Dysfunctional relationships of many stripes—crumbling marriages, bad dates, slacker partners—drive this dark and quirky clutch of stories.
Moshfegh’s most remarkable talent early in her career is to turn distasteful domestic situations into magnetic storytelling: her superb debut novel, Eileen (2015), is a Highsmith-ian tale of alcoholism, abuse, and unrequited love, and though the 14 stories in this collection don’t let much more sunlight in, their concision and gallows humor do give them a lift. In “The Beach Boy,” a longtime married couple returns from a vacation, and when the wife suddenly dies, her undeveloped vacation photos force the husband to reassess his understanding of her (did she really hook up with a prostitute?) and himself. In “A Dark and Winding Road,” a well-off man runs into his reprobate brother’s meth-smoking girlfriend, a meeting that proves (in quintessentially Moshfegh-ian phrasing) “disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it to be.” Youngsters are no more or less foolish, like the aspiring actor in “Nothing Ever Happens Here” who falls for his aging landlord, the broke Brooklyn hipster in “Dancing in the Moonlight” who schemes to seduce a high-end furniture designer, or the narrator of “The Weirdos” who can’t quite extract herself from her boorish boyfriend. For all these foibles, though, Moshfegh never approaches her characters from a position of cruelty, with an intention to mock them; they are for the most part ordinary people undone by their desires, just in more peculiar and Day-Glo fashion than everyday life. Moshfegh's prose is usually plainly realist, but “Mr. Wu,” about a man who devises a complex scheme to seduce a woman running a Chinese internet cafe, is a piercing fable of unrequited love. “Life can be strange sometimes, and knowing it can be doesn’t seem to make it any less so,” one character says, and Moshfegh has proven herself more willing than her contemporaries to dive into the muck of that strangeness.
A smartly turned and admirably consistent collection about love and its many discontents.
A toy truck, bottle caps, rose petals, a cookbook and a box full of other seemingly unobtrusive mementos are dumped on the doorstep of Ed Slaterton by his ex-girlfriend, Min. Their unlikely romance lasted just over a month.
On the exterior he’s a gorgeous basketball-jock douchebag; she’s an outspoken, outsider, romantic-movie buff with frizzy hair. They’re opposites, and no one else in the novel sees why they’re together. But as objects from the box are revealed in Kalman’s vividly rendered paintings, readers are taken beneath the surface of what will no doubt be one of the most talked-about romances in teen literature. Handler frames their lives together with a sharp, cinematic virtuosity that leaps off the pages. Their relationship sparks and burns with so much passion, honesty, enlightenment and wonder that readers will feel relieved when they finish those chapters that don’t end with “…and that’s why we broke up.” The ordinary becomes extraordinary: A thrift-store cookbook explodes into a madcap dinner party for an aging imaginary film star. A rubber band causes readers to wince in pain when it’s ripped from Min’s hair. Torn condom wrappers induce smiles of knowing amusement as Min jokingly describes her first time. All is lovingly connected via a roster of fantastically drawn films and stars that readers will wish actually existed. The novel’s only fault lies in its inevitable conclusion, which can't help but be a letdown after 300+ pages of blazing romance.
A poignant, exhilarating tale of a love affair gone to the dogs.
(Romance. 14 & up)
A young woman revisits her many ex-boyfriends through interviews with her friends and acquaintances in this comedic romance.
After she’s dumped by her current boyfriend just days before prom, 17-year-old blonde, white Avery subverts an assignment at San Anselmo Prep on oral histories in order to retrace the map of her love life from middle school on. Told entirely in the form of interviews with others and including editorial interjections by Avery, this novel details each of her previous romantic relationships, some of which were more complicated than others. The playful, often teasing tone employed by many of the interviewees can be quite funny. Perspectives on Avery vary. Her supportive best friend, Coco, who is Korean-American, and Hutch, her cute and nerdy lab partner, who is black (and likes to think he resembles "a young Neil deGrasse Tyson") like her more than others—such as Bizzy Stanhope, Avery's rival, who is described throughout as "officially the worst." Readers looking for a light-as-air romance and who don't mind the predictability of the outcome will enjoy the humor and the sprawling cultural references, from Chris Evans to Sweet Valley High to Audrey Hepburn and the Kennedys.
Formulaic in plot if not in format, this should fit the bill for readers looking for total escape on a weekend afternoon
. (Romance. 12-18)
A dual biography of the man who made McDonald's ubiquitous and his third wife, who, after his death, spent the last two decades of her life becoming one of most generous philanthropists in American history.
