The superintendent of an 11-story apartment building in Chicago falls from the roof, remembering stories of the tenants on his way down.
As a teenage trumpet prodigy, Roscoe lost a finger in the gate of his apartment building’s elevator. His trumpet dream shattered, he became superintendent of that same building, where he’s lived all his life. Now living in a Spartan basement apartment, he sees to the needs of the building’s tenants. But Roscoe never gave up on the trumpet, and on a fateful autumn evening, he ascends to the roof of the building to play his trumpet for all the world to hear. The people down on the sidewalk are entranced. Roscoe finishes and modestly bows—but loses his balance and begins his fatal plunge. Then the frame story launches: Time slows as Roscoe descends 11 floors, remembering a story about someone who lived on each floor he passes. Sylvia Freeman, a hoarder, lived on 10. On seven lived exiled Joaquin Rojas, whose Cuban friend sent him books stolen from Castro’s library. David and Bill, the gay couple who lived on the sixth floor, split up over a stupid misunderstanding. Mrs. Delpy lived on five, where her psychotic son Martin crawled out on the ledge, followed by Roscoe. Finally, on the second floor lived Roscoe’s only lifelong love, Iris Montgomery, with their illicit love consummated just once. Cander’s book isn’t quite Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), though. Some stories, like the perennially clogged toilet on eight, are playful anecdotes. Yet many of the tenants show heartbreaking spiritual damage; some of them are admirable, some not so much. Quiet, diffident Roscoe, who’s spent half a century supporting them all in one way or another, just as admirably supports these stories.
This pitch-perfect novel reimagines the life of Rose Wilder Lane, co-author of Little House on the Prairie.
Albert (Widow’s Tears, 2013, etc.) has discovered an endlessly fascinating protagonist. Lane, the libertarian and rumored lesbian, was an established, award-winning writer in her own right, but she may be best remembered today as the uncredited co-author of the Little House books written by her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Albert’s well-researched novel draws from the letters and journal entries of both women to offer a fictionalized account of the years spanning 1928-1939. The Great Depression threatens not only Rose’s livelihood as a writer, but also the free-wheeling, itinerant lifestyle she so values. When she and her companion, Helen Boylston, leave their home in Albania and return to the Wilder farmstead in Missouri, the move is meant to be temporary—Mansfield, Mo., has little to offer in the way of culture, after all, and Rose frequently clashes with her headstrong and old-fashioned mother. In the aftershock of the stock market crash, however, both women lose their savings, and Rose loses the financial stability she had enjoyed as a freelance writer before the crash. When a publisher shows interest in printing the stories of Laura’s difficult frontier childhood (but Laura’s untrained writing fails to impress), the mother and daughter enter into an unlikely, often contentious collaboration to produce the now-beloved Little House books. From this strange, very specific historical relationship, Albert has written a nuanced, moving and resonant novel about fraught mother-daughter relationships, family obligation, and the ways we both inherit and reject the values of our parents. The book also offers insightful, timely commentary on what it means to be a career writer.
With all of the charm of the Little House series—and the benefit of a sophisticated, adult worldview—Albert’s novel is an absolute pleasure.
Two aspiring rock musicians think that the way to success is for one of them to fake his own death, then capitalize on the phony tragedy.
In his mid-20s, Joel Wilson works as a bellhopat a Sydney hotel, where he hooks up with slightly older Wade Farley, a lobby pianist, to form a rock band. But to Joel, this is only a means to an end, as he really sees himself as a filmmaker. Unable to get a recording contract, Joel and Wade hatch a scheme: They’ll go to New York, where they’ll fake Joel’s death and turn that tragedy into a launch pad for their music. Once the deed is done, Joel travels to Montreal, where he takes on an assumed name. Time passes, and Joel hears nothing from Wade. Then, one day, he turns on the radio and hears one of his songs being played as part of a tribute album put together in his memory. It looks like the scheme worked, and Wade has been living it up in New York while Joel has been on the down low in Montreal. The ensuing complications, however, humorously expose the dark underbelly of fame in the music business. The premise isn’t entirely original, and the machinations of how Joel and Wade pull off their scam are a little on the sketchy side, but Joel’s misadventures in three different cities are hilariously rendered. He and Wade fit into the pantheon of great losers, the author having a Charles Portis–like gift for writing about dim bulbs without condescending to them. The book’s filled with laugh-out-loud lines and dialogue, more than compensating for any flaws in terms of story logic or narrative cohesion, making for a memorable trip through the demimonde of wannabe rock stars.
