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Best General Fiction Books of 2013

A standout—and well worth the wait.

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THE GOLDFINCH

A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.

Tartt (The Little Friend, 2002, etc.) takes a long time, a decade or more, between novels. This one, her third, tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother—brilliant, beautiful and a delight to be around—is felled in what would seem to be an accident, if an explosion inside a museum can be accidental. The terrible wreckage of the building, a talismanic painting half buried in plaster and dust, “the stink of burned clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn’t want to think about”—young Theo will carry these things forever. Tartt’s narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes: not sainted, just alive, the kind of person Theo misses because he can’t tell her goofy things (his father taking his mistress to a Bon Jovi concert in Las Vegas, for instance: “It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact”) as much as for any other reason. The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it’s a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works. “All the rest of it is lost—everything he ever did,” his mother quietly laments of the little-known artist, and it is Theo’s mission as he moves through life to see that nothing in his own goes missing. Bookending Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, this is an altogether lovely addition to what might be called the literature of disaster and redemption. The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters, not least a Russian cracker-barrel philosopher who delivers a reading of God that Mordecai Richler might applaud.

A standout—and well worth the wait.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-05543-7

Page Count: 784

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

Kushner writes well and plunges us deeply into the disparate worlds of the New York City art scene, European political...

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THE FLAMETHROWERS

A novel of art and politics but also of bikes and speed—not Harleys and drugs, but fine (and fast) Italian motorbikes.

At 21, Reno (who goes by the name of the city she comes from) has graduated with a degree in art from the University of Nevada-Reno, and she does what any aspiring artist would like to—heads to New York City. She gets her kicks by riding a Moto Valera, a magnificent example of Italian engineering. In fact, for one brief shining moment in 1976, she sets a speed record of 308.506 mph on her bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This impressive achievement occurs the year after she’d headed to New York, where she’d taken up with—amazing coincidence—Sandro Valera, scion of the Italian manufacturer of the motorbikes she favors and, like Reno, an aspiring artist in New York. Other coincidences abound—for example, that Reno had had sex with a young man, and they’d agreed not to exchange names, but shortly afterward she finds out he’s a close friend of Sandro’s, and he goes on to play a major role in her life. Kushner spends a considerable amount of time flashing us back to the Valera who founded the firm in the early 20th century, and she updates the fate of the company when Reno and Sandro visit his family home in Italy. There they experience both a huge demonstration and eventually the kidnapping of Sandro’s father, a victim of the political turbulence of the 1970s.

Kushner writes well and plunges us deeply into the disparate worlds of the New York City art scene, European political radicalism and the exhilarating rush of motorcycles.

Pub Date: April 2, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4391-4200-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Jan. 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

The always fresh perspective of this one-of-a-kind writer will have you responding like his character, who “laughed with...

PACIFIC

Getting by, getting over, getting laid: Drury’s characters keep busy in his fifth novel, another wild ride.

Some of them we’ve met before in Hunts in Dreams (2000) and The End of Vandalism (1994): Charles, Joan, Lyris and Micah. The action is split among small Midwest towns and Los Angeles. Charles, now known as Tiny, had a plumbing business which has since failed. His ex-wife, Joan, has moved to LA and has a juicy role in a TV show. Stepdaughter Lyris has moved into town to shack up with a young newspaper reporter. Joan re-appears to claim 14-year-old Micah and move him to the coast. She’s going to take another stab at this mothering business; or is she just playing a role? These departures leave Tiny in an empty nest. Out of loneliness, he starts stealing boxes from the loading docks of big-box stores. That’s kids’ stuff compared to Jack Snow’s criminal enterprise. Jack is an ex-con shipping fake Celtic artifacts from a warehouse. It’s his bad luck to be tracked down by Sandra Zulma, his old childhood playmate. Sandra is now cuckoo, lost in a Celtic fantasy world, but with the single-minded energy of the mad, she is looking for a rock that Jack may own. Also on Jack’s trail is Dan, once the sheriff but now working for a detective agency, though he hates the sleaze. He and his wife, Louise, are emblems of decency; their private sorrow is the loss of a daughter at birth. Meanwhile, in LA, Micah is experimenting with drugs and girls, while Joan is making the leap to the big screen and sleeping with the screenwriter. The second half includes a murder and a divorce; Micah, overwhelmed, calls his half sister Lyris, who flies out to help. There’s no plot or protagonist, but a fine percussive beat sweeps the reader along.

The always fresh perspective of this one-of-a-kind writer will have you responding like his character, who “laughed with surprise in her heart.”

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1999-5

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

Though Lahiri has previously earned greater renown for her short stories, this masterful novel deserves to attract an even...

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THE LOWLAND

A tale of two continents in an era of political tumult, rendered with devastating depth and clarity by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.

The narrative proceeds from the simplicity of a fairy tale into a complex novel of moral ambiguity and aftershocks, with revelations that continue through decades and generations until the very last page. It is the story of two brothers in India who are exceptionally close to each other and yet completely different. Older by 15 months, Subhash is cautious and careful, not prone to taking any risks, unlike his impetuous brother Udayan, the younger but the leader in their various escapades. Inseparable in their Calcutta boyhoods, they eventually take very different paths, with Subhash moving to America to pursue his education and an academic career in scientific research, while Udayan becomes increasingly and clandestinely involved in Indian radical militancy. “The chief task of the new party was to organize the peasantry,” writes the novelist (Unaccustomed Earth, 2008, etc.). “The tactic would be guerrilla warfare. The enemy was the Indian state.” The book's straightforward, declarative sentences will ultimately force the characters and the reader to find meaning in the space between them. While Udayan characteristically defies his parents by returning home with a wife he has impulsively courted rather than submitting to an arranged marriage, Subhash waits for his own life to unfold: “He wondered what woman his parents would choose for him. He wondered when it would be. Getting married would mean returning to Calcutta. In that sense he was in no hurry.” Yet crisis returns him to Calcutta, and when he resumes his life in America, he has a pregnant wife and, soon, a daughter. The rest of the novel spans more than four decades in the life of this family, shaped and shaken by the events that have brought them together and tear them apart—“a family of solitaries [that]...had collided and dispersed.”

Though Lahiri has previously earned greater renown for her short stories, this masterful novel deserves to attract an even wider readership.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-26574-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

An expertly written tale of ancient crimes, with every period detail—and every detail, period—just right.

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THE SON

The sins of the fathers are always visited upon the sons—and in Meyer’s sweeping, absorbing epic, there are plenty of them.

As the first child born in the new Republic of Texas, or so it’s said, Eli McCullough fills big shoes. Yet he stands in the shadow of his older brother, who reads books and has a strange attachment to his sister—one that will be cut short when Comanches descend and, in a spree worthy of Cormac McCarthy, put an end to all that: “My mother had not made a sound since I woke up, even with the arrows sticking out of her, but she began to scream and cry when they scalped her, and I saw another Indian walking up to her with my father’s broadax.” Years living in semicaptivity with the Comanches teaches Eli a thing or two about setting goals and sticking to them, as well as a ruthlessness that will come in handy when he begins to build a cattle empire and accrue political power. His son is less deft; caught up in the cross-border upheaval of the Mexican Revolution, he finds himself out of place and adrift (“You’re a big man,” says one ranch hand to him, “and I don’t see why you act like such a small one”) and certainly no favorite of his ever-demanding father. Meyer’s sophomore novel deftly opens with entwined, impending deaths across generations, joining tangled stories over three centuries, the contested line between the U.S. and Mexico, and very different cultures; if sometimes it hints of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Ferber’s Giant, it more often partakes of the somber, doomed certainty of Faulkner: “There had been one grandson everyone liked, who had loved the ranch and been expected to take it over, but he had drowned in three feet of water.”

