Murakami (IQ84, 2011, etc.) turns in a trademark story that blends the commonplace with the nightmarish in a Japan full of hollow men.
Poor achromatic Tsukuru. For some inexplicable reason, his four best friends, two males, two females, have cut him off without a word. Perhaps, he reckons between thoughts of suicide, it’s because they can pair off more easily without a fifth wheel; perhaps it’s because his name means “builder,” while all theirs have to do with colors: red pine, blue sea, white root, black field. Alas for Tsukuru, he “lacked a striking personality, or any qualities that made him stand out”—though, for all that, he’s different. Fast-forward two decades, and Tsukuru, true to both his name and his one great passion in life, designs train stations. He’s still wounded by the banishment, still mystified at his friends’ behavior. Helpfully, his girlfriend suggests that he make contact with the foursome to find out what he’d done and why he’d deserved their silence. Naturally, this being a Murakami story, the possibilities are hallucinogenic, Kafkaesque, and otherwise unsettling and ominous: “Gray is a mixture of white and black. Change its shade, and it can easily melt into various gradations of darkness.” That old saying about not asking questions if you don’t want to know the answers—well, there’s the rub, and there’s Tsukuru’s problem. He finds that his friends' lives aren’t so golden (the most promising of them now hawks Lexuses and knowingly owns up to it: “I bet I sound like a car salesman?”); his life by comparison isn't so bad. Or is it? It’s left to the reader to judge. Murakami writes with the same murky sense of time that characterized 1Q84, but this book, short and haunting, is really of a piece with older work such as Norwegian Wood and, yes, Kafka on the Shore. The reader will enjoy watching Murakami play with color symbolism down to the very last line of the story, even as Tsukuru sinks deeper into a dangerous enigma.
Another tour de force from Japan’s greatest living novelist.
After last year’s best-selling The Husband’sSecret, Australian Moriarty brings the edginess of her less-known The Hypnotist’s Love Story (2012) to bear in this darkly comic mystery surrounding a disastrous parents' night at an elementary school fundraiser.
Thanks to strong cocktails and a lack of appetizers, Pirriwee Public’s Trivia Night turns ugly when sloshed parents in Audrey Hepburn and Elvis costumes start fights at the main entrance. To make matters worse, out on the balcony where a smaller group of parents have gathered, someone falls over the railing and dies. Was it an accident or murder? Who is the victim? And who, if anyone, is the murderer? Backtrack six months as the cast of potential victims and perps meet at kindergarten orientation and begin alliances and rivalries within the framework of domestic comedy-drama. There’s Chloe’s opinionated, strong-willed mom, Madeline, a charmingly imperfect Everywoman. Happily married to second husband Ed, Madeline is deeply hurt that her older daughter wants to move in with her ex-husband and his much younger, New-Age–y second wife; even worse, the couple’s waifish daughter, Skye, will be in Chloe’s kindergarten class. Madeline’s best friend is Celeste, mother of twins Max and Josh. It’s hard for Madeline and the other moms not to envy Celeste. She's slim, rich and beautiful, and her marriage to hedge fund manager Perry seems too perfect to be true; it is. Celeste and Madeline befriend young single mother Jane, who has moved to the coast town with her son, Ziggy, the product of a one-night stand gone horribly wrong. After sweet-natured Ziggy is accused of bullying, the parents divide into defenders and accusers. Tensions mount among the mothers' cliques and within individual marriages until they boil over on the balcony. Despite a Greek chorus of parents and faculty sharing frequently contradictory impressions, the truth remains tantalizingly difficult to sort out.
Deservedly popular Moriarty invigorates the tired social-issue formula of women’s fiction through wit, good humor, sharp insight into human nature and addictive storytelling.
Of haggis, gigged frogs and succubi: Continuing her Outlander series, Gabaldon (An Echo in the Bone, 2009, etc.) again pushes the boundaries of genre fiction.
Sensitive readers new to the series will want to know that Gabaldon’s leads are fond of dropping f-bombs, sometimes even in the clinical sense: “Damn you, neither one of us was making love to the other—we were both fucking you!" They’ll also want to know that, as those characters cross time and space, they’re given to the basest treacheries as well as the profoundest loyalties, which may help explain the preceding quotation. The action now takes place across the water in revolutionary America, where Jamie Fraser, one-time Jacobite rebel, now commands 10 companies of Continental militia, when, he worriedly notes, “he’d never led a band of more than fifty.” Lord John, his old Brit friend and sometime bugaboo, figures in the mischief, of course. There are twists aplenty, one of them Jamie’s Lazarus-like return from the great beyond to find—well, different domestic arrangements. Meanwhile, his child, having long since learned that it’s possible to enter “a time vortex with a gemstone” and come out safely in other eras, now has good reason to want to be not in the 20th century but back in the 18th, where, if things are just as complicated, she at least has trustworthy kin. Confused yet? With willingly suspended disbelief, it all makes sense in the end. Gabaldon’s themes are decidedly grown-up, as the in-joking chapter titles (“Frottage,” “Frannie’s Frenulum”) suggest, but the basic premise is a dash of juvenile fantasy, a jigger of historical fact and heaping helpings of counterfactuals. If you’re a Gabaldon fan, the Scottish dialect, laid on with a spade, and all those naughty asides will be a familiar pleasure. If not—well, this overly long book isn’t likely to make converts, at least not without several thousand pages of catch-up to figure out who’s who, who’s doing what, who’s doing whom, and why.