Journalist Napoli (Radio Shangri-la: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, 2011) intended to write a sole biography of Joan Kroc (1928-2003), but she wisely decided to first document the life of Ray Kroc (1902-1984), who rose to become a billionaire via fast food after decades of marginal success as a traveling salesman hawking various products. Joan Beverly Mansfield Smith was playing piano and singing in a St. Paul, Minnesota, lounge when she caught the attention of her future husband, more than 25 years her senior. The romance was complicated not just by the age difference, but also due to the fact that Ray and Joan were both already married, with children in the mix. Ray would not be denied, although the road to remarriage took years to pave. Joan felt passion as well, apparently not fully comprehending Ray's alcoholism, his authoritarian personality, his unpleasant prejudices against almost everybody different from himself, and his inability to wrest attention from the business of expanding McDonald's. Publicly, Joan mostly suffered in silence until Ray's death, but behind the scenes, she often went about her life in a passive-aggressive manner. Napoli skillfully assembles the saga of their lives as a couple and just as skillfully portrays Joan's blossoming as a philanthropic force after Ray's death. She donated hundreds of millions of dollars to causes he would have vetoed, including hospice care, alcoholism treatment, AIDS research, Salvation Army recreation centers in low-income areas, National Public Radio, and much more. In the author’s telling, Ray never emerges as a sympathetic man, but Joan slowly morphs into a sympathetic heiress.
A book characterized by deep research and a seamless weaving together of the details of different lives.
Debut collection limns a variety of troubled characters searching for solace of both sexual and spiritual varieties in the contemporary South.
The title story investigates the frustrations of Jake, who learns after they marry that his young wife, Sheila, was manipulated into “heavy petting” by an uncle when she was 12 and then, when they were caught, blamed for it by her conservative Christian parents, who afterward considered their daughter damaged goods. Though this trauma seems to have permanently turned her off sex, Jake still fears that Sheila is cheating on him, while he is tempted by a wealthy cancer survivor who's a major donor to the hospital where he works. This is the first of several lurid scenarios that could have devolved into standard-issue Southern Gothic but instead convey compassion for Lawson’s damaged protagonists in straightforward but sharply perceptive prose. Teenagers roiled by sexual desire drive the action in “The Way You Must Play Always” and “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” and they are surrounded by adults equally confused and unhappy. Indeed, it might have made more thematic sense for the collection to take its name from “Vulnerability,” the closing and longest piece; that title pinpoints an essential human quality on abundant display here. In that story, Lawson takes the first-person narrator, a painter, to New York to meet a famous artist and an art dealer who for all their sophistication are as needy as the husband she left back in her Southern hometown drinking scotch and watching porn in a backyard shed. Faltering marriages, uneasy connections to fundamentalist religious backgrounds, and the gray areas where powerful teenage sexuality meets adult desire in relationships that may or may not constitute abuse—these are among the recurrent subjects handled frankly yet with a delicate touch.
Meaty, satisfying tales of a substance that suggests Lawson would make a fine novelist.
The tangled destinies of three kids growing up in a tightknit African-American community in Southern California.
“She was seventeen then. She lived with her father, a Marine, and without her mother, who had killed herself six months earlier. Since then the girl had earned a wild reputation—she was young and scared and trying to hide her scared in her prettiness.” Bennett’s debut novel tells the story of this grieving 17-year-old girl, Nadia, her best friend, Aubrey, and her boyfriend, Luke, told partly by Nadia and partly by a chorus of eponymous “Mothers,” the church ladies of Upper Room Chapel, where Luke’s father is the pastor. The three teenagers are drawn together by the damage they have already suffered: Luke’s promising football career was ended by a terrible injury; Aubrey has moved away from home to escape abuse by her stepfather. More trouble awaits when Nadia discovers she's carrying Luke’s baby and decides not to keep it. This decision creates a web of secrets that endures for decades—though the ever watchful, ever gossiping Mothers never stop sniffing around and suspecting. Nadia tries to escape the clutches of small-town drama by attending college and law school across the country, but when she returns home to care for her ailing father, she finds herself enmeshed in unfinished business. “All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we’d taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season.” Far from reliably offering love, protection, and care, in this book, the mothers cause all the trouble.
A wise and sad coming-of-age story showing how people are shaped by their losses. Recommended for both adult and teenage readers.
