In his debut novel, a writer born in Thailand and now living in New York creates a portrait of Bangkok that sweeps across a century and a teeming cast of characters yet shines with exquisite detail.
In its early chapters, the book reads like a collection of short stories linked only by their relationship to Bangkok: A nameless woman walks through its bustling streets in the present; an American doctor more than 100 years ago struggles to decipher its overwhelmingly foreign culture; a Thai photographer living in Los Angeles in the 1970s visits his ailing father in London; a woman running a Thai restaurant in Japan finds herself threatened by Thailand’s politics. But as those seemingly unconnected stories accumulate, so do the threads that join them. Many are stories of loss and of survival. In one, a young Thai man named Siripohng, who has come to the city to attend university, meets a woman named Nee during the massive student demonstrations in 1973. Sudbanthad draws a subtle but achingly lovely account of their courtship, born of the hopeful spirit of the protests—then pivots to a shocking conclusion. In another, an American jazz musician called Crazy Legs Clyde is summoned to a woman’s estate to play piano because a medium, she tells him, “counts twenty or so spirits in the pillar. They visit me in my dreams, and I’m tired of it. A woman my age needs her sound sleep.” But the assignment to exorcise them raises a ghost from Clyde’s past that won’t be stilled. Ghosts haunt this novel, even the ghosts of buildings, like the ancient tile-roofed house preserved within the lobby of a gleaming new skyscraper where some of the book’s characters will live (and at least one will die). As one character muses near the end of the novel, “The forgotten return again and again, as new names and faces, and again this city makes new ghosts.” Yet in Sudbanthad’s skillful hands and lyrical prose, every one of them seems vividly alive.
This breathtakingly lovely novel is an accomplished debut, beautifully crafted and rich with history rendered in the most human terms.
Fantasy master Martin (The Ice Dragon, 2014, etc.) provides backstory for the world of Westeros, extending the story of the Targaryens centuries into the past.
Martin aficionados are used to eldritch epochal terms such as the Doom of Valyria and the Dance of the Dragons, here evoked as defining points in the emergence of his Targaryen dynasty of effective if often very unpleasant rulers. Over the span of 700-odd pages, he recounts the deeds of King Aegon and his two same-named successors, dragonmasters and occupiers of the Iron Throne, neither of them jobs to be taken lightly. As in his Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin’s characters are somewhat larger than life but with the foibles and misgivings of humans: Aegon the first, for instance, “was counted amongst the greatest warriors of his age, yet he took no pleasure in feats of arms, and never rode in tourney or melee”—and this despite wielding the “Valyrian steel blade Blackfyre” and riding “Balerion the Black Dread.” It doesn’t take more than a couple of dozen pages before Aegon is the lord of “all of Westeros south of the Wall” save for the thorn-in-the-side lands of Dorne, leading to a series of Dornish Wars that ends on something of a whimper, more of a skirmish against “the minor son of a minor house with a few hundred followers who shared his taste for robbery and rape.” Alas, those tastes are widely shared indeed, and there aren’t many role models in Martin’s pages—the third Aegon is pretty creepy on some scores, in fact, muttering that if the “smallfolk” don’t love him for the food and peace he provides, then he’ll serve up other diversions: “Someone once told me that the commons love nothing half so much as dancing bears.” Dancing bears aside, there are plenty of fierce dragons, impaled bodies, and betrayals to keep the storyline moving along briskly.
A splendid exercise in worldbuilding and a treat for Martin’s legions of fans.
A kaleidoscopic portrait of America in the years leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy—and a chillingly prophetic vision of how we got to where we are.
This is a novel that Bowman, the author of Let the Dog Drive (1992) and two other books, left unpublished when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2012. But unpublished does not mean incomplete. Bowman articulates a vivid point of view in this novel, or, more accurately, a series of points of view, beginning with a prologue in which a variety of historical figures (Norman Mailer; Elvis; J.D. Salinger’s young daughter, Margaret) react to the killing of the president. From there, the action shifts to Mexico City in 1950 and the confluence of some unlikely expatriates, including William S. Burroughs and E. Howard Hunt. “The novel you are about to read is true,” Bowman writes. “All the people who are mentioned—just as Bob Dylan sang—I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name. Still, this novel is true history.” What Bowman is saying is that history is itself a story, one we tell as much as live. His juxtapositions of incidents and individuals are, in that sense, as much constructions of his imagination as they are mashups of overlapping events. Albert Camus and Maria Callas carry on an affair. JFK and Aristotle Onassis commiserate—and strategize—over the Kennedys' stillborn child. Bowman is sly about acknowledging his inspirations: Mailer, as established in the opening, and also Don DeLillo, whose Underworld this novel resembles and who appears as a young advertising copywriter. And yet, to call the book derivative is to miss the point. Instead, it is sui generis, the kind of novel that invents its form out of its own frenzied convocation of voices and moments: the 20th century in all its majesty and fear.
Bowman’s testament is both lament and celebration—for the betrayed promise of the United States as well as the tragedy of the author’s premature demise.
