivian's signature italics) as transcendent. There are still many readers who know Gilbert only as a memoirist. Whatever Eat Pray Love did or did not do for you, please don't miss out on her wonderful novels any longer.
A big old banana split of a book, surely the cure for what ails you.
A smart young Muslim Canadian woman navigates the complexities of career, love, and family in this lively homage to a Jane Austen classic.
“While it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations are of secondary importance.” With that nod to Pride and Prejudice firmly in place, Jalaluddin lays the groundwork for a raucous story that mixes a zany cast of characters with a tightly wound plot. The “single Muslim man” in question is the handsome Khalid Mirza, who’s hiding behind a long beard and loose-fitting traditional clothes. Unlike his Muslim colleague, Amir, Khalid refuses to “edit” his identity by shaving or wearing jeans and is therefore unfortunately typecast even, at first, by his ravishing neighbor, Ayesha Shamsi. The 27-year-old Ayesha, focused on her teaching career and moonlighting as a poet, doesn’t have time for “fundy” Khalid, but, predictably, their paths keep intersecting. Khalid is a mama’s boy, though, and will do what she says when it comes to marriage. As a series of unfortunate events plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that there is more to both Khalid's and Ayesha’s stories. What happened to Khalid’s sister? Why does Ayesha feel beholden to her young and pretty cousin, Hafsa? Jalaluddin expertly works in a healthy number of parallel plotlines and keeps the reader invested in the final outcome. The ending might be predictable (this is Pride and Prejudice lite, after all) and a few peripheral characters feel one-dimensional, but all is forgiven as the story races along to its gushy and adorable wrap.
Scheming aunties, headstrong cousins, sweet grandparents, Pakistani-Canadian masala, and good old-fashioned romance are just the right ingredients for a delicious and entertaining novel.
Neighboring families in a New York commuter suburb are entwined, root and branch, through work, their children, and a tragedy of profound consequence.
Displaying impressive reach in this third—and possibly breakout—novel, Keane (Fever, 2013, etc.) delivers an epic of domestic emotional turmoil. Its twin families are united initially through the careers of Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, who meet as unmarried rookies in the New York City police academy. Later, now with partners, they move into adjacent homes in the safe-seeming small town of Gillam, where Francis’ wife, Lena, gives birth to three daughters, Sara, Natalie, and Kate. Brian’s wife, Anne, whose temperament is increasingly mercurial, loses her first child but then has a boy, Peter. Friendship between Peter and Kate is cemented from the outset, and as teenagers, the couple’s affections intensify. But on the night Peter tells Kate he thinks they will marry one day, Anne’s mental disturbance and violence reach a climax, one that inflicts terrible, indelible damage and drives Peter and Kate apart. Narrated from multiple perspectives, in compassionate but cool tones, Keane’s story embraces family lives in all their muted, ordinary, yet seismic shades. The Gleesons offer solidity and an assumption that marriage will endure, no matter the tests. The Stanhopes, however, are seamed with inherited fault lines, and Peter will not emerge unscathed from his upbringing. Keane offers empathy and the long view, across a larger spectrum of issues than is at first apparent, pursuing her story for decades while adhering to Anne’s observation "that the beginning of one’s life mattered the most, that life was top-heavy that way." Tender and patient, the novel avoids excessive sweetness while planting itself deep in the soil of commitment and attachment.
Graceful and mature. A solidly satisfying, immersive read.
Lee Koe’s (Ministry of Moral Panic, 2013) decade- and continent-spanning novel follows the intersecting lives and careers of three 20th-century film greats.
At the Berlin Press Ball 1928, three young women meet: Anna May Wong, an up-and-coming Chinese-American actress in Hollywood; Marlene Dietrich, a loudmouthed German trying to break into the business; and Leni Riefenstahl, a striving director just embarking on a career making Nazi propaganda films. From there the narration branches out, in alternating, braided sections, to trace the arcs of their lives. An octogenarian Marlene, bedridden in a Paris apartment, receives flirtatious phone calls from a mysterious young man who recites Rilke to her every Sunday, and she’s cared for by a Chinese maid named Bébé, who has fled her rural village in Taishan and a prostitution ring in Marseilles. Anna May wrestles with her romantic feelings for Marlene after a brief post–Press Ball tryst as they co-star in Shanghai Express, and she battles against regular takedowns in the Chinese press, her laundry-owning parents’ disapproval of her career, and Hollywood’s—and the world’s—limited roles and expectations for a Chinese-American woman. “And where are you from? Los Angeles, Anna May said. Before that? Anna May shook her head, repeated herself: Los Angeles. But where were you born? Los Angeles, she said.” Leni Riefenstahl shoots her film Tiefland in the Bavarian Alps, using Roma and Sinti extras from a concentration camp while navigating her relationships with Hitler and Goebbels, and eventually faces public vitriol and rape threats for those Nazi ties. For a novel so dense with historical fact and larger-than-life celebrity cameos (everyone from John F. Kennedy to Walter Benjamin to David Bowie), its portrayals are nuanced enough that each character comes off as deeply human regardless of their fame or importance to the novel’s plot. “In retrospective appraisal, [Marlene] divided her affairs not by gender or duration, but those for whom she’d cooked pot-au-feu and those she had not.…Marlene would not have guessed that she had one more pot-au-feu left in her, and for an anonymous caller no less.” It’s the steady accumulation of intimate details like these that creates a sweeping sense of history that feels truly alive.
