Rendered in beautifully poetic prose, Murphy’s debut novel follows Capt. James McFarlane of Canada’s “A” Company, 1st Irish, into war.
Capt. James McFarlane is on the brink. It is September 1944, the eve of a great battle, he has not heard from his wife, and he is physically and mentally exhausted. He’s noticeably losing his grip. At first blush, though, McFarlane seems normal enough, “happy that he is in a situation where he can test himself to his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits.” He jokes with fellow soldiers and seems well-liked by fellow officers and his men. But piece by intricate piece, his motivations and fragile psyche are revealed. Tiny sips from a flask grow into a major drinking problem that leads him to strike an enlisted man, miss an important pre-battle inspection and ultimately send his assistant in search of rum in the midst of a firefight. Through dreams, flashbacks and letters, readers learn that his decision to join the army was more out of inadequacy and restlessness than patriotism, and this decision to voluntarily leave his new bride, Marianne, dealt a severe blow to his marriage. While exploring McFarlane’s inner landscape, Murphy meticulously conveys the realities of war, from the ruined Italian countryside to the mixture of boredom and anxiety haunting the soldiers. All is done in exquisite style that places readers squarely in the action: “Here and there, flash by flash, are illumined trees, houses, hills, recoiling guns and men in action, captured in flared snapshots, yellow and orange flicker, red glow, a purple bruise of clouds.” Murphy uses stream of consciousness throughout, but in the dénouement, that stream explodes into a roiling sea breaking on the various shores of McFarlane’s inner and outer realities.
An empathetic yet flawed man drives this wonderful novel, the first from an author ready for a glittering literary career.
Chinese soldiers and Navy SEALs race to retrieve a fallen satellite in the Arctic Circle only to discover a common enemy in a gigantic sea creature in Kwa’s debut sci-fi thriller.
When the Chinese launch a satellite that’s capable of spotting subs, the U.S.government tries to hijack it electronically. After its attempt is intercepted, the satellite crashes to Earth. Master Chief Carter Bohem’s SEAL team is sent in to recover it, but they’re beaten to it by the People’s Liberation Army—but only by the one member who survived an attack by a serpentine beast. Capt. Marcus Cartaneo is ordered to extract the team, and soon the creature is pursuing his ship, the U.S.S. Seawolf. The author doesn’t waste any time introducing the monster: snakelike, coiled, with a “bullet-shaped head.” Its constant attacks are reminiscent of Hollywood action-movie scenes, and the author ramps up the suspense whenever the characters’ fates hang in the balance. But even in scenes without the sea serpent, the story keeps up a frenetic pace. At one point, for example, Marcus rushes to save his wife and daughter, stuck near a naval station during a hurricane. The gargantuan, multitoothed beast is terrifying, but its most frightening traits are its most humanlike—it doesn’t always attack for food but often for revenge, as it blames the crashed satellite for destroying its hatchlings. It’s also clearly intelligent; at one point, it creates a makeshift iceberg to prevent the soldiers’ escape. The human characters, meanwhile, aren’t static—Marcus, for example, is rethinking his life in the Navy after a colleague’ssuicide. The novel’s environmental message is a bit heavy-handed, as it overtly blames global warming for the beast’s onslaughts and ensuing carnage, but it doesn’t slow the plot down.
A thriller with the speed and precision of a tightly edited action film, headlined by a colossal monster that could give the kraken a run for its money.
While dealing with family issues, personal demons and office politics, Special Agent Jake Shaunessey and fellow Drug Enforcement Administration agents try to track down the elusive kingpins of a Minneapolis-area heroin network.
