Goldberg (The False Friend, 2010, etc.) writes the fictional biography of a female photographer whose career is sidetracked by controversy surrounding intimate pictures of her young daughter.
The character Lillian Preston may initially remind readers of Sally Mann, whose photographs of her children created debate in the early 1990s. But Lillian’s story, which takes place primarily in the 1950s through 1970s, is singularly her own. After falling in love with photography at her Cleveland high school, Lillian dismays her doting but conventional parents by moving to New York City, lovingly portrayed in all its gritty glamour, to pursue her dream. For Lillian, photography is all-consuming, her camera an extension of her arm. But once Samantha is born, the result of a brief affair, Lillian’s artistic ambition becomes entangled with fierce mother-love. Quiet, easily ignored, Lillian’s forte is shooting unposed street scenes. Her obvious genius brings her critical notice (if no money) in the NYC art world until an avant-garde gallery owner is charged with “pandering obscenity” by exhibiting photographs of 6-year-old Samantha in her underwear, one taken while Lillian was recovering from an abortion and unable to go outside. Neither Lillian’s career nor Samantha’s childhood recovers—a case of every mom’s fear of screwing up writ large. The novel is structured as the catalog Samantha puts together for a retrospective of Lillian’s work at the Modern Museum of Art years after her death. Photograph by photograph, Samantha sets the scene through her memories of her deeply complicated relationship with her mother, recorded interviews with people who knew Lillian, letters from Lillian to others, and Lillian’s private journal. The collage of impressions and reactions creates a holistic portrait that also allows Samantha and more secondary characters, like Lillian’s high school boyfriend, to reveal their own complexities. Lillian herself—selfishly single-minded in her artistic drive but genuinely protective of her child and often desperately lonely—is both larger than life and thoroughly human.
A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.
A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!
Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.
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!
A rendering of Teddy Roosevelt’s early life that spotlights formative moments in colorful, entertaining episodes.
The young boy saw a werewolf near his bed at night when an asthma attack came on. As Teddy narrates, his father would order up “the Roosevelt high phaeton with its pair of long-tailed horses” and let the wind fill Teddy’s lungs in thrilling rides on the “scorched plains of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.” He was the youngest man in the state Assembly, where he says he wore “a pince-nez with a gold tassel, and a peacoat from my Harvard days.” When he lost his mother and wife within hours of each other, he fled west, to Dakota territory, “with silver stirrups, a tailored buckskin suit, and a Bowie knife from Tiffany’s.” But he’s pulled back to New York, where he becomes a police commissioner fiercely disliked for his blue laws and anti-corruption drive. He’s rescued from a melee at the Social Reform Club by his new squad of bicycle cops, whose leader will join him in Cuba. Before Charyn (Jerzy, 2017, etc.) ends with President William McKinley’s assassination, he gives the Rough Riders a big slice of the book not just for TR’s famous hill charge, but for the reluctant leader who could scrounge for his troops and suffer whatever the men suffered—though he also had a tent from Abercrombie & Fitch. The prolific Charyn has written scripts for graphic books. With TR, there’s a sense of the outsize characters of 19th-century dime novels, though without the hagiography. Roosevelt embodied contradictions—a privileged reformist, a cowpoke from Manhattan, an honest politician—and his private life was riddled by strife and loss.
Charyn makes artful use of historical fact and fiction’s panache to capture the man before he became one of the great U.S. presidents and a face on Mount Rushmore.
When an intelligent but impoverished woman is accepted into Oxford’s first class of female students, she must juggle a spectrum of challenges, but nothing prepares her for the attractive and intimidating Duke of Montgomery.
“Of all the types of men she had learned to manage, the ‘ignorant yet self-important’ type was not exactly the most challenging. Then again, when her very fate lay in the hands of such a man, it added insult to injury.” When Annabelle Archer wins a scholarship to Oxford from the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, she first must convince her dullard, self-righteous cousin to allow her to go. She lets him believe the stipend came from the school, since he’d never agree if he knew the real source: “It was a safe guess that on the list of moral outrages, votes for women would rank only marginally below scandals of passion in Gilbert’s book.” After reaching the school, beautiful, overeducated Annabelle is asked to help the Society convince gentlemen of influence to overthrow The Married Women’s Property Act. The first man Annabelle approaches is the Duke of Montgomery, arguably the most influential man in England, who is at the beginning of what everyone expects will be an illustrious political career. The two notice each other, and as their paths cross again and again, their stories become more and more entwined, tightened by their attraction and shared experiences, yet thwarted by their respective places in society as well as conflicting goals. Dunmore’s beautifully written debut perfectly balances history, sexual tension, romantic yearning, and the constant struggle smart women have in finding and maintaining their places and voices in life and love, with the added message that finding the right person brings true happiness and being with them is worth any price.
A timely novel set in the furthest reaches of Australia by the author of The Dry (2017) and Force of Nature (2018).