Unrefined but infectious, like a barely legal high.
A disillusioned writer travels to the tropics in search of inspiration in Blanc’s emotionally astute debut novel.
Cristobal Porter is a British writer whose work is in decline. With each novel garnering less critical acclaim than the last, the author spends more time looking out of windows than he does writing. Badgered by his publisher and tormented by a difficult first relationship following the death of his wife, he retreats to an unnamed island in the tropics, where civil unrest lurks beneath the surface of everyday life. On his arrival, Porter uneasily slips into society following his introduction to the slick yet lascivious American diplomat, Jack Kaplan. Kaplan’s wife, the enigmatic Ana, is a patron of the arts, and Porter finds himself lingering at the edge of her cocktail party, staring at the backs of artists and well-heeled expats. While Kaplan dismisses the art scene, Ana finds a kindred spirit in Porter, and a bond tentatively forms between them. Porter goes about his book research but is almost immediately encumbered by the unannounced arrival of Nadia, his dangerously seductive young mistress. As his yearning for Ana grows stronger, Porter recognizes a growing intimacy between Nadia and Kaplan. When Ana finally learns of her husband’s affair, she draws Porter closer, but a tragic secret from her past rocks their budding relationship. As the plot unfolds, the whispers of uprising grow louder. Blanc is supremely sensitive to the trials and tribulations of the creative process; he writes with the wisdom of an established author grown weary of the literary scene. Some readers may consider the depiction of an emotionally disheveled yet unconventionally dashing novelist to be somewhat clichéd, but that thought is far outweighed by Blanc’s brilliantly detailed study of human connections and disconnections, in which even the most indiscernible movements of body, mind and heart are painstakingly recognized and charted.
A masterfully written exploration of the beauty and cruelty of love, as sharp as it is sensual.
A hellacious father retains his grip on his son’s psyche even after death in this darkly brilliant debut novel.
Jack Hickman Jr. has carved out a niche in affluent, anomic Sunnyvale, Calif., developing team-building software. It’s as close to real human engagement as his free-floating alienation (and violent fantasies) will allow. He’s called back to the wasteland of Lowfield, Texas, where he grew up,after his father, Big Jack, kills himself, and he weathers agonizing encounters with his mother and brother, both zoned-out drug addicts, and his stepmother, an officious woman who upbraids him for his callow misanthropy. The story of his bleak odyssey is interspersed with scenes from his even bleaker boyhood under his father’s thumb. Big Jack was a titan of runty, redneck rage, a welder who compensated for his small stature and smaller prospects with an explosive temper, caustic sarcasm and guns; he also had a knack for cruelly twisting the insecurities of anyone weaker than him, including his children, his wife and his many girlfriends. Smith uses acid-etched scenes of abuse, pervaded with menace and humiliation, to create a disturbing study of domestic terror at its most intimate. Yet Big Jack is punishingly human, a link in the great chain of threat and belittlement that is working-class masculinity; his impulses toward charity and beauty yield only baffling pain and squalor. Smith brings his magnetic characters to life with penetrating psychological insight, pitch-perfect dialogue and subtly evocative imagery, and he sets them in a sharply observed panorama of the industrial Gulf Coast, with its trash-strewn ditches, fire-ant mounds and moldy trailer courts. It’s a “concrete and salt-grass landscape under rust skies made of pipes and catwalks,” harboring a life that amounts to “a great nothingness…a hissing television on a dead station.” Smith’s tale is a riveting update of Southern gothic themes, told with dead-on realism and raw intensity.
A powerful family saga by a writer with talent to burn.
A dysfunctional family reflects the decay of New Orleans in debut author LaFlaur’s tale of brotherly love and menace.