An expertly written tale of ancient crimes, with every period detail—and every detail, period—just right.

Pub Date: May 28, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-212039-7

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2013

In sparkling and witty prose, Baker reminds readers why he’s one of the masters of the contemporary novel.

TRAVELING SPRINKLER

Baker foregoes the kinky eroticism of Vox and House of Holes this time and gives readers a sweet and idiosyncratic novel about the protagonist of The Anthologist (2009), a poet and pop songwriter manqué.

Although Paul Chowder’s life is not exactly coming apart, it’s also not what it could be. His girlfriend, Roz, has taken up with someone else, he’s become less committed to writing poetry, and to make a little extra money, he shrink-wraps boats. (You’ve seen them, with the tight, white plastic....) On the other hand, he enjoys going to Quaker meetings, and he’s really getting into music. We learn he used to be a serious student of the bassoon, but in college, he switched to the study of poetry and now has some regrets. What Chowder would like is a hit song, and he looks for inspiration everywhere. While driving, for example, he sees a truck with an “Oversize Load” banner and begins to improvise: “It was big / It was bad / It was round / It could explode // Yeah, he was driving down the road / with an oversize load.” He’s also recently taken up the guitar and hopes to impress his neighbors as well as Roz with his musical prowess. Most of all, Chowder is an observer of things and people, and he still has a poet’s fascination with words, “garbanzo” being one of his new favorites. His musical erudition is impressive, and the attentive reader will receive quite an education, ranging from the reason for the bassoon solo at the beginning of The Rite of Spring to the brilliance of Victoria de los Angeles’ version of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 to the poignancy of Jonatha Brooke’s rendition of “In the Gloaming.”

In sparkling and witty prose, Baker reminds readers why he’s one of the masters of the contemporary novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-399-16096-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Blue Rider Press

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

Barnhardt masterfully reimagines the Southern gothic: There is every kind of sordid deed committed, but there is also an...

LOOKAWAY, LOOKAWAY

Barnhardt’s fourth novel is a revelation: witty, savage and bighearted all at once, it is the Southern novel for the 21st century.

The Jarvis-Johnston clan is a Charlotte, N.C., family of distinction; they have all that matters to society: money, pedigree and manners enough to keep secrets buried. But, as each family member is revealed (spanning a decade, every character has their own chapter), the ruin of the family becomes imminent. When Jerilyn Johnston heads off to Chapel Hill, she seems the one child who will live up to her mother Jerene’s exacting standards. But when she pledges Sigma Kappa Nu, filled with rich, surgery-augmented party girls who hope to raise spring-break money by starting their own online porn site, Jerilyn falls into the abyss, which is a place her uncle Gaston Jarvis frequents with pleasure. Though in his youth he was a Young Turk of the literary world, for the last two decades he has churned out a regrettable Civil War series featuring the adventures of Cordelia Florabloom. The books have made him rich and bitter, his only solace a bar stool at the club. The great Southern novel he wanted to write, Lookaway Dixieland, conceived with his comrade in arms Duke Johnston, serves as a treacherous reminder of his wasted life. Jerene and Duke’s other children—Annie, the much-married left-wing rebel; Josh, who spends his evenings trolling for black men on the down low; and Bo, a Presbyterian minister who despises his congregation—are all beyond their parents’ control, contributing to the mother of all Christmas dinner disasters. Perhaps most poignant is patriarch Duke Johnston: the golden boy beloved by everyone, offered the world but who, in the end, locks himself away in his Civil War library, fixated on an insignificant battle, shielded by history.

Barnhardt masterfully reimagines the Southern gothic: There is every kind of sordid deed committed, but there is also an abundance of humanity and grace.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-02150-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2013

A fine story of everyday sadness and otherworldly joys.

THE NIGHT OF THE COMET

Filled with the kind of wistful longing that characterizes the coming-of-age novel, this latest from the talented Bishop brings stardust and domestic disillusionment to the bayous of Louisiana.

In 1973, when Junior Broussard blows out the 14 candles on his birthday cake, his wish takes the form of one word—Gabriella. Instead of her magical appearance, he receives a telescope from his father, the high school’s geeky science teacher, an amateur astronomer and author of the newspaper’s weekly "Groovy Science" column. His father has become obsessed with the sighting of the comet Kohoutek; the new telescope will provide a father-son bonding opportunity. Junior could care less and soon points his telescope across the bayou to Gabriella’s mansion. As his father is involved with Kohoutek, Junior becomes fixated on the wealthy Martellos across the water. Their life is like a television show—they dress better, look better, seem happier—and he watches them like an anthropologist and a lover and wonders what will become of himself, raised in a house of small dreams and missed opportunities. His mother, Lydia, befriends Mrs. Martello, and the two hatch a plan to throw a charity ball with a comet theme. Lydia is also bewitched by the Martellos (especially husband Frank) and begins to feel she deserves so much more than science teacher Alan Broussard can offer. Their meeting years ago—the beautiful pharmacy counter girl and the new science teacher—is a story Junior begs from his parents, as if the re-telling will provide some magic to keep them together. His father becomes dangerously unhinged, his mother runs away, harboring fantasies of a life with Frank Martello, and the comet will soon appear. Junior is sure it will bring both disaster and magic to their lives. Coming-of-age novels examine youthful revelations about the world—filled with cynicism and wonder and rearranged expectations—and the quality hinges on the honesty of the voice, the truth of the observations, the handling of innocence lost; Bishop succeeds on all these fronts.

A fine story of everyday sadness and otherworldly joys.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-345-51600-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2013

Crace continues to occupy a singular place in contemporary literature.

HARVEST

Rarely does language so plainspoken and elemental tell a story so richly open to interpretation on so many different levels.

Is this a religious allegory? An apocalyptic fable? A mystery? A meditation on the human condition? With economy and grace, the award-winning Crace (The Pesthouse, 2007, etc.) gives his work a simplicity and symmetry that belie the disturbances beneath the consciousness of its narrator. It’s a narrative without specifics of time or place, in the countryside of the author’s native England, following a harvest that will prove different than any the villagers have ever experienced, in a locale where, explains the narrator, “We do not even have a title for the village. It is just The Village. And it’s surrounded by The Land.” In the beginning, the narrator speaks for the community, “bounded by common ditches and collective hopes,” yet one where “[t]heir suspicion of anyone who was not born within these boundaries is unwavering.” The “they” proves crucial, as the narrator who initially speaks for the collective “we” reveals that he is in fact an outsider, brought to the village 12 years earlier by the man who is the master of the manor, and that he is someone who has become a part of the community, yet remains apart from it. There has been a fire following the harvest, disrupting the seasonal cycle, and although evidence points to three young men within the community, blame falls on two men and a woman who have recently camped on the outskirts. There is also someone making charts of the land and an issue of succession of ownership. There is a sense that this harvest may be the last one for these people, that the land may be converted to different use. “[P]lowing is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land,” yet that way of life may soon be over. “There isn’t one of us—no, them—who’s safe,” declares the narrator, who must ultimately come to terms with the depths of his solitude.

