A dystopian fantasy novel set sometime in 19th-century England.
“We thank the Smoke” is a mantralike phrase that’s used by characters throughout this exciting, fearful fantasy novel by Vyleta (The Crooked Maid, 2013, etc.). His previous novels explored social paranoia, distrust, and fear, and he’s now bringing these same topics to a scary imagined world. Meet two young, upper-class best friends, Thomas Argyle and Charlie Copper, at what appears to be a classic English public school—except it isn’t. This is a world where children are born in sin, where Smoke emanates from their bodies when they lie or think a bad thought, and the purpose of this school is to cleanse them of the Smoke. Bleak House had its fog; in this world Smoke surrounds people, staining their clothes (only lye or urine will get it out). As children grow older, “Good begins to ripen.” Why? Can it be changed? Over Christmas holidays, Thomas and Charlie meet a girl named Livia, a prefect at another school, the attractive daughter of Baron and Lady Naylor. Following up on something shocking Lady Naylor tells Thomas changes the novel's trajectory into one familiar to Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis readers—the quest. Thomas, Charlie, and Livia are off to London and its old, abandoned halls of Parliament, where they’ll seek answers about Smoke and the maleficence behind it. We root for these appealing characters as they face one dreadful obstacle after another. Although the novel is primarily told in the third person, many chapters are in the first person, narrated by a wide variety of characters, which helps the reader become more deeply invested in their adventures. Even though it’s somewhat derivative of other books in this vein and loses its way at times, the novel's sumptuous, irresistible narrative—filled with plenty of twists and turns and imagination—will satisfy any reader.
A terrific, suspenseful tale that could definitely cross over to the teen audience. Sequel, anyone?
A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.
Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.
A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.
In the latest by TV writer and novelist Hawley (The Good Father, 2012, etc.), a struggling artist becomes a hero twice—first by saving a young boy’s life, then by outsmarting the anchor of a Fox-like conservative TV network.
A small charter plane mysteriously crashes into the water off Martha’s Vineyard, leaving only two survivors: the painter Scott Burroughs and JJ, the young son of the network owner who chartered the flight. In a well-turned rescue sequence, Scott braves the waves and sharks and makes dry land with JJ on his back. From there, the book is part whodunit and part study of Scott’s survivor’s guilt. Flashbacks trace the back story of each doomed passenger: network head David Bateman and his wife, Maggie, who may have had a thing for Scott; financier Ben Kipling, about to be tried for laundering terrorist money; flight attendant Emma Lightner, who recently jilted co-pilot Charlie Busch. While the rescue team works to figure out who crashed the plane, Scott struggles to get his bearings—no small feat when wealthy socialite Layla Mueller is trying hard to get him into bed and when O’Reilly-like anchorman Bill Cunningham is harassing him for an interview.
Like the successful screenwriter that he is, Hawley piles on enough intrigues and plot complications to keep you hooked even if you can spot most of them a sea mile away.
Leary (The Good House, 2013, etc.) writes about nutty, pedigreed New Englanders in this noirish comedy in which financial wrangling and emotional secrets are kept under wraps within a well-born Connecticut family until the arrival of an interloper from west of the Rockies.
Single, childless 29-year-old narrator Charlotte is a typical Leary character—likable but slightly bent. Charlotte makes a good living writing a fake mommy blog and swears she doesn’t have agoraphobia although she hasn’t left her home during the day since shortly after her beloved stepfather Whit’s death three years ago. Charlotte’s home is “Lakeside Cottage,” where she and her older sister, Sally, grew up with Whit and their mother, Joan. Wealthy, eccentric Whit had two great passions: Joan and the banjo. He and Joan didn't believe in talking about, let alone spending, money. Although his two sons from his first marriage, Perry and Spin, have inherited the once-grand, now increasingly dilapidated family house, Whit requested that Joan be allowed to live there until her death. Enter Spin’s new girlfriend, soon to be fiancee, Laurel, from Idaho. Laurel’s resume—Olympic-level skier, MFA from USC, huge advance for her first novel, a relative of Ernest Hemingway—is as intimidating as her aggressively friendly manner. While Charlotte warms to Laurel’s questionable charm, Sally, who has moved home after losing her job as a violinist in Manhattan, remains suspicious. But Sally, who has a history of sneakiness, sexual misbehavior, and mental illness, may not be the best judge of character. And Charlotte may not be, either; she's fascinated by Laurel’s knowledge of what she calls "life hacks"—actually scams, like ways to use a fancy hotel's amenities without staying there—which are supposedly research for her novel. Leary is by turns affectionate and vicious toward her characters. So, is Laurel trustworthy? Was Whit? And what about Charlotte’s off-and-on lover, Everett, who lives rent free on the property as a kind of caretaker and is not above flirting with an attractive woman like Laurel?