Much like the lush, crumbling city in which it lives, the Weems family exists on the edge of decrepitude. Gasper, the deceased father whose odd demise haunts the ramshackle family home, was a cheerful but ineffectual man, and his ailing wife, Melba, and his elder son, Simpson, share his weak nature. If Gasper had any strength, it funneled into the younger son, Bartholomew, who holds his family hostage with his gargantuan body, constant consumption and zealous antics.He is the elephant in the room, and although his mother believes that he needs psychiatric help—and a job to augment her pitiful pension—she holds no sway over him. Neither does Simpson, his 36-year-old brother; he works a dead-end job in a copy shop by day and frequents a brothel by night—until his favorite nymphet, the only person he let through his emotional barriers, vanishes. Now all Simpson has left is his persistent dream of moving to San Francisco and becoming a poet, but his family ties bind him to his mother’s frailties and his brother’s psychotic tantrums. As Simpson wanders the “shadows of the city’s infrastructure” in the Gentilly section of town, he dreams of something else: fratricide. On those walks, LaFlaur’s descriptive talent shines. Fertile imagery drips like Spanish moss: the old buildings collapsing, “as though the humidity-sodden bricks were returning to mud,” while “cloud stacks glowed like the battlements of heaven.” Simpson’s mental landscape is equally vivid, drawn with such empathy and depth that readers will forgive his perpetual indecision and may even root for him to carry out the removal of his near-deranged brother.
A wholly involving story with Faulkner-ian characters in a fully realized setting.
In this remarkable debut novel, a young girl named Almondine narrates the mystery of her own birth on the whimsical island of Oh.
In the tropical island country of Oh, Raoul Orlean wants to know two things: Who is his granddaughter’s true father, and where did the missing pineapples go? The decline of the pineapple trade has left an abundance of the prickly fruit; Raoul, the sole man at Oh’s international customs counter, can present one to every tourist who deplanes, and outside the airport, his friend Bang sells penknives for cutting the pineapples. Nat, owner of a fleet of mismatched vehicles, drives the tourists to and fro, most likely depositing them at Oh’s popular bar, the Buddha’s Belly, overseen by the jolly and generous Cougar. Raoul, Almondine’s grandfather, is troubled by her arrival in the world. She looks nothing like her faithful mother or father but everything like Gustave, the manager of a pineapple plantation. Raoul could dislike Gustave enough based on this suspicion, but then he awakens to a new surprise: Two acres of Gustave’s pineapple plantation have “disappeared” overnight. The country of Oh cries black magic. Raoul—and by extension, the Office of Customs and Excise, whose government export tax the disappearance avoids—cries foul. Aided by his favorite nonfiction detective books, he diligently sets out to find his granddaughter’s origin and the missing pineapples. Oh seems to be a place overflowing with gossip and magic, but Raoul’s friends and family might hold the answers. The novel is built upon Almondine’s incredible narration, as she coyly pulls the reader along on these tandem mysteries, weaving in and out of her family’s stories and secrets. Her witty, pun-filled language and swift storytelling imbue the novel with charm, yet for all the back stories and interweaving, Almondine is careful to keep readers by her side as she unravels the detailed story of her grandfather and his friends. Siciarz has a talent as plentiful as Oh’s pineapples, and readers will hunger for more.
A tropical feast of charming, clever characters, smart storytelling and just the right amount of magic.
In this engaging follow-up novel (Breakfast With Buddha, 2008), Merullo takes readers on a spiritual road trip through the American West.