Crace continues to occupy a singular place in contemporary literature.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-52077-5

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Dec. 3, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2012

With his sixth novel, Pulitzer finalist Dee has written a page turner without sacrificing a smidgen of psychological...

A THOUSAND PARDONS

A marriage flames out. Gleefully, thrillingly, Dee (The Privileges, 2010, etc.) tracks its aftermath, focusing primarily on the evolution of the ex-wife. 

That’s Helen Armstead, struggling to save a dying marriage. Husband Ben, partner in a New York City law firm, has been so deeply depressed he’s ignored not just her and their upstate home, but their 12-year-old daughter, Sara (Chinese, adopted). The end comes fast. Ben, discovered in a hotel room with his intern, is beaten bloody by her boyfriend, then discovered again in his car, drunk and unconscious. Fired, and facing rape and DWI charges, he goes into rehab. Divorce filed but their assets frozen, Helen, a stay-at-home mom, must hustle to find work. She lucks out when she’s hired by a down-at-the-heels PR company in the city. Her first assignment, persuading the owner of a Chinese restaurant chain to publish an apology to his striking workers, is a huge success. Even the boss’ sudden death doesn’t slow Helen down. She persuades two more male clients, drowning in bad publicity, to go the apology route. Her crisis management skills attract the attention of a huge PR company, which recruits her. This is not some empowerment fairy tale; Dee keeps the action grounded and credible. In an already dramatic story, the most sizzling drama comes after Helen accidentally meets an old childhood classmate at a movie premiere. Hamilton Barth is a Hollywood superstar, a deeply troubled man with a history of benders and blackouts; a greatly magnified version of Ben. When Helen subsequently gets a rescue-me call from Hamilton in a Vermont motel, the already brisk pace becomes breakneck. There’s a young woman missing, bloody sheets and an amnesiac Hamilton willing to believe the worst of himself. It will take all Helen’s crisis management skills to resolve this one.

With his sixth novel, Pulitzer finalist Dee has written a page turner without sacrificing a smidgen of psychological insight. What a triumph.

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9321-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2013

A novel that combines the pleasures of genre fiction and the thematic richness of literary fiction, while blurring the line...

THE HOUSE OF RUMOUR

An audaciously ambitious novel that takes great creative risks and, against considerable odds, makes most of them pay dividends.

What kind of novel is the latest from the British Arnott (The Long Firm, 1999)? Science fiction, most likely. Or World War II espionage. Or Utopian/dystopian. Or sexual manifesto. Or religious parable. Or a narrative about the possibilities and limitations of narrative. Or a series of interrelated stories inspired by the cards of a tarot deck. Or all of the above. Yet the reader need have no knowledge of the tarot (or the occult, which pervades the novel) to appreciate its imaginative vision or make sense of the way it hopscotches across genre, chronology, geography and cosmos. It begins and ends with the first-person account of a fictional American science-fiction writer named Larry Zagorski, best known for a novel titled American Gnostic, which attracted a hippie cult following in the 1960s. For the novel, Zagorski drew upon his own experiences with the likes of Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard (the latter, fictionalized in Zagorski’s novel and rendered under his own name in Arnott’s, transforms his science fiction into a religion in both). Also playing key roles in the novel are Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Hess, Ian Fleming and Jim Jones (the prophet of mass suicide). Told through multiple narrators, it is a novel of “quantum leaps, of diverging timelines, alternate futures, and crucial moments when things could go either way." Yet, it sustains a narrative momentum as it unfolds as fact and fantasy, mystery and revelation, pulp fiction and metaphysical transcendence. Along the way, it traces the thematic arc of science fiction, which has gone “from being about the probable, the possible, the impossible, the metaphysical to the ordinary, the everyday. It seems the one form that can truly grasp the essential strangeness of modern living.”

A novel that combines the pleasures of genre fiction and the thematic richness of literary fiction, while blurring the line between the two and exploding the very concept of genre.

Pub Date: March 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-544-07779-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Amazon/New Harvest

Review Posted Online: Jan. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

First-rate fiction by a dazzling talent.

DIRTY LOVE

Dubus anatomizes personal—especially sexual—relationships brilliantly in these loosely concatenated novellas.

At the center of the characters’ world are the small, economically depressed towns in Massachusetts where waiters, waitresses, bartenders and bankers live and move and have their being. To Dubus’ credit, he doesn’t feel he has to solve their personal problems and the intricate twists of their relationships. Instead, he chronicles what’s going on with sympathy but without any sense that he needs to rescue them. In the first narrative, we meet hapless Mark Welch, who’s recently found out his wife, Laura, is having an affair with a banker. Although occasionally picking up and hefting a piece of lead pipe, Mark ultimately finds himself powerless to change the circumstances of his life. In the second story, we follow Marla, a physically unprepossessing bank teller (yes, she works at the same bank as Laura’s lover) who feels her life slipping away from her. She begins a desultory affair with a 37-year-old engineer whose passions tend toward video games and keeping his house pathologically clean. The next story introduces us to Robert Doucette, bartender and poet manqué, who marries Althea, a sweet but reticent upholsterer. In the final months of Althea’s pregnancy, Robert has hot sex with Jackie, a waitress at the restaurant, and Althea finds this out and simultaneously goes into labor. The final narrative focuses on Devon, an 18-year-old waitress at the tavern where Robert works. To get away from an abusive father, she lives with a considerate great uncle (who harbors his own secrets), but she has to deal with the unintended consequences of an untoward sexual act that was disseminated through social media.

First-rate fiction by a dazzling talent.

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-06465-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

Faulks has risen to the challenge splendidly with this "homage" to Wodehouse. Jeeves and Wooster live again!

JEEVES AND THE WEDDING BELLS

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, the feckless young master and his erudite gentleman’s gentleman, creations of the great English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, are back, courtesy of his inspired fellow countryman and novelist Faulks (A Possible Life, 2012, etc.). This is the first Jeeves and Wooster novel in some 40 years.

Faulks notes modestly that he has “tried to provide an echo” of the originals. He has done more than that. He has captured Bertie’s voice, his innocent zest and his spirited banter with Jeeves to a fare-thee-well. This novel begins boldly with a role reversal—Bertie as servant waiting on Jeeves—but the real beginning is on the French Riviera, where Bertie meets a stunning beauty, Georgiana Meadowes. He’s smitten, she’s encouraging, but there’s a problem. Orphaned early, Georgiana has been raised lovingly by her uncle, Sir Henry Hackwood, currently strapped for cash. To help him save the family home, Georgiana feels obliged to marry a fella with moola: Her fiance has been designated. Back in London, there’s a further complication. Bertie’s best friend Woody had been engaged to Sir Henry’s daughter Amelia; a misunderstanding has caused the dear girl to break it off. Good egg that he is, Bertie sees his first order of business as reconciling Woody and Amelia. More misunderstandings ensue, resulting in Jeeves being mistaken for a peer of the realm by Sir Henry and invited to his home in deepest Dorset; to gain access to the premises, Bertie must willy-nilly become Jeeves’ manservant and fraternize below stairs. The comic possibilities are legion, and Faulks exploits them all, with Bertie threatening to land in the proverbial soup at every turn. Meanwhile, Jeeves, always a fount of knowledge, proves himself also a master strategist of the mating game. Bertie, still in thrall to his former teacher’s dictum (“Women are queer cattle”), needs nudging. A smackeroo on the lips from Georgiana during amateur theatricals does the trick.