In this deeply satisfying novel about how unknowable people can be, intrigue builds with glass shards of dark humor toward an ending that is far from comic.
As black men are cut down by the police and self-appointed vigilantes, an activist wrestles with competing claims—from his family and community, his historically black university, the media, and white America—on his blackness and how it is to be lived.
Nation contributing writer Smith, who was raised in a strict military household and surreptitiously listened to hip-hop under the covers at night, writes of the tension between his straight-laced parents and the brash anti-establishment views of his artistic heroes. His political awakening was framed by a litany of names, men and boys like Trayvon Martin, whose death “places us in the unenviable position of wishing that our martyrs could have survived to become tokens.” Voting for Barack Obama was his father’s proudest memory, but the author did so unenthusiastically, feeling that the “potency of black political activism is undercut by the unfounded belief that we can find a place within the system and thrive.” Smith uses deeply personal, often haunting imagery to describe his formative years at a historically black college and his struggles with mental illness that left him a few credits shy of a degree. He gradually came to realize that, in his internal worldview, women had been nearly as invisible and agentless as black men in the white imagination and that the names of black women and black gay men who meet similar fates as Martin are quickly forgotten. “We use our anger at the state as a justification for the violence we enact on black women, then tell them not to hold us accountable until we have defeated racism,” he writes, and he connects sexism and homophobia to the structural and systematic oppression of black men in America.
Realizing that he has more questions than answers, Smith cautiously sketches a useful blueprint for radical and intersectional politics in a country where a black child can grow up to be president but where living while black is still dangerous.
Attention readers fed up with your jobs: call in sick tomorrow and dive into this debut crackling with the energy of handfuls of underpaid, underappreciated, tired-as-heck assistants hungry for what’s owed them.
Tina Fontana is a 30-year-old NYU graduate and executive assistant to billionaire Robert Barlow, CEO of major media company Titan Corporation. She knows the most intimate details of Robert’s life, saving the day for him constantly, and yet she’s stuck living paycheck to paycheck. What’s happened to her? How does she work so hard and never rise above being an assistant while the men around her make fortunes? The answer to Tina’s problems shows up in the form of an expense report. When she’s mistakenly reimbursed for a significantly large sum, she struggles with whether to report the error. For her, this could mean starting over debt free: “I could have savings….All at once I would become less anxious and more generous.” For Titan Corporation, the sum is measly. One major theme of Perri’s debut is this: “There is so much money.” Mostly in the hands of those who don’t deserve it. When Tina decides to keep the money and pay off her student loans, she doesn’t get off scot-free. Emily Johnson, the not-so-nice accounting assistant behind all the signatures, catches her. Now she has to figure out how to pay off Emily’s loans too (oh, and become her best friend), or Tina is as good as ruined. It doesn’t take long for rumors to spread and for Tina to become a hero, the Voice of the Assistant: “I could see how beneath all the lacquer these girls were hungry,” she realizes as her mission becomes greater than herself. Perri’s writing is quippy and the pace breezy; despite all the hurdles Tina has to leap over, things go pretty smoothly. Oh, and the hot, sensitive guy in the office? On her quest to take over Titan, Tina gets him too.
Don’t think too hard about this one—just enjoy the sweetness of plotting revenge over cocktails (expensed, of course). You’ll feel better after reading, promise.