The three Bright brothers are the overseers of 3,500 square kilometers of land in Queensland, with hours between each of their homes. It’s a vast, unforgiving environment, and no one ever goes far without a full complement of supplies. When 40-year-old Cameron sets out on his own, ostensibly to fix a repeater mast, he never comes home. His body is eventually spotted, via helicopter, curled up by the stockman’s grave, the source of plentiful, and persistent, local ghost stories. Cam’s older brother, Nathan, and their baby brother, Bub, are as perplexed as the cop who’s come all the way from Brisbane to investigate. What was Cam doing by the grave, and what was his Land Cruiser doing nine kilometers away, still fully stocked with supplies, with the keys left neatly on the front seat? The Brights' mother, Liz, is devastated, and Cam has also left behind his wife, Ilse, and two young daughters, Sophie and Lo. They’re pragmatic folks, though, and there’s a funeral to be planned, plus Christmas is just around the corner. Everyone seems to assume that Cam took his own life, but Nathan isn’t so sure, and there’s a strange dynamic in Cam's home that he can’t put his finger on. Cam had been acting strangely in the weeks before his death, too. But Nathan’s got his own problems. He’s eager to reconnect with his teenage son, Xander, who's visiting from Brisbane, and he has a complicated history with Ilse. In the days leading up to the funeral, family secrets begin to surface, and Nathan realizes he never really knew his brother at all. Harper’s masterful narrative places readers right in the middle of a desolate landscape that’s almost as alien as the moon’s surface, where the effects of long-term isolation are always a concern. The mystery of Cam’s death is at the dark heart of an unfolding family drama that will leave readers reeling, and the final reveal is a heartbreaker.
A twisty slow burner by an author at the top of her game.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.
Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.
Before focusing on memoirs, Shapiro (Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, 2017, etc.) drew from her family life in her fiction. In her latest, she delves into an origin story that puts everything she previously believed and wrote about herself in fresh perspective.
The author’s relationship with her mother was difficult. “My single best defense had always been that I was my father’s daughter,” she writes. “I was more my father’s daughter. I had somehow convinced myself that I was only my father’s daughter.” Eventually, she learned that she wasn’t her father’s daughter at all, at least not in the way that she had initially understood. Through DNA testing to which she had only submitted because her husband had done so, Shapiro discovered that she shares none of hers with her father’s side of the family and that the sperm that impregnated her mother had come from someone else. But who? The first half of the book trudges through a bit too much day-by-day detail, as the author becomes convinced that there’s no way these results could have been mistaken. It is after she discovers who her real father is, or at least the sperm donor, that the narrative deepens and enriches our deeper understanding of paternity, genetics, and what were then called “test tube tots.” Sperm donors had been guaranteed anonymity, and the man she contacted was initially resistant to upset the balance of his family dynamic because of his participation in the procedure decades earlier. Equally upsetting Shapiro was the issue of what her parents had believed, separately or together, about her parentage. Had they spent their lives as a family deceiving her, or had they also been deceived? Then there was the doctor whom they had consulted when they were having fertility issues, “an outlaw” whose credentials were shaky but whose results were impressive.
For all the trauma that the discovery put her through, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was “a great story”—one that has inspired her best book.
Wrought with blood, iron, and jolting images, this swords-and-sorcery epic set in a mythical Africa is also part detective story, part quest fable, and part inquiry into the nature of truth, belief, and destiny.
Man Booker Prize winner James (A Brief History of Seven Killings, 2014 etc.) brings his obsession with legend, history, and folklore into this first volume of a projected Dark Star Trilogy. Its title characters are mercenaries, one of whom is called Leopard for his shape-shifting ability to assume the identify of a predatory jungle cat and the other called Tracker for having a sense of smell keen enough to find anything (and anybody) lost in this Byzantine, often hallucinatory Dark Ages version of the African continent. “It has been said you have a nose,” Tracker is told by many, including a sybaritic slave trader who asks him and his partner to find a strange young boy who has been missing for three years. “Just as I wish him to be found,” he tells them, “surely there are those who wish him to stay hidden.” And this is only one of many riddles Tracker comes across, with and without Leopard, as the search takes him to many unusual and dangerous locales, including crowded metropolises, dense forests, treacherous waterways, and, at times, even the mercurial skies overhead. Leopard is besieged throughout his odyssey by vampires, witches, thieves, hyenas, trickster monkeys, and other fantastic beings. He also acquires a motley entourage of helpers, including Sadogo, a gentle giant who doesn’t like being called a giant, Mossi, a witty prefect who’s something of a wizard at wielding two swords at once, and even a wise buffalo, who understands and responds to human commands. The longer the search for this missing child continues, the broader its parameters. And the nature of this search is as fluid and unpredictable as the characters’ moods, alliances, identities, and even sexual preferences. You can sometimes feel as lost in the dizzying machinations and tangled backstories of this exotic universe as Tracker and company. But James’ sensual, beautifully rendered prose and sweeping, precisely detailed narrative cast their own transfixing spell upon the reader. He not only brings a fresh multicultural perspective to a grand fantasy subgenre, but also broadens the genre’s psychological and metaphysical possibilities.