Faulks has risen to the challenge splendidly with this "homage" to Wodehouse. Jeeves and Wooster live again!

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-04759-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

An intelligently imagined Dickens prequel.

HAVISHAM

Frame (The Lantern Bearers, 2001, etc.) writes the story of Catherine Havisham, recluse of Satis House, in this prelude to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

Despite her mother’s death in childbirth, the Great Expectations of Miss Havisham come naturally. Her father, owner of a prosperous brewery, spoils her beyond measure. Then, as Catherine matures, he dispatches her to Durley Chase, home of Lady Chadwyck and her children Isabella, William, Marianna and cousin Frederick. The Chadwycks are to add the social polish necessary for Catherine to marry well. There, Catherine has eyes for William but soon learns that titled folk do not marry merchants' daughters. She then meets Charles Compeyson, charming, enigmatic, vaguely roguish. Class prejudices aside, the Chadwycks attempt to dissuade Catherine from Compeyson, but she is enthralled, even ignoring Chadwyck cousin Frederick, thinking him overly religious, awkward and unambitious despite his shy admiration for her. Then her father dies. Catherine allows Compeyson to run the brewery. He soon proposes then leaves her at the altar. Frame’s chapters are short, written from Catherine’s point of view, and laced with elements of classical poetry and song. Aeneas, Tom O’Bedlam and Henry Purcell deepen a narrative appealing to the modern ear yet suitably Dickensian. Subplots follow Sally, a village girl who becomes Catherine’s childhood companion, and Arthur, Catherine’s wastrel half brother. The book ripples with social commentary, an example being Catherine’s attempt to manage the brewery only to be stymied by gender prejudice and her own obstinacy. Finally, she closes the brewery. Catherine then adopts Estella, intending revenge on the masculine world—"all of the genus who conceitedly, smugly supposed that they were indispensable to a woman’s personal completeness, her felicity." Minor characters, Pip included, strengthen the story, and Frame’s presentation of the era is substantial but not overdone. Young Catherine’s character earns little empathy, and any sympathy for the recluse of Satis House certain that "true life is too awesome and terrifying to bear" can only be conjured up as her death looms.

An intelligently imagined Dickens prequel.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-03727-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

Smart, comic, unsettling, yet strangely of a piece—not unlike its disarming lead character.

SCHRODER

A man’s collapsed marriage and growing madness imperils his young daughter in this bracing third novel by Gaige (The Folded World, 2007, etc.).

Narrator Eric Kennedy makes clear early on that he’s done something very wrong: At the behest of his lawyers, he’s writing his ex-wife to explain why he disappeared with their six-year-old daughter, Meadow, for a week. Like many unreliable narrators before him, he’s bathing in narcissism and has a hard time facing facts, but Gaige makes the discovery process at once harrowing and fascinating. Eric escaped from East Germany with his father as a child and changed his name (from Erik Schroder, hence the title). As an adult, he was a caring husband and father, but his erratic behavior (like keeping a dead fox in the backyard as a kind of science project for Meadow) sunk the marriage, and his limited visitation rights prompted him to effectively kidnap Meadow and take her on an extended tour of upstate New York and New England. Abductors are hard to make sympathetic, but Gaige potently renders the embittered fun-house logic of a man who’s lost his bearings. (“There was nothing in our parental agreement that said I couldn’t drive around the outskirts of Albany at high speeds.”) Gaige is interested in what widens and closes the gaps in our personalities between the past and present, madness and sanity, and she expertly works the theme like an accordion player until the climax, when Meadow is truly endangered, and Eric has a moment of clarity. The concluding plot turns are bluntly deus ex machina, and some characters, such as the aging muse for an ’80s pop hit, hit the split personality theme in an obvious way, but overall the storytelling is remarkably poised.

Smart, comic, unsettling, yet strangely of a piece—not unlike its disarming lead character.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-455-51213-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: April 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Another great success for Hamid and another illustration of how richly the colonial margins are feeding the core of...

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA

An extravagantly good alternate-universe Horatio Alger story for the teeming billions, affirming all that’s right—and wrong—with economic globalization.

“The whites of your eyes are yellow,” writes Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2007, etc.), “a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus affecting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum.” The “you” in question is the unnamed protagonist, addressed throughout, unusually, in the second person through the fictive frame of a self-help book that is fairly drenched in irony. But, like Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke (2000), there’s more than a little of the picaresque in this bildungsroman. As our anonymous hero comes of age and goes well beyond majority, he confronts the challenges not only of chasing out the hep E virus, but also of finding love, work and satisfaction in life—the stuff of everyday life everywhere. The younger subject’s family lives in an overcrowded, urban slum in some unnamed South Asian nation—perhaps, to judge by a few internal clues, the author’s native Pakistan, though he is careful not to specify—where his father’s small salary as a cook (“he is not a man obsessed with the freshness or quality of his ingredients”) is at least enough to fend off the starvation so many of their neighbors endure. The family, like many of the people our hero will meet, is displaced from the countryside, having followed an early lesson of the vade mecum: “Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia.” Indeed, he attains material success, but he's always just out of reach of the true love of his life—and if anything else, this exceptionally well-written novel is not about the Hobbesian grasping and clawing of first impression, but about the enduring power of family, love and dreams.

Another great success for Hamid and another illustration of how richly the colonial margins are feeding the core of literature in English.

Pub Date: March 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59448-729-3

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 2, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Beautifully turned: Harding has defogged his style a bit and gained a stronger emotional impact from it.

ENON

The author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tinkers (2009) returns with another striking study of family, time and mortality.

This time, though, Harding’s style is less knotty, almost Hemingway-esque, at least in its opening pages. That’s in part due to the fact that he has a clearer story to tell: This book covers a year in the life of Charlie Crosby (a descendant of the clan introduced in Tinkers) as he mourns the death of his 13-year-old daughter in an accident. After smashing his hand against a wall in a rage, he loses his wife and develops a slow-growing addiction to painkillers and alcohol that leads him to break-ins and other foolhardy decisions. But Harding is less concerned with plot as with what’s swimming in Charlie’s head, and themes of nature and time abound. His narration shifts from past to present, from memories of his daughter to his nature walks in New England to his helping his father repair a clock in a home that has an orrery—a model of the solar system that symbolizes the symphonic breadth of nature and the universality of his struggle. Harding’s work owes much to his former teacher Marilynne Robinson, with whom he shares an affinity for precise, religious-tinged prose. The penultimate chapters of the book, however, display a unique hallucinatory style: As Charlie’s grief reaches its apex, he’s consumed by dark visions, and Harding’s skillful whipsawing of the reader from the surreal to the quotidian is the best writing he’s done. Though the final pages bend the story safely back to a familiar redemption arc, Charlie’s experience doesn’t feel commonplace. His trip to hell and back envisions a different kind of hell, and his status as “back,” just as in the real world, isn’t guaranteed.