Gabaldon works a successful formula, with few surprises but plenty of devices. And yes, there’s room for a sequel—or 10.
On a journey from Ohio to Hollywood to Long Island to London in the 1940s, a couple of plucky half sisters continually reinvent themselves with the help of an unconventional assortment of friends and relatives.
In 1939, 12-year-old Eva is abandoned by her feckless mother on her father’s Ohio doorstep after the death of his wealthy wife. After a couple of years of neglect, Eva and her glamorous older half sister, Iris, escape to Hollywood, where Iris embarks on a promising career in film—until she's caught on camera in a lesbian dalliance with a starlet, which gets her blacklisted. With the help of a sympathetic gay Mexican makeup artist as well as their con-artist father, Edgar, who has recently reappeared in their lives, the girls travel across the country to New York and finagle jobs at the Great Neck estate of a wealthy Italian immigrant family. Hired as a governess, Iris promptly falls in love with the family’s pretty cook, Reenie, inconveniently married to Gus, a likable mechanic of German ancestry. In this partly epistolary novel interspersed with both first-person and third-person narration, Bloom (Where the God of Love Hangs Out, 2010, etc.) tells a bittersweet story from multiple viewpoints. The novel shares the perspectives of Eva, Iris, Edgar, Gus and Clara, a black nightclub singer who becomes Edgar’s live-in girlfriend and companion to Eva. Though the letter-writing conceit doesn’t always ring true, since it's unlikely that one sister would recount their shared experiences to the other in letters years later, the novel works in aggregate, accumulating outlooks to tell a multilayered, historical tale about different kinds of love and family.
Bloom enlivens her story with understated humor as well as offbeat and unforgettable characters. Despite a couple of anachronisms, this is a hard-luck coming-of-age story with heart.
A tale of espionage, alcoholism, bad manners and the chivalrous code of spies—the real world of James Bond, that is, as played out by clerks and not superheroes.
Now pretty well forgotten, Kim Philby (1912-1988) was once a byname for the sort of man who would betray his country for a song. The British intelligence agent was not alone, of course; as practiced true-espionage writer Macintyre (Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, 2012, etc.) notes, more than 200 American intelligence agents became Soviet agents during World War II—“Moscow had spies in the treasury, the State Department, the nuclear Manhattan Project, and the OSS”—and the Brits did their best to keep up on their end. Philby may have been an unlikely prospect, given his upper-crust leanings, but a couple of then-fatal flaws involving his sexual orientation and still-fatal addiction to alcohol, to say nothing of his political convictions, put him in Stalin’s camp. Macintyre begins near the end, with a boozy Philby being confronted by a friend in intelligence, fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, whom he had betrayed; but rather than take Philby to prison or put a bullet in him, by the old-fashioned code, he was essentially allowed to flee to Moscow. Writing in his afterword, John Le Carré recalls asking Elliott, with whom he worked in MI6, about Philby’s deceptions—“it quickly became clear that he wanted to draw me in, to make me marvel…to make me share his awe and frustration at the enormity of what had been done to him.” For all Philby’s charm (“that intoxicating, beguiling, and occasionally lethal English quality”), modern readers will still find it difficult to imagine a world of gentlemanly spy-versus-spy games all these hysterical years later.
Gripping and as well-crafted as an episode of Smiley’s People, full of cynical inevitability, secrets, lashings of whiskey and corpses.
In this 40th anniversary year of Richard Nixon’s gloomy evacuation of the White House, former staffer and ever since bête noire Dean (Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches, 2007, etc.) defends himself against a category of accusation Tricky Dick frequently leveled against him: “I’m not going to fire a guy on the basis of a charge made by Dean, who basically is trying to save his ass and get immunity, you see.” Well, sure: Dean was and is no dummy, and he saw what was coming in the grim swirl of the Watergate hearings, during which frequently named figures such as Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Hunt, Liddy, Mitchell and Dean himself became household names. By the author’s account, Liddy—never likable but always honorable, in his own way—took the fall for the foiled break-in and offered to have himself shot on any street corner in Washington at the president’s pleasure; the president declined, but he schemed and maneuvered in other directions. Sometimes, Dean notes, Nixon was brilliant in that maneuvering, turning potential losses into double-edged wins, usually Pyrrhic but still damaging to the opposition. This account, drawing on notes, scrawls on legal pads and transcripts of taped conversations, makes an odd but compelling stroll down Memory Lane for those who remember the time. Dean provides deft portraits of the likes of the unctuous Kissinger, the exceedingly odd Al Haig (“he’s a little bit obnoxious and doesn’t wear well with people, which would be good from our point of view”), and Nixon himself. And as for that missing tape, the one about which so much was made at the Watergate hearings? It would spoil the surprise to tell it here, but Dean has the answers.