Otto Ringling is a successful New York City editor who has built a happy, comfortable life with his family in the suburbs. But when his wife, Jeannie, dies, Otto’s entire orbit is suddenly thrown off course. Along with his two college-aged children, his New-Age sister Cecelia, her eccentric, sort-of Buddhist husband and guru, Volya Rinpoche, and their enlightened 6-year-old daughter, Otto finds himself in the forests of Washington to spread his wife’s ashes. On the way back to the family farm in North Dakota, Otto rides alone with Volya—a reprise of the trip the two took in Breakfast With Buddha—in a beat-up pickup truck. Together, they traverse the mountainous West, Otto teaches Volya about American culture—including food, water parks, marijuana and transvestites—and Volya teaches Otto how to let go. Otto is frustrated and often angry. While he has embraced some of Volya’s teachings—and has even tried his hand at meditation and yoga—his wife’s death has left him bitter, skeptical and confused. But he does his best to keep an open mind: He listens to Volya, even when his sweet, wise and goofy companion says little; he asks questions, even when he knows that the answers will most likely elude him. In Otto Ringling, Merullo offers readers a hero that’s a bit jaded but loving; a little lost but searching. One can’t help but root for Otto, despite—or perhaps because of—his curmudgeonly tendencies, and hope that he finds the inner peace that, even if he doesn’t quite know it, he desperately seeks. While there are a few flat notes—a handful of too-convenient circumstances to help Otto along his path to clearer consciousness and some distracting references to too-current events (the Obama/Biden campaign, tumult in Syria) that pluck the narrative from its otherwise timeless path—Merullo’s is a beautifully written and compelling story about a man’s search for meaning that earnestly and accessibly tackles some well-trodden but universal questions.
A quiet meditation on life, death, darkness and spirituality, sprinkled with humor, tenderness and stunning landscapes.
Set in Minneapolis during the Great Depression, McInerny’s novel tells the story of Horton Moon, whose love of drink and women leads to his downfall.
Moon’s life is something short of perfect. He has a job, but it doesn’t pay nearly enough; with four kids and a fifth on the way, he’s struggling. He loves his wife, Annie, and most of the time they get along, but she doesn’t like how much time he spends drinking at the neighborhood bar. Then Moon meets and falls in love with Caroline, a young woman freshly arrived from the prairie. Though he never stops loving Annie, he takes up with Caroline; it isn’t long before Annie learns of the affair. Things are bleak, and when Moon loses his job, they grow bleaker. That’s when he decides to take his friend Peterson up on his offer to partner together for a robbery. It seems to go well, and Moon is relieved to be suddenly flush with money—until he learns that the guys they stole from want him dead. For a while, Moon goes underground, living among the hard-luck guys at the poor end of town before leaving the city, but for him, Minneapolis is home. So, he comes home to face his fate. With the exception of a short prologue and epilogue, Moon draws readers in while narrating in the present tense, and McInerny’s simple, spare style captures the feel of 1930s Minnesota. In describing a key character, Moon says, “There’s a history between Uncle Jack Morrison and myself that I maybe need to spell out right here. I don’t like Jack. And he doesn’t like me.” The short prologue introduces an element of mystery that will keep readers guessing until almost the very end of the novel. As the prologue states, the real story is that of Moon and how he changed; though the novel is essentially a character study, it avoids the dull, self-indulgent style that can sometimes weigh down similar novels. McInerny balances Moon’s moments of introspection with bursts of action that keep the pace quick and the pages turning.
This tale of a flawed man in a gritty setting manages to be both intense and beautiful.
When a long-running documentary series is cancelled, the show’s filmmakers must navigate a new reality TV landscape in this satiric novel.
Marty Maltzman’s award-winning prime-time series Lights and Sirens has been following emergency responders such as police, paramedics, hospital ERs and the Coast Guard for 16 years, telling dramatic stories of injury and danger. Now, the show’s been axed, a victim of a shift in reality TV toward the Kardashians, celebrity weight losers and spoiled “housewives.” Hunter Marlow, a producer on the series, would like to revisit her documentary Second Sex (widow-burning in India, clitoridectomies in Sudan), but she needs funding. She has a new and well-paying reality TV–producing offer from Ian Rand, CEO of RandWorld Productions. But he betrayed her in the past; can she trust him? Can Marty trust the gorgeous, much younger actress Crimson Fennel, who’s making a play for him? Can anyone trust anyone else in Hollywood? Peltier, herself an award-winning producer and writer (Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan, Secrets of the Pyramids, etc.), uses her insider knowledge of Los Angeles, the TV industry and its players to craft a zinging satire. When Marty pitches a show following smokejumpers, a young exec replies, “[O]ur audiences tend to gravitate more to, say, the crazy pyros who are setting the fires, not the guys who just go around putting them out.” Hunter, starting work on a new series, is shown the secrets of Frankenbites: chopped up, remixed and enhanced editing used to create a more dramatic but false story out of raw “reality” footage. As a colleague explains to an appalled Hunter: “Sometimes I do just want to go home and take a shower. But you know, it’s only television. It’s not like anyone takes it seriously.” But in this smart, funny, insightful novel, reality TV becomes all too real, forcing several characters to confront their decisions. Peltier examines the Hollywood world of writers, producers, rich kids, actors, wannabes and con men with a keen and often compassionate eye.