Beautifully turned: Harding has defogged his style a bit and gained a stronger emotional impact from it.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6943-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

Satisfying at every level. King even leaves room for a follow-up, should he choose to write one—and with luck, sooner than...

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DOCTOR SLEEP

He-e-e-e-r-e’s Danny!

Before an alcoholic can begin recovery, by some lights, he or she has to hit bottom. Dan Torrance, the alcoholic son of the very dangerously alcoholic father who came to no good in King’s famed 1977 novel The Shining, finds his rock bottom very near, if not exactly at, the scarifying image of an infant reaching for a baggie of blow. The drugs, the booze, the one-night stands, the excruciating chain of failures: all trace back to the bad doings at the Overlook Hotel (don’t go into Room 217) and all those voices in poor Dan’s head, which speak to (and because of) a very special talent he has. That “shining” is a matter of more than passing interest for a gang of RV-driving, torture-loving, soul-sucking folks who aren’t quite folks at all—the True Knot, about whom one particularly deadly recruiter comments, “They’re not my friends, they’re my family....And what’s tied can never be untied.” When the knotty crew sets its sights on a young girl whose own powers include the ability to sense impending bad vibes, Dan, long adrift, begins to find new meaning in the world. Granted, he has good reason to have wanted to hide from it—he still has visions of that old Redrum scrawl, good reason to need the mental eraser of liquor—but there’s nothing like an apocalyptic struggle to bring out the best (or worst) in people. King clearly revels in his tale, and though it’s quite a bit more understated than his earlier, booze-soaked work, it shows all his old gifts, including the ability to produce sentences that read as if they’re tossed off but that could come only from someone who’s worked hard on them (“Danny, have you ever seen dead people? Regular dead people, I mean”). His cast of characters is as memorable as any King has produced, too, from a fully rounded Danny to the tiny but efficiently lethal Abra Stone and the vengeful Andi, who’s right to be angry but takes things just a touch too far. And that’s not to mention Rose the Hatless and Crow Daddy.

Satisfying at every level. King even leaves room for a follow-up, should he choose to write one—and with luck, sooner than three decades hence.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4767-2765-3

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

At its best, a chilling vision of the ugliness of keeping up appearances.

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THE DINNER

A high-class meal provides an unlikely window into privilege, violence and madness.

Paul, the narrator of this caustic tale, initially appears to be an accomplished man who’s just slightly eccentric and prone to condescension: As he and his wife prepare for a pricey dinner with his brother and sister-in-law, he rhetorically rolls his eyes at wait staff, pop culture and especially his brother, a rising star in the Dutch political world. The mood is mysteriously tense in the opening chapters, as the foursome talk around each other, and Paul’s contempt expands. The source of the anxiety soon becomes evident: Paul’s teenage son, along with Paul’s brother’s children, was involved in a violent incident, and though the videos circulating on TV and YouTube are grainy, there’s a high risk they’ll be identified. The formality of the meal is undone by the parents’ desperate effort to keep a lid on the potential scandal: Sections are primly titled “Aperitif,” “Appetizer” and so on, but Koch deliberately sends the narrative off-menu as it becomes clear that Paul’s anxiety is more than just a modest personality tic, and the foursome’s high-toned concerns about justice and egalitarianism collapse into unseemly self-interest. The novel can be ineffectually on the nose when it comes to discussions of white guilt and class, the brothers’ wives are thin characters, and scenes meant to underscore Paul’s madness have an unrealistic vibe that show Koch isn’t averse to a gratuitous, melodramatic shock or two. Even so, Koch’s slow revelation of the central crisis is expertly paced, and he’s opened up a serious question of what parents owe their children, and how much of their character is passed on to them.

At its best, a chilling vision of the ugliness of keeping up appearances.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-7704-3785-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

Aslam sympathizes not with causes, but with people, and this is a memorable portrait of a people torn apart by war.

THE BLIND MAN'S GARDEN

The war in Afghanistan, as seen from the other side—or, better, another side.

“[H]ave you ever heard a story in which the evil person triumphs at the end?” So, three paragraphs into Pakistani-born, British author Aslam’s (The Wasted Vigil, 2008, etc.) latest, a father, Rohan, asks his son, Jeo. Always careful, Jeo thinks for a moment before replying that the trouble is that on the way to defeat, evil people “harm the good people.” Good and evil are porous categories: Jeo is a medical student, while his brother Mikal works at a gun shop, but both rise to the cause when American troops invade neighboring Afghanistan, joining the jihad against them. Jeo volunteers at a hospital in Peshawar, while Mikal crosses the border to fight alongside the Taliban; for his trouble, he is captured by American soldiers and subjected to interrogation that promises to become torture (“Mikal refuses to speak and they take him to a bare windowless room, attach a chain to his wrists, and...fasten the chain to a ring on the ceiling”). Suffice it to say that the tables turn. The saga of war and sacrifice stretches across the centuries—midway through the story, Rohan, benevolent but given to despair, finds himself wondering whether he has not been cursed in some way because his great-grandfather had sided with the British during the mutiny of 1857. Aslam finds poetry in scenes both ordinary and dreamlike (“the moonlight pale as watered ink”; “Rohan dreams of an American soldier and a jihadi warrior digging the same grave”). At times, the images he conjures seem improbable, as with an American commando who carries a snow leopard cub inside his shirt, but the writing is so assured and the story so urgent that it’s easy to suspend disbelief.

Aslam sympathizes not with causes, but with people, and this is a memorable portrait of a people torn apart by war.

Pub Date: April 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-96171-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 9, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Provocative, entertaining and beautifully written. It’s not quite the tour de force that her Case Histories (2004) was, but...

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LIFE AFTER LIFE

If you could travel back in time and kill Hitler, would you? Of course you would.

Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion. In one moment, for example, the conversation turns to a child who has died; reminds Ursula, our heroine, “Your daughter....She fell in the fire,” an event the child’s poor mother gainsays: “ ‘I only ever had Derek,’ she concluded firmly.” Ah, but there’s the rub with alternate realities, all of which, Atkinson suggests, can be folded up into the same life so that all are equally real. Besides, it affords several opportunities to do old Adolf in, what with his “funny little flap of the hand backward so that he looked as if he were cupping his ear to hear them better” and all.

Provocative, entertaining and beautifully written. It’s not quite the tour de force that her Case Histories (2004) was, but this latest affords the happy sight of seeing Atkinson stretch out into speculative territory again.

Pub Date: April 2, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-17648-4

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

A film waiting to happen, this book boasts memorable characters, evocative settings and a suspenseful plot.

ANGEL BABY

A rising star in neonoir, Lange follows up his 2009 novel, This Wicked World, with a sharply calibrated and affecting tale about a young Mexican beauty who will do anything to reclaim the baby daughter she left in Los Angeles.