The characters in Nelson’s first novel might be found on an action-packed cop show: hard-boiled, hyperdedicated good guys vs. diabolical bad guys with no redeeming qualities. In a conversational style, Nelson—himself a DEA veteran—writes with the banter and gallows humor of men and women who constantly face danger: One of Jake’s co-workers “could handle herself quite well in the office, thank you.” (If anything, the good guys might be a little too good.) The agents pursue a series of leads from sketchy informants, conduct dangerous raids, sustain casualties and flip small-time dealers in an uphill battle through the drug ring’s chain of command. Along the way, the agents’ dedication earns them problems with spouses and censure from their boss, Alan Ravich, a self-interested political animal. The other side of the crime coin is inhabited by a number of lowlife, conscience-free dirtbags. Top kingpin Big Al not only heads the drug ring, but keeps his minions in line via a satanic cult, conducting hallucinogen-fueled ceremonies in which young kidnapped girls are sacrificed: “Phantoms embraced the physical features of Al. Some saw horns on Al’s head. Some envisioned him with a long tail.” In fact, some of the bad guys make more interesting characters than the agents. For instance, Big Al’s psychology degree enables him to controlfragile personalities. Tanya, his psychotic sidekick who’s fond of slitting throats, has dual dominant/submissive personalities; Big Al manipulates her by taking advantage of her daddy issues. Eddie, a drug importer, demonstrates a hint of conscience that comes into play at the end; and then there are the twins, Lonnie and Donnie, incompetent junky burglars whose antics lend dark comic relief. When things finally fall into place for the agents, the action ramps up to an exciting, satisfying denouement.
Hits all the targets for fans of police drama.
Cole’s (The Pleasure of Memory, 2013) novel is equal parts snark-filled road trip and bittersweet confrontation of past sins.
Henry wakes up in a gas station bathroom, crusty with vomit and missing both a shoe and his wallet. Exiting, he finds himself in New Mexico, his car nowhere in sight and his memory lost to a weekend of boozing. This is his re-entry into a miserable life spent guilt-ridden over how he treated Zoe, his wife, who’s been dead for four years. Naturally, his first stop is a bar just steps away. Clarence, the philosophically inclined bartender, insists that he drink some water. During the ensuing back and forth, Clarence calls Henry out on carrying needless emotional baggage. Eventually, Henry leaves and begins hitchhiking; he meets a string of fascinating people, including Rev. Joshua White, a social worker named Mrs. Pena, and the stunning Alice—a dangerously perfect companion who’s on a yearly pilgrimage with her siblings. Henry joins Alice and company in their van, hoping to reach California while reluctantly cleansing himself of the idea that he’s no good for people. Has Zoe’s ghost trapped him, or can Henry be salvaged from this self-destructive epic outing? Cole’s tale of impossible redemption is, sentence for sentence, a textural feast. Fabulous lines like, “He collected friends the way a lumberjack collected trees...[they] only complicated his plans,” pop on every page. Equally marvelous is his dialogue; Clarence tells Henry, “You like the drama because it makes you feel important, gives you a sense of purpose, a reason for not being dead.” Readers will savor Cole’s narrative as it unfolds across a series of conversations that are by turns probing, poignant and hilarious. From his time with Rev. White, readers learn that Henry is a relentless cynic; from Mrs. Pena, that he’s softer than he appears. Alice, with eyes like bright green kryptonite, threatens all of his bourbon-drenched defenses. By the end, readers will wish these terrific characters could stick around longer.
The harrowing account of one man’s persecution by a justice system indifferent to law and morality.
Debut author Woltz begins this memoir of judicial tyranny somewhat benignly: His financial firm, fulfilling a legal obligation, filed a suspicious activity report with the Central Bank of the Bahamas regarding a trust account an American attorney had opened there. He all but forgot the incident until, two years later, he was contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI looking to discuss the matter. He quickly obliged but was taken into custody on his way to the scheduled meeting in Charlotte; his terrified wife was taken into custody, too. What ensued was a long train of prosecutorial misconduct that will rattle readers’ complacent confidence in the U.S. judicial system. Woltz describes a “bizarre Kafkaesque world” in which both he and his wife were systematically stripped of their legal rights. They were denied the power to choose their own attorney, and the one they were saddled with worked in collusion with the prosecutors. In violation of their Sixth Amendment rights, they were arraigned in one judicial district and sentenced in another. They were charged with a litany of trumped-up accusations so absurd that the Middle District Office of the U.S. attorney called it a “sham prosecution.” Woltz and his wife were also subject to degrading treatment, intimidation and outright physical abuse, all in order to compel them to provide false testimony against the federal government’s real quarry. Woltz deftly catalogs his disillusionment: “More or less everything I believed about our judicial system was being challenged through personal experience. I was locked in a filthy mad house, though innocent, un-convicted, and pleading not guilty to the charges.” Woltz served 87 months in federal prison; when released, he saw both his financial assets and marriage disappear. A foreword written by a former magistrate judge provides legal context helpful to understanding the full extent of Woltz’s travails.