The much-loved royal romance genre gets a fun and refreshing update in McQuiston’s debut.
Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of the American President Ellen Claremont, knows one thing for sure: He hates Henry, the British prince to whom he is always compared. He lives for their verbal sparring matches, but when one of their fights at a royal wedding goes a bit too far, they end up falling into a wedding cake and making tabloid headlines. An international scandal could ruin Alex’s mother’s chances for re-election, so it’s time for damage control. The plan? Alex and Henry must pretend to be best friends, giving the tabloids pictures of their bromance and neutralizing the threat to Ellen's presidency. But after a few photo ops with Henry, Alex starts to realize that the passionate anger he feels toward him might be a cover for regular old passion. There are, naturally, a million roadblocks between their first kiss and their happily-ever-after—how can American political royalty and actual British royalty ever be together? How can they navigate being open about their sexualities (Alex is bisexual; Henry is gay) in their very public and very scrutinized roles? Alex and Henry must decide if they’ll risk their futures, their families, and their careers to take a chance on happiness. Although the story’s premise might be a fantasy—it takes place in a world in which a divorced-mom Texan Democrat won the 2016 election—the emotions are all real. The love affair between Alex and Henry is intense and romantic, made all the more so by the inclusion of their poetic emails that manage to be both funny and steamy. McQuiston’s strength is in dialogue; her characters speak in hilarious rapid-fire bursts with plenty of “likes,” “ums,” creative punctuation, and pop-culture references, sounding like smarter, funnier versions of real people. Although Alex and Henry’s relationship is the heart of the story, their friends and family members are all rich, well-drawn characters, and their respective worlds feel both realistic and larger-than-life.
A young man writes a letter to his illiterate mother in an attempt to make sense of his traumatic beginnings.
When Little Dog is a child growing up in Hartford, he is asked to make a family tree. Where other children draw full green branches full of relatives, Little Dog’s branches are bare, with just five names. Born in Vietnam, Little Dog now lives with his abusive—and abused—mother and his schizophrenic grandmother. The Vietnam War casts a long shadow on his life: His mother is the child of an anonymous American soldier—his grandmother survived as a sex worker during the conflict. Without siblings, without a father, Little Dog’s loneliness is exacerbated by his otherness: He is small, poor, Asian, and queer. Much of the novel recounts his first love affair as a teen, with a “redneck” from the white part of town, as he confesses to his mother how this doomed relationship is akin to his violent childhood. In telling the stories of those who exist in the margins, Little Dog says, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” Vuong has written one of the most lauded poetry debuts in recent memory (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016), and his first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sense—not merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence, moving associationally from memory to memory, quoting Barthes, then rapper 50 Cent. The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel’s earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival.
A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets.
When Richard "Dodge" Forthrast dies under anesthesia for a routine medical procedure, his story is just beginning.
As the founder and chairman of a video game company, Dodge has a pretty sweet life. He has money to burn and a loving relationship with his niece, Zula, and grandniece, Sophia. So when he dies unexpectedly, there are a lot of people to mourn him, including his friend Corvallis Kawasaki, who is also the executor of his will. To make matters worse (or, to say the least, more complicated), there's something unexpected in Dodge's last wishes. It turns out that in his youth he put it in writing that he wanted his brain to be preserved until such technology existed that his consciousness could be uploaded into a computer. And much to everyone's surprise, that technology isn't so far off after all. Years later, Sophia grows up to follow in her clever grand-uncle's footsteps and figures out a way to turn on Dodge's brain. It is at this point that the novel splits into two narratives: "Meatspace," or what we would call the real world, and "Bitworld," inhabited by Dodge (now called "Egdod") and increasing numbers of downloaded minds. Stephenson (co-author: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, 2017; Seveneves, 2015, etc.) is known for ambitious books, and this doorstop of a novel is certainly no exception. Life in Bitworld is more reminiscent of high fantasy than science fiction as the ever evolving narrative plays with the daily reality of living in a digital space. Would you have special abilities like a mythical god? Join your aura together with other souls and live as a hive mind? Create hills and rivers from nothing? Destroy your enemies with tech-given powers that seem magical? Readers looking for a post-human thought experiment might be disappointed with the references to ancient mythology, but those ready for an endlessly inventive and absorbing story are in for an adventure they won't soon forget.
An audacious epic with more than enough heart to fill its many, many pages.