The woman, Luz, survived a hard upbringing in Tijuana only to fall under the control of an abusive Mexican drug lord, Rolando, aka "El Principe." After going to great lengths to convince him she is devoted to him, she sneaks off with a pile of his money, killing two of his household staff with his gun. She hires Malone, an American who makes a living smuggling Mexicans across the border, to drive her to California. They are quickly pursued by Jerónimo, a one-time LA gang member whom Rolando springs from a Tijuana prison to bring back Luz, and Thacker, a corrupt U.S. Border Patrol agent. Jerónimo, a reformed soul whose wife and daughter are being held by Rolando until he returns with Luz, strikes an uneasy alliance with the slovenly, unreformed Thacker: He'll get Luz, and the border cop will get the money. Malone, who is haunted by memories of seeing his own little girl run over by a car, becomes committed to Luz. The twisting plot thickens when Rolando orders Jerónimo to bring back Luz's child as well. Unlike most such stories, this book is driven not by greed or revenge but by parenthood, and Lange doesn't subscribe to the usual moral checks and balances. In all other ways, however, he embraces classic noir in all its violence, bleakness and dark humor. He makes readers care about his flawed characters and appreciate the odds that were stacked against them by the circumstances of their upbringing.

A film waiting to happen, this book boasts memorable characters, evocative settings and a suspenseful plot.

Pub Date: May 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-21982-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

Marvelously intriguing.

THE SALINGER CONTRACT

Langer (Crossing California, 2004, etc.) skewers pretensions of writers and writing, editors and publishers—and perhaps audiences—in a literary thriller.

With his wife seeking tenure at Indiana University, the eponymous protagonist Adam Langer is a Bloomington house husband, shuffling between day care and shopping, saving a few moments to restart a stalled literary career. Son of an absent father (he knows only the name, Sid J. Langer) and a single mother who wrote anagrams and word puzzles, Adam has written one novel, but most of his writing has involved author profiles for a New York magazine. That’s how he met Conner Joyce, writer of "honest-cop-stuck-in-a-corrupt-system tales." Conner is reading in Bloomington; Adam drops by for a visit. Later, after a reading in Chicago, Conner calls Adam with a fantastic story. Conner has been offered $2.5 million to write a novel for a mysterious fellow named Dex Dunford. The book will be read only by Dunford and his bodyguard, Pavel, who "looked as if he might once have worked on a security detail for Vladimir Putin." More fascinating, Dunford also owns unpublished manuscripts by J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and other famous writers. Needing money, Conner agrees to write the novel. And that's when the fun begins. Along the way, there’s a jewel-encrusted zip drive, a bank heist and a revelation that fractures Adam's perception of his heritage. The denouement is great.

Marvelously intriguing.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4532-9794-0

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

Blindingly intelligent, engagingly accessible—it seems there’s nothing Marías can’t make fiction do. No wonder he’s...

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THE INFATUATIONS

An apparently random street murder sparks musings on shades of guilt and the mutability of truth in the distinguished Spanish writer’s latest (Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, 2007, etc.).

For years, María Dolz has idealized Miguel Desvern and his wife, Luisa, as the perfect couple, basing this image on the loving interactions she observes at the Madrid cafe, where she has breakfast before heading to her job at a publishing house. (Marías pokes fun throughout at authors’ vanities and quirks.) After Miguel is stabbed to death by a deranged homeless man, María introduces herself to Luisa and through her meets Javier Díaz-Varela, a family friend devoted to helping the shattered widow rebuild her life. María and Javier embark on an affair, but when an overheard conversation reveals that Miguel’s death was not what it seems, the lovers engage in a long conversational fencing match. Did Miguel ask Javier to arrange his death because he had a horrible fatal disease? Or did Javier incite his best friend’s murder because he coveted his wife? As always with Marías, there are no definitive answers, only the exploration of provocative ideas in his trademark style: long, looping sentences (superbly translated by Costa) that mimic the stuttering starts and stops of a restless mind. It’s no accident that María’s and Javier’s first names combine to form their creator’s full name; they voice his consciousness. Marías’ rare gift is his ability to make this intellectual jousting as suspenseful as the chase scenes in a commercial thriller. He’s tremendously stimulating to read; arresting turns of phrase enfold piercing insights, such as an overbearing character’s “charming Nazi-green jacket” or the dark vision of “continuous, indivisible time…eternally snapping at our heels.” Though eschewing overt political commentary, the novel makes crystal clear the bitter contemporary relevance of someone who believes guilt can be evaded through “murder-by-delegation.”

Blindingly intelligent, engagingly accessible—it seems there’s nothing Marías can’t make fiction do. No wonder he’s perennially mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate.

Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-96072-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

A beautifully written novel, an experience to savor.

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TRANSATLANTIC

A masterful and profoundly moving novel that employs exquisite language to explore the limits of language and the tricks of memory.

It hardly seems possible that this novel, epic in ambition, is comparatively compact or that one so audacious in format (hopscotching back and forth across an ocean, centuries, generations) should sustain such narrative momentum. The award-winning McCann (Let the Great World Spin, 2009, etc.) interweaves historical and fictional truth as he connects the visit to Ireland in 1845 by Frederick Douglass, whose emancipation appeals on behalf of all his fellow slaves inspire a young Irish maid to seek her destiny in America, to the first trans-Atlantic flight almost 65 years later, carrying a mysterious letter that will ultimately (though perhaps anticlimactically) tie the various strands of the plot together. The novel’s primary bloodline begins with Lily Duggan, the Irish maid inspired by Douglass, and her four generations of descendants, mainly women whose struggle for rights and search for identity parallels that of the slave whose hunger for freedom fed her own. Ultimately, as the last living descendant observes, “[t]he tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.” The novel’s narrative strategy runs deeper than literary gamesmanship, as the blurring of distinctions between past and present, and between one side of the ocean and the other, with the history of struggle, war and emancipation as a backdrop, represents the thematic thread that connects it all: "We prefigure our futures by imagining our pasts. To go back and forth. Across the waters. The past, the present, the elusive future. A nation. Everything constantly shifted by the present. The taut elastic of time.”

A beautifully written novel, an experience to savor.

Pub Date: June 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6959-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

McCorkle’s masterful microcosm invokes profound sadness, harsh insight and guffaws, often on the same page.

LIFE AFTER LIFE

Assisted living residents and a hospice worker confront the inevitable with grit and humor.

A potentially clichéd unifying device, the claustrophobic world of Pine Haven Retirement Facility (located next to a cemetery no less), is here put to innovative use. Passing the narrative baton are Pine Haven’s residents and staff, friends and spouses, all confined, willingly or not, to McCorkle’s familiar turf, Fulton, N.C. Joanna, a hospice worker rescued from suicide by a dog, finds fulfillment easing the passage of the dying. Abby, who inhabits the house next to Pine Haven, is an outcast preteen with a social-climbing mother, Kendra, and a feckless, unreliable father, Ben (a magician and Joanna’s childhood friend). Abby, a daily visitor to Pine Haven, bereft after the disappearance of her dog, Dollbaby, finds a mentor in 85-year-old Sadie, a former third-grade teacher. Sadie discovers a kindred spirit in another teacher, Toby, Pine Haven’s youngest retiree, who bemoans the sorry state of children’s literature today.  C.J., a pierced and tattooed single mom who does hair and nails at Pine Haven, has a much older married lover who is also the father of her son, Kurt. Rachel, a widowed Jewish lawyer from Boston, comes to Pine Haven to take up residence near her deceased paramour, Joe, who is buried, along with his wife, in the adjoining cemetery. Stanley, one of Fulton’s most prominent citizens, is sliding into dementia, cajoling, goading and insulting Pine Haven’s female majority, and reveling in bizarre obsessions: WWF stars and ’60s-era lounge lizard LPs. But could his apparent Alzheimer's be a bid for independence instead of dependency? Seemingly unrelated and insignificant clues sowed throughout raise other questions as these lives coalesce. For example, is Dollbaby really missing? Who’s leaving notes in a cemetery vase? Are both Kendra and C.J. placing their hopes in the same married man? Any residual predictability is dispelled by the jaw-dropping ending.