A stirring legal drama made more thrilling by sharp, journalistic prose.
In Santiago’s (Tomorrow They Will Kiss, 2006) masterful novel, a daughter dedicates her life to reuniting with her father in 1950s Cuba during the revolution.
Cuba is the true star of his novel, which takes place during the vulnerable period just before Fidel Castro’s uprising; each of Santiago’s characters has a different take and level of involvement in the fate of their country. The story begins with a traveling dance troupe on a circuit through the country’s eastern provinces. Estelita de la Cruz is forced to create a new life after her father, a drunken, fading rumba performer, is taken to anasylum. She and Aspirrina, the brash modern dancer of the troupe, flee to Havana. Soon after their arrival, Estelita receives great recognition for her beauty and natural stage talent, which lands her a starring role in a casino production. She soon becomes more ambitious and severs her ties to Aspirrina to pursue greater success; in doing so, she allows Aspirrina to realize her own dream of dedicating herself to the revolution: “Fidel was her saint, her imaginary lover.” Estelita revels in her newfound independence and falls in love, and her lover finds himself politically obligated to the forces opposing the revolution. As the people whom Estelita loves fight for Cuba, she sets her sights on fame, love, security and reconciliation with her father—but her future is tied to her city’s tribulations. Santiago’s prose style is intricate, and his descriptions of Cuba and its inhabitants are as vivid as hallucinations (“In yards full of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, honey-haired children played, shouting at each other in a foreign language”). The diversity of his characters is astounding, and he has an amazing talent for capturing the women’s strengths and vulnerabilities. He provides rich histories for his main cast, and readers will feel nothing but sympathy for their plights.
A historically sound, sublimely heartbreaking novel about the soul of the Cuban revolution.
A dark fantasy about an alliance between the Queen of Hell and the Son of God.
Kennedy’s riveting fantasy debut subverts the familiar biblical moment when Jesus, fasting in the desert, is tempted by Satan, who tells him that if he’s hungry, he should turn the desert stones into bread. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus reprimands Satan and rejects him. Readers familiar with that story will get the first of many shocks when they encounter a similar moment in Kennedy’s novel—not only because Nyx, the sultry, eloquent Queen of Hell, does the tempting instead of Satan, but also because the Son of God (here named Tribunal) hates the human race he’s been sent to Earth to save: “They are vile,” he tells her, later adding, “God should have destroyed them all. He should have brought back the waters and swept life from this world.” When God recalls all the angels from Earth except Nyx and her fellow “Descended,” the demons find themselves free to torment the human race at Tribunal’s behest. Kennedy’s narrative expertly hops from one time period to another, from the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire to the corruption of popes during the Middle Ages to the bloody wars of the Crusades. He fills these vignettes with vivid, if plentifully profane, dialogue and fast-paced action as Nyx follows Tribunal’s plan to wipe out the human race and make the world over into his version of paradise. Kennedy infuses his novel with dozens of characters from Judeo-Christian literature (including Jesus, Judas, Peter and the archangel Michael),but the willful, sexually provocative Nyx is by far the book’s most complex character and the wild card that subverts the narrative. The novel’s explicitness seems guaranteed to offend some readers, particularly devout Christians, but it carries off its conceit of transforming historical and biblical content into high fantasy with a great deal of skill and wit.
An intriguing, intensely readable combination of Game of Thrones and the New Testament.
A story set in the world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as seen from a very different perspective.