If this first volume is any indication, James’ trilogy could become one of the most talked-about and influential adventure epics since George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was transformed into Game of Thrones.
The latest thriller from Swanson (All the Beautiful Lies, 2018, etc.) is a twisty, fast-paced tale that depicts picket-fence suburbia's seamy, murderous underside.
Hen and her husband, Lloyd, have just left Boston for the tranquil burbs, and things are looking up for her. After a psychotic break sparked by the unsolved murder of a neighbor, Hen is on the mend, her bipolar disorder under control, her optimism resurgent, her career as an illustrator of dark YA books taking off. At a meet and greet she and her husband hit it off, or think they should, with their next-door neighbors Matthew and Mira, the only other childless couple nearby. But when they cross the driveway for a barbecue, the potential for neighborly coziness curdles. Hen notices a little fencing trophy on a shelf in Matthew's office and recognizes it—or wonders if she recognizes it—as one of the mementos the police reported was stolen from the murder scene in the city. When Hen recalls that the man killed was once a student at the prep school where Matthew teaches history, Hen grows suspicious of Matthew—and starts to stalk him. Is this a break in the case or the beginning of another fit of paranoia? And even if it's the former, who will believe Hen's suspicions given her earlier obsession with the case and the hospitalization it led to? Swanson is at his best in exploring the kinship—or what some see as the kinship—between artist and killer, one of the themes of Swanson's great model and forebear, Patricia Highsmith. Swanson isn't quite up to Highsmith's lofty mark, and he succumbs toward the end to a soap opera–like plot-twist-too-far...but for the most part, this novel delivers.
A dark, quick-moving, suspenseful story stuffed full of psychological quirk and involution.
The life and loves of Queenie Jenkins, a vibrant, troubled 25-year-old Jamaican Brit who is not having a very good year.
" 'My last girlfriend was black.' I looked at my date and blinked, sure I'd misheard him. 'Sorry?' I asked, leaning across the table." But indeed, that's what he said. Just as she heard correctly when "Balding Alpha," a guy she dates later in her annus horribilus, licks her shoulder and comments, "Tastes like chocolate." Queenie's attempts to get over Tom, the long-term white boyfriend who dumps her at the beginning of Carty-Williams' debut novel, send her stumbling through a mined landscape of interracial dating and friendship, including the occasional white stranger who reaches to fondle her hair as if in a petting zoo. Terrified by the continual news of violence from the United States, Queenie is trying to get the paper she works for in London to cover important issues—"I’d wanted this job so that I could be a force for change"—but her editor responds to her pitches by suggesting a piece on "ten of the best black dresses Me Too movement supporters have worn at awards ceremonies." After all, it's the holiday season, and what people are really thinking about is party dresses! Queenie's main supporters are the three girlfriends who make up a texting group called The Corgis (a reference to the queen's loyal pack of pooches), but one of these relationships is about to detonate due to our heroine's wildly indiscriminate sexual choices, choices that keep her running in and out of the health clinic on a biweekly basis. At least she'll always be able to fall back on the judgmental embrace and reliable hot water of her ultratraditional Jamaican grandparents. Why she ever fell for that drip Tom and why she still loves him so much are never at all clear, but perhaps that's how these things go.
Wired contributor Ratliff (editor: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from the Atavist Magazine, 2016), the co-founder of Atavist Magazine, digs deep into a story that seems utterly appropriate to the computerized, globalized, transnational age. The protagonist is Paul Le Roux, a Zimbabwe-born computer programmer. Having moved from South Africa to Australia and later to the Philippines, he discovered early on that cyberspace was a frontier in which to grow rich serving humankind’s lesser instincts: pornography, trolling, gambling, addictions of various kinds. Eventually, as the author foreshadows in an opening salvo of incidents, he founded a crime network with many nodes across the world, one with hired killers, corrupt doctors, software specialists, and countless other players. One branch began by selling painkillers under the flimsiest of medical screenings: A customer would type in a complaint that she had back pain, a doctor would sign off, and drugs would arrive in great quantities, with one small-town Wisconsin pharmacist alone filling 700,000 illegal prescriptions and being paid millions in return from a Hong Kong bank account. Killings followed as Le Roux stretched his hand to North Korean methamphetamine manufacturers, international mercenaries, Colombian cartels, and black-ops hackers. Writes Ratliff, each of these pieces “seemed like a kind of message from an adjacent reality that few of us experience directly”—a reality that ended in a massive counter-operation on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, bringing down long prison sentences and massive fines. “In 2013,” writes the author, “UPS paid $40 million to resolve federal accusations of knowingly shipping drugs for illegal online pharmacies.” Sifting through detail after nefarious detail, Ratliff serves up a taut narrative that limns a portrait of a sociopath whose powers were most definitely used to evil ends.
A wholly engrossing story that joins the worlds of El Chapo and Edward Snowden; both disturbing and memorable.