McCorkle’s masterful microcosm invokes profound sadness, harsh insight and guffaws, often on the same page.

Pub Date: March 26, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-56512-255-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Dec. 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2013

Brilliant and terrifying.

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS

A self-described “good girl” lifts her mask in Messud’s scarifying new novel (The Emperor’s Children, 2006, etc.).

“How angry am I?” Nora Eldridge rhetorically asks in her opening sentence. “You don’t want to know.” But she tells us anyway. Nora is furious with her dead mother, her elderly father and her estranged brother, none of whom seem to have done anything very terrible. Basically, Nora is furious with herself: for failing to commit to being an artist, for settling for life as a third-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., for lacking the guts even to be openly enraged. Instead, she is the woman upstairs, “whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell.” So when the exotic Shahid family enters her life in the fall of 2004, Nora sees them as saviors. Reza is in her class; after another student attacks and calls the half-Lebanese boy “a terrorist,” she meets his Italian mother, Sirena, the kind of bold, assertive artist Nora longs to be. They wind up sharing a studio, and Nora eventually neglects her own work to help Sirena with a vast installation called Wonderland. She’s also drawn to Skandar, an academic whose one-year fellowship has brought his family to Cambridge from Paris. “So you’re in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child,” comments Nora’s friend Didi after she confesses her intense feelings. It’s nowhere near that simple, as the story unfolds to reveal Sirena as something of a user—and perhaps Skandar too, though it’s unwise to credit Nora’s jaundiced perceptions. Her untrustworthy, embittered narration, deliberately set up as a feminine counterpoint to the rantings of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, is an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms. Messud persuasively plunges us into the tortured psyche of a conflicted soul whose defiant closing assertion inspires little confidence that Nora can actually change her ways.

Brilliant and terrifying.

Pub Date: April 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-59690-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker’s simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller...

LONGBOURN

An irresistible retake on Pride and Prejudice alters the familiar perspective by foregrounding a different version of events—the servants’.

Daring to reconfigure what many would regard as literary perfection, Baker (The Undertow, 2012, etc.) comes at Jane Austen’s most celebrated novel from below stairs, offering a working-class view of the Bennet family of Longbourn House. While the familiar drama of Lizzie and Jane, Bingley and Darcy goes on in other, finer rooms, Baker’s focus is the kitchen and the stable and the harsh cycle of labor that keeps the household functioning. Cook Mrs. Hill rules the roost, and maids Sarah and Polly do much of the hard work, their interminable roster of chores diminished a little by the hiring of a manservant, James Smith. Sarah is attracted to James, but he is mysterious and withdrawn, and soon, her eye is caught by another—Bingley’s black footman, Ptolemy. James, though trapped in his secrets, has noticed Sarah too and steps in when she is on the verge of making an impulsive mistake. And so, the romance begins. Baker is at her best when touching on the minutiae of work, of interaction, of rural life. James’ back story, though capably done, offers less magic. But a last episode, moving through grief and silence into understated romantic restoration, showcases a softly piercing insight.

Sequels and prequels rarely add to the original, but Baker’s simple yet inspired reimagining does. It has best-seller stamped all over it.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-35123-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

For readers who relish extravagant language, scathing wit and philosophical heft, this book wastes nothing.

WANT NOT

Miles’ panoramic second novel (Dear American Airlines, 2008) is structured around differing definitions of waste.

In a novelistic stratagem that has become increasingly prevalent in recent times, several characters relay the narrative until their voices and paths coalesce, more or less neatly, at novel’s end. In Miles’ version, the convergence is somewhat less wieldy but no less enjoyable. Elwin Cross Sr., an octogenarian historian now confined, due to Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home on Henry Street in Manhattan, is stuck on page 235 of his treatise on genocide as a byproduct of civilization. Elwin Cross Jr. is a linguist who has been summoned to assist in a federal project to devise a warning sign (for a nuclear waste dump) that humans will still understand 10,000 years hence. This presents a conundrum because Cross Jr., whose specialty is language death, knows that no mere verbiage can survive that long. Micah, a dreadlocked 20-something nature child who was raised in the wilderness by a religious fanatic, has brought her lover, Talmadge, from Burning Man to a squat near Henry Street, where they Dumpster-dive for all of life’s necessities. Their idyll is threatened when Matty, Talmadge’s skateboarding best friend from Ole Miss, shows up fresh out of prison. Sara, whose trader husband died on 9/11, was robbed even of the consolation of grief when she learns of the torrid affair he was carrying on. Since marrying the unscrupulous and sexually insatiable Dave—who has profited hugely by collecting from the country’s most vulnerable and gullible debtors—Sara has grown increasingly alarmed by the cynical affinity Dave has cultivated with her teenage daughter Alexis. Emotionally stunted by her father’s erasure from her life, Alexis may be pregnant but doesn’t want to know for sure. Tethered by the sheer weight of back story—each of these characters could merit a whole novel—and disquisitions on disposables of every kind, the novel eventually achieves exhilarating liftoff.

For readers who relish extravagant language, scathing wit and philosophical heft, this book wastes nothing.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-35220-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

A masterpiece, pure and simple.

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A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING

Ozeki’s magnificent third novel (All Over Creation, 2003, etc.) brings together a Japanese girl’s diary and a transplanted American novelist to meditate on everything from bullying to the nature of conscience and the meaning of life.

On the beach of an island off British Columbia’s coast, Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing a stack of letters and a red book. The book contains 16-year-old Nao’s diary, bound within the covers of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time—and that’s no accident, since both funny, grieving Nao and blocked, homesick Ruth are obsessed with time: how it passes, how we live in it. Nao wants to “drop out of time”; so does her father, a computer programmer who spent 10 years in California’s Silicon Valley before the dot-com bust apparently sent the family back to Tokyo and subjected Nao to vicious bullying at school. Ruth moved from New York City to Canada since it was an easier place to care for her sick husband and dying mother but now feels the move was “a withdrawal” and is finding it hard to write. She plunges into Nao’s diary, which also includes the stories of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, an anarchist and feminist turned Buddhist nun, and Jiko’s son Haruki, a philosophy student forced to become a kamikaze pilot during World War II. The letters in the lunchbox are Haruki’s, and his secret army diary begins the book’s extended climax, which transcends bitter anguish to achieve heartbreaking poignancy as both Nao and Ruth discover what it truly means to be “a time being.” Ozeki faultlessly captures the slangy cadences of a contemporary teen’s voice even as she uses it to convey Nao’s pain and to unobtrusively offer a quiet introduction to the practice and wisdom of Zen through Jiko’s talks with her great-granddaughter. The novel’s seamless web of language, metaphor and meaning can’t be disentangled from its powerful emotional impact: These are characters we care for deeply, imparting vital life lessons through the magic of storytelling.

A masterpiece, pure and simple.

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-670-02663-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

A touch too coyly postmodern at times, but a worthwhile entertainment all the same.

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NIGHT FILM

An inventive—if brooding, strange and creepy—adventure in literary terror. Think Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King meet Guillermo del Toro as channeled by Klaus Kinski.