Fifteen-year-old Dinah is the Princess of Hearts, the daughter and heir of the fearsome King of Hearts. But her life isn’t exactly easy: She’s awkward, plump and unattractive, and the butt of jokes from the palace courtiers and even the servants. Her mother died when she was a child, and her father ignores her except to criticize her. Dinah would give anything to win her father’s approval, and when the king unexpectedly summons her, she hopes she’ll have the chance to do so. But to her horror, the king has called an audience to announce to the court that he has an illegitimate daughter named Vittiore, whom he’s brought to the palace to live with the royal family as a duchess. Vittiore’s beauty makes her an instant favorite with the court and the king, which makes Dinah hate her all the more. Dinah swears that she’ll never accept Vittiore as her sister, but she’s the least of the princess’s problems: The king’s adviser, Cheshire, seems to be plotting something; Dinah’s brother Charles, the Mad Hatter, drifts farther from reality as he spends his every waking moment crafting his amazing hats; and Dinah’s best friend and secret love, Wardley, whom she intends to marry someday, doesn’t seem to see her as anything but a friend. The more Dinah digs into the mysteries that surround her, the more sinister secrets she uncovers. Oakes’ latest heroine is spoiled, headstrong, temperamental and prone to tantrums, yet she somehow remains an incredibly sympathetic character. Perhaps it’s Dinah’s oh-so-human nature that makes her so easy to like, despite her flaws. Just as Gregory Maguire’s depiction of the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked (1995) gave her a background that changed readers’ perspectives, so Oakes’ portrait of the villain-to-be turns her into a real and even likable person while clearly foreshadowing her future as Alice’s Queen of Hearts.
A wonderfully entertaining twist on an old classic.
A surreal novel about a promising young academic trying to change his life.
Taylor’s funny, meticulously controlled fiction debut opens with 30-year-old hotshot physicist David Oster finding himself fed up with teaching physics to undergraduates (“It was pitiful when a physicist tried to tell eighteen-year-olds how a ball rolls off a table”) and eager to trade his California Institute of Technology postdoc for something different, something involving pure research. He manages to wrangle an appointment at the prestigious, deep-pocketed Larson Kinne Institute for Applied Physics at Western Washington State University. Once there, he embraces the change, despite the eccentric reputation of the institute’s enigmatic founder and namesake. David is mainly worried about breaking the news to his three girlfriends—classicist Valerie, flight attendant Cosmo, and linguist Helena, with her “weary Modigliani kind of face.” All three seem to take their breakups fairly well, and soon, David encounters the institute’s manic, free-wheeling inhabitants. His new colleagues, especially the splendidly Rabelaisian researcher Viktor Pelliau, steadily draw him into a range of loopy adventures, and David’s natural proclivities for offbeat, problematic romances land him in some amusing relationships. Taylor so skillfully blends David Lodge–style academic farce with Thomas Pynchon–style weird science (mostly of the aquatic variety) that it’s impossible to spot the dividing line between the two. In David Oster, she crafts a perfect, hapless Everyman who faces academic jockeying, lovelorn antics and even an attempted murder with beleaguered charm and an endless supply of snarky one-liners and sardonic observations. The interdisciplinary rivalries at Kinne are particularly well-done, typified by an offhand reference to “whale guys” as “the movie stars of science, appearing on TV with all the creatures they study and to whom they give cute names, but unpopular with real scientists because they are so rich and happy.” The book’s plotlines eventually spiral to pleasingly offbeat conclusions.
An unpredictable, winningly bizarre academic satire.
Martini relates the history of a now-defunct California attraction in this lavishly illustrated volume.
At the western edge of San Francisco, visitors will find a curious set of ruins at Ocean Beach which, from above, look something like a flooded ice-cube tray carved into the hillside. From 1896 to 1966, the Sutro Baths were an important city landmark: a lavish complex of pools, bleachers, changing rooms, restaurants, exhibits and displays. It was built of glass, iron, wood, and reinforced concrete, and its water was supplied directly by the ocean. Older city residents, like the author, will remember ice skating “in the cavernous former bathhouse” and peering through “gaps in the painted-over windows into the closed section of the building, where I could see a labyrinth of half-drained swimming tanks and endless bleacher seats marching toward the ceiling.” This fine book tells the story of how Adolph Sutro, a German-born businessman and politician, conceived and built the Baths, their eventual decline (mostly due to the high cost of maintenance) and plans for their future. Sutro, who served as mayor of San Francisco for a short time, did nothing by halves; he told a reporterin 1894 that a “small place would not satisfy me. I must have it large, pretentious, in keeping with the Heights and the great ocean itself.” In addition to swimming, the complex offered contests, “band concerts, trick diving exhibitions, acrobatic acts, May Day celebrations, and animal acts.” Martini tells this story clearly and well, providing not just period photographs, but also new architectural illustrations which greatly illuminate the Baths’ complicated structure. He also provides contemporary photos of the now-skeletal ruins alongside artist’s renderings of the complex when it was first built, which may help readers relate the past to the present day. Martini also offers many lively anecdotes from newspaper accounts, court documents and other sources to bring this past wonder to life.