A Somali husband and wife living in Norway are pitched into chaos, acrimony, and upheaval after their son embraces radical Islam and dies as a suicide bomber.
As in Farah’s last novel, Hiding in Plain Sight (2014), an act of violence sets in motion a chain of events disrupting a family’s stable life. It is the spring of 2009, and Mugdi, a former Somali diplomat now living in Oslo with his wife, Gacalo, has found out that their estranged son, Dhaqaneh, who fled to their homeland as a jihadi, has blown himself up at the international airport there. Gacalo, upon recovering from her grief, reminds her husband of the promise he made: that they would welcome into their home their widowed daughter-in-law, Waliya, and her two young children from a previous marriage. Mugdi, more than his wife, is bracing for what could be an unsettling culture clash, and his apprehensions grow when he finds Waliya to be sullen, withdrawn, and monastic in adhering to her Islamic faith, demanding that her son, Naciim, and daughter, Saafi, rigidly follow her religious tenets. But both children are attracted by the freedoms their new homeland offers, especially Naciim, who almost from his arrival in Norway yearns to earn enough money to buy a lottery ticket. He also chafes at the many strict rules imposed by his mother, including her fierce opposition to his associating with non-Muslim school friends and their families. The anti-immigrant bigotry of Norwegian citizens looms over this family’s painful transition, exploding at one point with Anders Behring Breivik's 2011 mass slaughter of more than 70 people, including teens attending a multicultural youth camp. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the anti-Western intolerance of Waliya and some of her fellow refugees, which reaches a tipping point with Naciim after he is brutally whipped by an imam as “punishment” for “disrespect.” Between these two violent extremes, Mugdi’s besieged-but-steadfast equanimity, as well as the author’s, provides relatively safe haven from the prevailing tension and strife.
As one of the characters puts it, “Art is a humanizer,” and Farah’s insistence on isolating the humanity in even the most difficult characters is a beacon of hope against fear and loathing.
Bleak House meets Our Town in a century-spanning novel set in a New England bowling alley.
More than many writers, McCracken (Thunderstruck and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) understands the vast variety of ways to be human and the vast variety of ways human beings have come up with to love each other, not all of them benevolent. She also understands how all those different ways spring from the same yearning impulse. She names her new novel—which she calls “a genealogy”—after its setting, a candlepin bowling alley founded by the novel’s matriarch, who is said to have invented the game. “Maybe somebody else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.” McCracken's parade of Dickensian grotesques fall in love, feud, reproduce, vanish, and reappear, all with a ridiculous dignity that many readers, if they’re honest, will cringe to recognize from their own lives. The plot is stylized: One character dies in the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, another by spontaneous human combustion. There are orphans, secret wills, and hidden treasure. But unlike Dickens’, McCracken’s plot works more by iteration than clockwork, like linked stories, or a series of views of the same landscape from different vantage points in different seasons, or the frames in a bowling game. Her psychological acuity transforms what might otherwise have been a twee clutter of oddball details into moving metaphors for the human condition. “Our subject is love,” she writes. “Unrequited love, you might think, the heedless headstrong ball that hurtles nearsighted down the alley. It has to get close before it can pick out which pin it loves the most, which pin it longs to set spinning. Then I love you! Then blammo. The pins are reduced to a pile, each one entirely all right in itself. Intact and bashed about. Again and again, the pins stand for it until they’re knocked down.”
Parents and children, lovers, brothers and sisters, estranged spouses, work friends and teammates all slam themselves together and fling themselves apart across the decades in the glorious clatter of McCracken’s unconventional storytelling.
High adventure fraught with cliffhanger twists marks this runaway-slave narrative, which leaps, sails, and soars from Caribbean cane fields to the fringes of the frozen Arctic and across a whole ocean.
It's 1830 on the island of Barbados, and a 12-year-old slave named George Washington Black wakes up every hot morning to cruelties administered to him and other black men, women, and children toiling on a sugar plantation owned by the coldblooded Erasmus Wilde. Christopher, one of Erasmus’ brothers, is a flamboyant oddball with insatiable curiosity toward scientific matters and enlightened views on social progress. Upon first encountering young Wash, Christopher, also known as Titch, insists on acquiring him from his brother as his personal valet and research assistant. Neither Erasmus nor Wash is pleased by this transaction, and one of the Wildes' cousins, the dour, mysterious Philip, is baffled by it. But then Philip kills himself in Wash’s presence, and Christopher, knowing the boy will be unjustly blamed and executed for the death, activates his hot air balloon, the Cloud-cutter, to carry both himself and Wash northward into a turbulent storm. So begins one of the most unconventional escapes from slavery ever chronicled as Wash and Titch lose their balloon but are carried the rest of the way to America by a ship co-captained by German-born twins of wildly differing temperaments. Once in Norfolk, Virginia, they meet with a sexton with a scientific interest in dead tissue and a moral interest in ferrying other runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad. Rather than join them on their journey, Wash continues to travel with Titch for a reunion with the Wildes' father, an Arctic explorer, north of Canada. Their odyssey takes even more unexpected turns, and soon Wash finds himself alone and adrift in the unfamiliar world as “a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind…running, always running from the dimmest of shadows.” Canadian novelist Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues, 2012, etc.) displays as much ingenuity and resourcefulness as her main characters in spinning this yarn, and the reader’s expectations are upended almost as often as her hero’s.