In her sophomore effort, Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 2006) hits the scary ground running. Filmmaker Stanislas Cordova has made a specialty of goose bumps for years; as Pessl writes, he’s churned out things that keep people from entering dark rooms alone, things about which viewers stay shtum ever after. Cordova himself hasn’t granted an interview since 1977, when Rolling Stone published his description of his favorite frame as “sovereign, deadly, perfect.” Cordova is thrust back into the limelight when his daughter is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in Chinatown. Scott McGrath, reporter on the way to being washed-up, finds cause for salvation of a kind in the poor young woman’s demise. McGrath’s history with Cordova stretches back years, and now, it’s up to him to find out just how bad this extra-bad version of Hitchcock really is. He finds out, too; as one of the shadowy figures who wanders in and out of these pages remarks, ominously, “Some knowledge, it eats you alive.” Oh, yes, it does. Readers will learn a thing or two about psychotropic drugs, to say nothing of the dark side of Manhattan and the still darker side of filmmaking. And speaking of hallucinations, Pessl’s book does a good imitation of a multimedia extravaganza, interspersed with faux web pages and images. All it needs is for a voice to croak out “boo” from the binding, and it’d be complete unto itself.

A touch too coyly postmodern at times, but a worthwhile entertainment all the same.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6788-6

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Of a piece with Pynchon’s recent work—not quite a classic à la V. but in a class of its own—more tightly woven but no less...

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BLEEDING EDGE

Pynchon (Inherent Vice, 2009, etc.) makes a much-anticipated return, and it’s trademark stuff: a blend of existential angst, goofy humor and broad-sweeping bad vibes.

Paranoia, that operative word in Pynchon’s world ever since Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), is what one of his characters here calls “the garlic in life’s kitchen.” Well, there’s paranoia aplenty to be had in Pynchon’s sauté pan, served up in the dark era of the 9/11 attack, the dot-com meltdown and the Patriot Act. Maxine Tarnow is, on the face of it, just another working mom in the city, but in reality, after she’s packed her kids’ lunches and delivered them at school, she’s ferreting around with data cowboys and code monkeys, looking into various sorts of electronic fraud. Her estranged husband, apparently a decent enough sort, “to this day has enjoyed a nearly error-free history of knowing how certain commodities around the world will behave,” but Maxine has a keen sense of how data flows and from whom to whom. One track she follows leads to a genius billionaire and electronic concoctions that can scarcely be believed—but also, in a customarily loopy way, to organized crime, terrorism, big data and the U.S. government, with the implication, as Horst later will ponder, that all are bound up in the collapse of the Twin Towers. (“Remember the week before this happened, all those put options on United and American Airlines? Which turned out to be exactly the two airlines that got hijacked?”) If you were sitting in a plane next to someone muttering about such things, you might ask to change seats, but Pynchon has long managed to blend his particularly bleak view of latter-day humankind with a tolerant ability to find true humor in our foibles. If he’s sometimes heavy-handed, he’s also attuned precisely to the zeitgeist, drawing in references to Pabst Blue Ribbon longnecks, Mamma Mia, the Diamondbacks/Yankees World Series, Office Space, and the touching belief of young Zuckerbergs in the age before Zuckerberg that their bleeding-edge technology—“[n]o proven use, high risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with”—will somehow be put to good use rather than, as Pynchon assures us, to the most evil applications.

Of a piece with Pynchon’s recent work—not quite a classic à la V. but in a class of its own—more tightly woven but no less madcap than Inherent Vice, and sure to the last that we live in a world of very odd shadows.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59420-423-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

An often depressing, cautionary and thoroughly excellent tale of the excesses of empire, ambition and the too easily...

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THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL

National Book Award—winning novelist Shacochis (The Immaculate Invasion, 1999, etc.) makes a long-awaited—indeed, much-anticipated—return to fiction with this stunning novel of love, innocence and honor lost.

The wait was worth it, for Shacochis has delivered a work that in its discomfiting moral complexity and philosophical density belongs alongside Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. Tom Harrington is a humanitarian lawyer whose path takes him into difficult country: Haiti in the wake of dictatorship and storm, for one. He is unsettled and lonely, even as his stateside wife is one of those blessedly ignorant Americans who “pray for the deafness that comes with a comfortable life”—a comfortable life that would be much more attainable were Tom someone who cared about money. He is not saintly, though. Into his orbit has come a fetching, utterly mysterious journalist whom Tom has met more than once along the trail of good deeds done by sometimes not so good people. Her murder sends him reeling into a long, arcing story of discovery that becomes ever more tangled as Shacochis spins it, taking it across decades and oceans. Among the players are a tough-as-nails Delta Force combatant who surely knows that he’s being played as a pawn by the likes of an unlikable senior spook who lives for opera, cocktails and deception; even so, the soldier takes pride in his role in what he calls “Jihadi pest control,” just as the spy takes pride in what he did in all those dark corners during the Cold War. These characters are bound to one another, and to Jackie, by blood or elective affinities. Either way, Shacochis would seem to suggest, their real business is to hide themselves from the world, while the business of the world is to help them disguise their subterfuge. Everything in the landscape is secret and forbidden, potentially fatal, doomed to fail—and yet everyone persists, presses on, with what they believe their missions to be. Shacochis is a master of characterization; his story, though very long, moves like a fast-flowing river, and it is memorably, smartly written: “ ‘Cleopatra spoke nine languages,’ Jackie informed him with a distinctly peevish rise to her voice for what she obviously considered a set series of infinitely tiresome challenges to the perception of her specialness, the unfair excesses of her drop-dead good looks or intellect or courage or God knows, her very birth, as if she had somehow stolen those laudable parts of herself from someone else, an imaginary deprived person.”

An often depressing, cautionary and thoroughly excellent tale of the excesses of empire, ambition and the too easily fragmented human soul.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1982-7

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

Dark and peculiar, simultaneously sinister and playful, Aridjis’ modern gothic vision will charm those prepared to linger in...

ASUNDER

A self-effacing life devoted to obsessive minutiae is cracked open in this oblique, disturbing, yet oddly compelling tale.

Surreal and haunting, Aridjis’ (Book of Clouds, 2009) understated second novel, set in London, traces a decisive phase in the life of Marie, a 33-year-old museum guard who has worked at the National Gallery for nearly 10 years. With her days spent almost invisibly among the visitors and paintings, her free time is passed in similarly low-key fashion, hanging out with a poet friend, Daniel, or working on a collection of peculiar sculptures—landscapes made inside eggshells. Marie’s hypnotic half-life is dotted with eccentric characters—a taxidermist; her flatmate, who is obsessed with moth strips—and brief yet telling descriptive sidebars about strange details, like the causes of craquelure (cracked varnish on old paintings) or the destruction of a famous work of art at the gallery by a suffragette, an act witnessed by Marie’s great-grandfather. Prisons, mental institutions and peculiar visions of decay crop up repeatedly, while actual events are few. But during a strange, vaguely unpleasant holiday in Paris with Daniel, a chance encounter in a dilapidated chateau pushes Marie over an invisible line.

Dark and peculiar, simultaneously sinister and playful, Aridjis’ modern gothic vision will charm those prepared to linger in her cabinet of curiosities.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-544-00346-0

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

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