In his debut biography, journalist and New Yorker arts editor Schulman traces Meryl Streep’s evolution as an actor from her childhood in suburban New Jersey to her breakthrough role in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). The first talent anyone recognized in Streep was her beautiful voice, acknowledged when she sang in a school concert at the age of 12. “It was the first time,” writes the author, “she felt the intoxication of applause.” Her parents sent her for singing lessons, but after seeing Beverly Sills in an opera, she realized that she was not good enough for the Met. Instead, she performed in high school musicals and, at Vassar, stunned a professor with her talent for drama. He cast her in a spate of plays, even choosing some because they offered Streep good roles. In 1972, when she auditioned for the competitive Yale School of Drama, she won easy admission. Classmates included Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang, and Wendy Wasserstein, who called the place “The Yale School of Trauma.” The school’s “special brand of crazy,” writes Schulman, was created by its director, Robert Brustein. Despite the demoralizing atmosphere, Streep thrived. “Slowly but surely,” writes the author, “the students began to realize that Meryl Streep could outdo them in almost everything.” Drawing on theater memoirs, conversations with Streep’s colleagues and friends, and heaps of interviews that Streep has given over the years, Schulman has fashioned a lively narrative of the actor’s theater and movie work after she left Yale. The influential Joe Papp discovered her and cast her in productions in Shakespeare in the Park, Lincoln Center, and his own Public Theater. As her reputation grew, she was lured to movies, including The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer (for which she won an Oscar), and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Schulman’s sensitive handling of Streep’s personal life rounds out the portrait of a superbly talented woman.
The acclaimed French chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin delivers a breezy account of his life in France and Andorra before he moved to the United States in his early 20s.
Ripert (Avec Eric: A Culinary Journey with Eric Ripert, 2010, etc.) makes it clear that food was always the warm center of his life, and his descriptions of the meals he prepared or devoured will make even the most ascetic reader hungry. As a boy, the author took refuge in a restaurant in his little town, where the chef indulged him with bowls of chocolate mousse or spoonfuls of caviar while his glamorous mother was off running the boutique she owned. Bored with academics, he left high school to go to a no-frills vocational boarding school, where he learned knife skills and “took naturally to the non-negotiable, army-like rules of the brigade system” in a restaurant. After an apprenticeship where he boned pounds of anchovies and peeled dozens of potatoes every day, working from 8:30 in the morning until 11:00 at night, the 17-year-old moved to Paris, where he learned to transform the “32 yolks” of the title into a proper hollandaise sauce and lived in fear of daunting chefs. Ripert worked first for Dominique Bouchet and then for Joel Robuchon, neither of whom cut their underlings any slack. The author keeps his tone light, even as he describes forbidding work environments, constant anxiety, escalating anger, and the pressures of being low on an aggressively male pecking order. His pleasure in good food—whether he’s following his grandmother to a town market, where he “swooned at the fragrance of anise, clove, and mint,” or preparing lavish restaurant dishes plated with 90 equally spaced dots of sauce—makes for some vicarious gastronomic thrills.
It doesn’t take a refined palate to savor Ripert’s culinary adventures.
An ingénue from the Midwest learns the ways of the world, and the flesh, during her year as a back waiter at a top Manhattan restaurant.
A flurry of publicity surrounded the acquisition of this book, which was pitched by an MFA–grad waitress to an editor dining at one of her tables. Danler’s debut novel takes place behind the scenes of a restaurant in Union Square whose rigid hierarchy, arcane codes of behavior, and basis in servitude and manual labor makes it less like a modern workplace than the royal court of 18th-century France—but with tattoos and enough cocaine to rival Jay McInerney. There’s even a Dangerous Liaisons–type love triangle with the beautiful, naïve young narrator at its apex, batted between the mysterious, brilliant waitress who teaches her about wine and the dissolute, magnetic bartender who teaches her about oysters. The older woman says things like, “I know you. I remember you from my youth. You contain multitudes.” The older man “was bisexual, he slept with everyone, he slept with no one. He was an ex-heroin addict, he was sober, he was always a little drunk.” What 22-year-old could ever resist them? The writing is mostly incandescent, with visceral and gorgeous descriptions of flavors, pitch-perfect overheard dialogue, deep knowledge of food, wine, and the restaurant business, and only occasional lapses into unintentional pretentiousness. From her very first sentences—“You will develop a palate. A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again”—Danler aims to mesmerize, to seduce, to fill you with sensual cravings. She also offers the rare impassioned defense of Britney Spears.