There has been no lack of attention to the notorious Mitford sisters, including biographies of Unity Valkyrie Mitford, who, scandalously, adored Hitler; Diana, who married the outspoken fascist Sir Oswald Mosley; and writer Nancy, the subject of Life in a Cold Climate (2003) by Somerset Maugham Award winner Thompson herself (A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan, 2014, etc.). Added to those are family memoirs, collections of letters, and a previous group biography, Mary S. Lovell’s The Mitford Girls (2001). Yet for readers yearning for another take on the glamorous sisters’ “posh past,” Thompson’s smart, jaunty, and wittily entertaining book will amply fill their desire. Steeped in Mitford lore and mythmaking, the book offers sharply drawn portraits of each woman, teases out the complexities of their fraught, competitive relationships with one another, and sets their lives within the context of a radically changing world. “These girls are prize exhibits in a Museum of Englishness,” admits the author, but she shows how they were much more. Born between 1904 and 1920, the sisters grew up imbibing the etiquette of debutante balls and the personal consequences of global upheaval; their friends were the fey Bright Young Things, “sublimely clever aesthetes”; their enemies were legion. “Snobbery, shallowness, stupidity, adultery, unpalatability—the Mitfords were accused of all these things and rode out every criticism,” Thompson writes admiringly. They fervently believed they were exceptional, even Jessica, who rebelled vehemently against the family’s politics. Unity never married, and others chose startlingly unsuitable mates: Diana left her adoring, hugely wealthy, but unfortunately dull husband for the rake Mosley; and Pamela married opinionated, philandering bores; Jessica ran off with a communist, with whom she lived in poverty. Deborah, though, made a more suitable match, with an eminent duke who owned assorted castles.
Thompson has fallen under the spell of the breathtakingly beautiful (as she repeatedly insists), seductive Diana, but otherwise, her cleareyed view of the sisters’ strengths and foibles makes this gossipy story a delight.
Outed as the controversial blogger who targeted sexists in her workplace, surgeon Diana Jager is suspected of murdering her new young husband, leading maverick reporter Jack Parlabane on a circuitous investigation of the couple.
Diana, who wrote as Bladebitch, is reputed to be a cold piece of work, though in her first-person narration, she comes across as smart and sympathetic. Swept away by the fun and caring Peter, a computer programmer with whom the lonely Diana enjoys "the best days of my life," she is soon bothered by his aloof presence and secrecy. She learns he is the estranged son of Sir Hamish Elphinstone, a creepy landowner of great wealth. Without the old man's help, Peter is in over his head with investors in his development of a groundbreaking Pay Pal–type software. Was he in an angry state when his car flew off a dangerous bend and plunged into a river—leaving the wreck behind but no dead body? Or did Diana plan the accident? Peter's sister, Lucy, with whom the recently divorced Parlabane develops a mutual attraction, claims the latter. The plot doesn't merely thicken, it turns around and around on itself, leading to a dilly of a climax. It takes forever for Peter's cheating and duplicity to turn Diana on to him. And some of the plotting has a certain connect-the-dots quality—rarely has a protagonist been drugged and abducted to less consequence than Parlabane is here. But the seventh entry in Scottish writer Brookmyre's Parlabane series (Dead Girl Walking, 2015, etc.) is still a consistently gripping read, boasting as much insight into domestic lives as criminal ones.
Full of engaging twists, Brookmyre's latest thriller featuring unconventional journalist Jack Parlabane is as compelling as it is clever.
To all the girls she’s liked before, a memoirist offers a series of interconnected essays.
Though she has characterized herself as “boy crazy” and previously documented that label in Loose Girl (2008), Cohen shifts her focus to her relationships with other girls—the ones who rejected her as a friend, the ones she rejected, the ones whom she saw as competition or yardsticks by which her own failings would never measure up. Some were witnesses and some were judges whose verdicts on her as unworthy have continued to reverberate through her adulthood and motherhood. A psychotherapist would focus on her parents’ bitter divorce as the key to her alienation and lack of self-worth. “In most of my friendships, I’d been fun and happy and unafraid,” she writes of a pivotal day when she felt ostracized. “But that day something shifted. For the first time I saw myself in the world, with others around me. My parents divorcing. My mother’s grief. My own sense of newness and change, of the world spinning out of control.” One of the ways this book offers healing is through Cohen’s collaboration with the illustrator, her older sister Tyler. During “an ugly divorce, fraught with affairs and devastation and anger,” their mother chose the older sister as her ally and confidante, leaving a breach between the two sisters that they wouldn’t repair until adulthood. Her sister was her first true female friend and the first betrayal (of many). While recognizing that “memory is a slippery eel,” Cohen surveys the dozens of relationships with women she has enjoyed and endured, showing how friendship changes with different stages and how she has as well. “I miss all of my ex-friends,” she writes toward the conclusion. “They are stamped onto my heart like old romances, lost loves. They are parts of me in ways no one warned me they would be.”
A brief, canny book that will make any girl who feels alone feel less alone.
Bergreen (Columbus: The Four Voyages, 2011, etc.) applies his historical storytelling skills to the famous Venetian lover, introducing his intellectual side.
Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was the child of two actors from whom he inherited and perfected his playacting abilities, which he used to his advantage as a social climber. He trained for the church and received a doctorate in civil and canon law at age 16, giving him the basis for his exceptional writings. His mother deserted him and set the pattern for the Casanova Syndrome of seduction and abandonment. He was a libertine and proud of it; he felt it better to be notorious than obscure. He was an adventurer, mathematician, musician, and literary genius, but he was also an obsessive gambler, losing and gaining fortune after fortune. One of his most successful gambles was instituting the French lottery for the state in 1758. It continued to be successful even through the French Revolution, paying for the Ecole Militaire where Napoleon trained. (It was Napoleon who eventually caused the collapse of Casanova’s beloved Venice.) Casanova usually fell in love with his conquests, and sometimes he actually failed to convince his lover to submit to him. Condemned as an atheist by the Inquisition, he was locked up in a miserable prison on the top floor of the Doge’s Palace. It would be nearly two decades before he was pardoned and allowed to return to Venice. Throughout, Bergreen makes good use of an excellent translation of his subject’s 12-volume memoir. While it was published shortly after his death, it was censored and edited, and the first unexpurgated version didn’t appear until 1960. The author neatly captures Casanova’s voice, “often amused, but rarely mocking, conversational yet highly literary, and simultaneously vulgar and brilliant.”
Casanova’s adventures include plenty of juicy details, and Bergreen weaves in just enough to prove his reputation. His travels during one of history’s most exciting periods will be great fun for any history lover.
A sense of detachment permeates the lives of the women in this short story collection, yet readers will find themselves riveted.
They drink too much, keep company with the wrong men (or perhaps the men are right and they are wrong), and moon around their lives like bored teens with nothing to do but find trouble on a sultry summer day. Some have money, others are seriously strapped for cash. Most are educated, all are smart—even if they don’t make smart choices. The women who slouch around the centers of Miller’s (The Last Days of California, 2014, etc.) short stories—drinking dive-bar beer or mixed drinks made strong, ordering in pizza or getting fast food from the drive-thru lane, binge-watching TV, and looking for love in all the wrong places—are all about squandered potential, loneliness, and listlessness, distance where closeness should be and vice versa. They may be frustratingly disconnected, indifferent to the men who love them, attracted to those who maybe don’t. Their relationships with boyfriends, husbands, and exes, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors are complicated, yet many seem stuck. What's holding them in place? Laziness? Fear? “I guess my main problem with her is that she doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything,” the protagonist of one story, “The House on Main Street,” a divorced Southern grad student, says of her roommate, Melinda, a New Yorker who eats different foods (fresh meats she buys at the farmers market), writes different poetry (“about apples and trees and never become more than apples and trees”), and beds a different sort of man (“Baptist and clean-cut and gets along well with everyone”) than she. When Melinda is out, Miller’s protagonist sneaks into her bedroom to look at her stuff, marveling at how distinct the trappings of her roommate's life are from her own, never touching a thing. “I just stand in her space feeling like an intruder,” she says. The reader may respond the same way to the 16 stories in this collection, which feel both homey and exotic, limning lives at once familiar and distinctly their own.
Like a two-for-one drink special or a boxful of beer, this bracingly strong collection may prove intoxicating.
Posh Manhattanite Catherine West has everything but the family she’s always wanted. But when she falls for the man of her supposed dreams, she unravels a web of deception that upends life as she knows it.
“I was rich,” begins Huntley’s mesmerizing debut. “I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was toned enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out.” And yet, despite the West Village apartment, the trust fund, the weekly massages, and the occasional soup kitchen shift (“I was also a really good person,” she promises), Catherine feels existentially incomplete. So when she encounters William Stockton —at an art gala, obviously—she believes she’s found her missing piece: handsome, well-bred, adoring, if oddly reserved, he is the man she’s been waiting for. Plus, she wants children, and at 43, “the hourglass was running out of sand.” But immediately, there is something amiss about stately William Stockton; just the mention of his name causes her ailing mother to slam shut. Then again, Catherine reasons, “even pre-Alzheimer’s” her mother “had a tendency to hate people for no apparent reason.” And so, within months, the pair is engaged. And still, Catherine cannot ignore the increasingly unsettling signs. Why won’t her mother speak of him? Why is William so alarmed when Catherine sifts through his stash of innocuous childhood photos? And what is the meaning of the note from her former nanny, neatly taped in her mother’s old diary—“we cannot trust anyone to care for us fully”? As elegantly plotted as it is—and it is—Huntley’s debut stands out not for its thrills but rather for her hawkish eye for social detail and razor-sharp wit. It is more than a classic psychological thriller: it is also a haunting—and weirdly moving—portrait of love and family among Manhattan’s flailing upper crust.