Popular British author Moyes (The Girl You Left Behind, 2013, etc.) offers another warmhearted, off-kilter romance, this one between a financially strapped single mother and a geeky tech millionaire.
Ten years ago, Jess Thomas got pregnant and dropped out of high school to marry Marty. Two years ago, hapless Marty temporarily moved out of their home on the southern coast of England to sort out his life. He never returned. Cleaning houses by day and working in a pub at night, Jess barely earns enough to support her 10-year-old daughter, Tanzie, and her 16-year-old stepson, Nicky, whom she’s been raising since he was 8. Jess worries constantly about sensitive Nicky, a moody goth regularly beaten up by the local bully. Math genius Tanzie presents a different crisis: She’s been offered a generous scholarship to a private school her current teachers say she needs, and Jess can’t come up with the balance. The only hope is winning prize money at a math tournament in Scotland, but how to get there? Meanwhile, one of Jess’ cleaning clients, computer whiz Ed Nicholls, has come to stay in his seaside vacation home to avoid publicity surrounding insider trading charges. He and Jess share an instant mutual dislike, but when he ends up drunk at the pub, Jess makes sure he gets home safely. Partly out of gratitude, but largely to escape pressure from lawyers, his ex-wife and his sister—who’s nagging him to attend his father’s birthday party—Ed offers to drive Jess, her kids and their large dog to Scotland. A road-trip-from-hell romantic comedy ensues, complete with carsickness, bad meals and missed signals. Unsurprisingly, hostility evolves into mutual attraction. But Moyes throws in a few wrenches, like Tanzie’s failure at the competition, Ed’s father’s cancer and the cash Jess has secretly kept since it fell out of Ed’s pocket at the pub that first night.
Moyes has mastered the art of likable, not terribly memorable, but far from simple-minded storytelling.
When snow cancels school, Mia and her family pile into their beat-up station wagon for a drive. Unlike most 17-year-olds, Mia is secretly enjoying hanging out with her quirky family until an oncoming driver shatters their lives, leaving the gravely injured Mia with the ultimate decision: Should she stay or go? As a spirit-like observer, Mia narrates the next 24 hours, describing how her medical team, friends, boyfriend and extended family care for her each in their own way. Woven into her real-time observations are powerful memories that organically introduce Mia’s passion for classical music, her relationship with her boyfriend and her bond with her parents and brother. These memories reinforce the magnitude of Mia’s decision and provide weight to both sides of her dilemma. Forman excels at inserting tiny but powerful details throughout, including the realistic sounds, smells and vocabulary of a hospital, which will draw readers into this masterful text and undoubtedly tug at even the toughest of heartstrings. (Fiction. YA)
Kidd (The Mermaid Chair, 2005, etc.) hits her stride and avoids sentimental revisionism with this historical novel about the relationship between a slave and the daughter of slave owners in antebellum Charleston.
Sarah Grimké was an actual early abolitionist and feminist whose upbringing in a slaveholding Southern family made her voice particularly controversial. Kidd re-imagines Sarah’s life in tandem with that of a slave in the Grimké household. In 1803, 11-year-old Sarah receives a slave as her birthday present from her wealthy Charleston parents. Called Hetty by the whites, Handful is just what her name implies—sharp tongued and spirited. Precocious Sarah is horrified at the idea of owning a slave but is given no choice by her mother, a conventional Southern woman of her time who is not evil but accepts slavery (and the dehumanizing cruelties that go along with it) as a God-given right. Soon, Sarah and Handful have established a bond built on affection and guilt. Sarah breaks the law by secretly teaching Handful to read and write. When they are caught, Handful receives a lashing, while Sarah is banned from her father’s library and all the books therein, her dream of becoming a lawyer dashed. As Sarah and Handful mature, their lives take separate courses. While Handful is physically imprisoned, she maintains her independent spirit, while Sarah has difficulty living her abstract values in her actual life. Eventually, she escapes to Philadelphia and becomes a Quaker, until the Quakers prove too conservative. As Sarah’s activism gives her new freedom, Handful’s life only becomes harder in the Grimké household. Through her mother, Handful gets to know Denmark Vesey, who dies as a martyr after attempting to organize a slave uprising. Sarah visits less and less often, but the bond between the two women continues until it is tested one last time.
Kidd’s portrait of white slave-owning Southerners is all the more harrowing for showing them as morally complicated, while she gives Handful the dignity of being not simply a victim, but a strong, imperfect woman.