A beautiful resource about a mysterious San Francisco landmark.
An account of a woman’s four-year fight to save a convicted murderer from execution.
In 1993, at a crossroads in her life, St. John “needed, wanted desperately, to feel passionate about something.” She found what she was looking for when she volunteered for Centurion Ministries, an organization that works to vindicate wrongfully convicted prisoners. There, she learned of the case of Joseph Roger O’Dell, who had been sentenced to death in 1986 for the rape and murder of a woman in Virginia. She provides a dramatic account of the nearly four years she spent trying to save O’Dell from being executed, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful despite the intervention of both the Italian and European parliaments. “I would learn that the justice system isn’t really about justice,” she recalls. O’Dell’s conviction was based largely on blood evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, but St. John, using her insider knowledge of the case, makes a convincing argument that it was tainted by witness tampering and the suppression of evidence. “It was a defendant’s worst nightmare,” she writes. “Joe was not only fighting the state. He was also fighting his own lawyer.” While working with O’Dell’s appellate lawyers, the author uncovered evidence that was never presented to the jury, interviewed witnesses—including the informant, whom she and an investigator tracked down in West Virginia—and received threatening letters from one of the prosecutors. “I am fighting against ruthless, powerful figures of authority who are not interested in the truth,” she laments. The book also details her personal relationship with O’Dell, whom she visited regularly on death row and to whom she eventually became so close that they married on the day of his execution in July 1997. It was a “connection caused by the union of two people in an intense battle over a human life,” she explains. The author’s passion keeps the book from becoming bogged down in legal detail, and the countdown to O’Dell’s execution is almost as suspenseful to read as it must have been for her to experience. Although she was unable to save O’Dell, she believes she was “successful in bringing this injustice to the world’s attention.”
An effective exposé of the criminal justice system that casts convincing doubt on the guilt of a death row inmate.
Ben Steinberg, a successful architect, hosts a collective of artists and free spirits in his Sag Harbor, N.Y., house in 1969. Among the damaged but earnest people that move through his home are Andre, a director; Robert, a Vietnam War veteran; Carolina, a spiritual youth endeavoring to live without restraint; and Maya, the apex of a romantic triangle that consumes her suitors. The plot follows a fairly straightforward design: As the year progresses, each character wrestles with their own particular demons. Robert’s disenchantment with the world is reified in his aversion to visiting his wealthy grandmother, the woman who raised him; for Carolina, it’s an evolving quest to live as freely as possible that, eventually, takes her away from Sag Harbor. But the plot, as it is, feels secondary here. The real tension comes from within. Working with a true ensemble cast, Stevenson explores the radical aspirations of each of his characters while balancing them against the dramatic irony of a world that didn’t turn out quite the way it was supposed to. Perhaps the best stand-in for the contemporary reader is Robert. He may have been disillusioned by his experience overseas (as readers may have been by the course of history), but he yearns for some kind of meaning in his life, something true to aspire toward.The same goes for everybody in the novel; amid pain and loneliness, they look for some kind of purpose in a world that doesn’t seem prepared to accept them. It’s a familiar enough theme for books set in the late 1960s, but Stevenson’s effortless prose brings a freshness to what could otherwise have easily been a trite tale of hippie naïveté. He laces the story with insightful mantras throughout: “It’s not like cooking—there’s no measuring cup. Freedom has to be unconditional or not at all.” The narrative movements here are subtle, often more interested in providing a full picture of the characters’ struggles than in building a propulsive plot. At times, the pace may feel sluggish for some, but readers willing to stick with it will be rewarded with a stunning resolution.
An atmospheric, evocative tale of youth endeavoring to live free.