A thoughtful, boldly imagined ripsnorter that broadens inventive possibilities for the antebellum novel.
Shakespeare’s supreme tragedy, King Lear, is transposed to contemporary India and recast as a family drama of financial power-brokering within a transforming, culturally complex nation.
“Don’t we have ‘the youngest population, the fastest growing democracy’ in the world?…This Company doesn’t need old men, still living in the glory days of the '80s and '90s. It’s now, guys. Our time.” Issues of gender and generation spearhead the conflict in this mammoth drama of money, succession, and control, British-born Taneja’s impressive first work of fiction. Pulsing with vitality, it ranges widely across the subcontinent, delivering the familiar bones of the story mainly from the perspective of the younger generation. Patriarch Devraj Bapuji—an aging tycoon whose business empire, the Company, makes its wealth principally from hotels—and his second-in-command, Ranjit Singh, have sired the five children whose perspectives shape the storytelling. First comes Jivan, Ranjit’s illegitimate son, arriving back in India after 15 years in the U.S. to witness the day of Bapuji’s sudden announcement that he’s quitting his own company and transferring power to his daughters, Gargi and Radha. (Sita, the favorite, has disappeared.) Capable Gargi steps into the CEO role, eventually confronting her father and banning half of the Hundred, his rowdy cohort of favored employees, from the family compound. Radha, unlike Gargi, luxuriates in the trappings of wealth, but there’s a dark history behind her sensual indulgences. And then there’s Jeet, Jivan’s gay half brother, who forsakes his wealth for a pilgrimage that will plunge him to the bottom of the social ladder to witness some of Bapuji’s comeback campaign. Sita’s section comes last, as the key players assemble for the glamorous opening of a new hotel in Srinagar and Taneja’s dreamy synthesis of language, place, food, clashing views and values, seeping Westernization, and post-colonial flux reaches its climax.
A long, challenging, but inspired modernization of a classic—engaging, relevant, and very dark.
Lyons' shelf-bending fantasy debut novel is an epic, breakneck-paced adventure structured largely as a dialogue between a jailer and her prisoner, a thief and musician who is much more than he appears to be.
The story begins in a jail cell with a young man named Kihrin being guarded by Talon, a beautiful and monstrous shape-shifting assassin. Kihrin, awaiting what will surely be his death, begins telling her his life story. Talon complements Kihrin’s tale with her own memories of the past few years, and, together, they weave a jaw-dropping, action-packed story of betrayal, greed, and grand-scale conspiracy. It all begins when Kihrin—a thief who has been raised in the slums by a compassionate blind musician—witnesses a horrific murder while robbing a house. The sudden target of a group of morally bankrupt, and terrifyingly powerful sorcerers, Kihrin finds himself on the run. During his flight, he discovers that he may be the son of a depraved prince—and that the necklace he wears around his neck may be much more than a sentimental object from his long-dead mother. While the comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle will be unavoidable—in terms of story structure and general narrative content—the potential of this projected five-book saga may be even greater. Although a cast of well-developed characters and an impressively intricate storyline power this novel, it’s Lyons’ audacious worldbuilding that makes for such an unforgettable read. In a sprawling, magic-filled world populated by gods, dragons, krakens, witches, demons, ghosts, shape-shifters, zombies, and so much more, Lyons ties it all together seamlessly to create literary magic.
Epic fantasy fans looking for a virtually un-put-down-able read should look no further.
A young houseboy and a dressmaker’s apprentice get drawn into a mystery in 1930s Malaya.
It is May 1931, and 11-year-old Ren’s master, Dr. MacFarlane, is dying. Before he takes his last breath, MacFarlane gives Ren a mission: Find the doctor’s missing finger, amputated years ago and now in the possession of a friend, and bury it in his grave before the 49 days of the soul have elapsed. In another town, Ji Lin has given up dreams of university study to sew dresses during the day and work a second job in a dance hall; one evening, she is approached by a salesman who presses something into her hand during a dance: a severed finger in a glass specimen tube. By the next day, the salesman is dead—and his won’t be the last mysterious death to plague the area. Ji Lin’s search for the finger’s owner and Ren’s search for the digit itself eventually draw the two together and in the process ensnare everyone from Ji Lin’s taciturn stepbrother to Ren’s new master and his other household servants. Choo (The Ghost Bride, 2013) continues her exploration of Malayan folklore here with questions that point to the borders where the magical and the real overlap: Is someone murdering citizens of the Kinta Valley, or is it a were-tiger, a beast who wears human skin? Can spirits communicate with the living? Should superstitions—lucky numbers, rituals—govern a life? Choo weaves her research in with a feather-light touch, and readers will be so caught up in the natural and supernatural intrigue that the serious themes here about colonialism and power dynamics, about gender and class, are absorbed with equal delicacy.
Choo has written a sumptuous garden maze of a novel that immerses readers in a complex, vanished world.