A dead-on satire—with a heart—of the reality TV scene from a knowledgeable, witty insider.
Debut novelist Banks crafts a sweeping tale of seduction, betrayal and war.
This novel draws on the shared, complicated colonial history between the British and Chinese peoples and spans six decades, starting in 1937 when fighting between Japanese and Chinese troops led to the Second Sino-Japanese War. It focuses on Jardine, a young Chinese orphan who knows little of her past. In 1997, Jack Morgan, an elderly, dying Kentuckian who has lived in China for decades, summons Jardine to his apartment and tells her, “The woman who kept you from knowing who you are has recently died.” That woman, Violet Summerhays Morgan, was Jack’s long-suffering, infertile wife and the daughter of Percival Summerhays, Jack’s benefactor and boss. Jealous of Jack’s imagined and real affairs, Violet cheated, lied and even murdered in her attempt to win Jack’s love and destroy her competition. But in 1937, Jack met and fell in love with Ana, a Russian émigré, and had a daughter with her named Bella. That girl’s fate, and Jardine’s, is inextricably bound to that of her parents’ and those of their many friends and enemies in business and romance. Banks’ evocative prose is impressive throughout: “Algy knew he’d always remember this moment, the sound of the clock on the wall ticking, the man’s hand as it clutched the bottle, and the look of the wife, slow and hateful, as they drank her liquor and her happiness.” The plot twists like ginkgoes in the wind as the characters cruelly betray one another. As Jack tells Jardine, “Modern man is no better off; he only thinks he is because he has television and gadgets, can shit in a flush pot, and see the world—still a savage, though.” In the end, Banks delivers an engaging tale of forgiveness and the strength of familial ties, even when those ties have been frayed almost to extinction.
A spectacular novel of colonial China that should put this first-time author on the map.
In 13 short stories based on real life, Ross (Nine...Ten...and Out! The Two Worlds of Emile Griffith, 2008, etc.) mines the memories of his life to create memorable characters struggling to survive against unfavorable odds.
To Ross, the boxing ring and its “gallant performers” have always seemed “to be a microcosm of life.” In “The Journeyman,” Ross’ opening story, the author portrays the weary existence of a seasoned prizefighter named Billy Dumas, aka “The King of Plain.” A “Model-T in a world of Corvettes and Porsches,” Billy’s been beaten so badly he develops what appears to be dementia—and a tragic belief in his own ability. The succeeding trio of tales revolves around the street-wise, Brooklyn adolescence of future Jewish prizefighter Al “Boomy” Davidoff and a gang of miscreants, such as Brownsville bully Billy Belch and “soda bottle-cap legend” Bitsy Beckerman, who act as if they’re on “the farm team of Murder, Inc.” “The Cashayfelope Man,” about the mystery surrounding a foreign-born ragpicker, takes place around the desperate time of what 6-year-old protagonist Dovie Mendelson calls “the Limberg baby.” Brownsville, the Brooklynneighborhood of pushcarts and punch-ball games, reappears along with another set of pugilists and promoters in two of the book’s stronger pieces, “An Entrepreneurial Act” and “The Glory Days.” The former is a touching eulogy for Monk, “who throws as many punches with his face as he does with his fists”; the latter is a love letter, alternately heartbreaking and inspiring, to the camaraderie of boxers and trainers. The final three tales are told in rhyming verse, which detracts slightly from the power of the author’s wise-guy vernacular and polished prose. For the most part, Ross writes like a Steinbeck trained as a boxing columnist on the Lower East Side. Humorous turns of phrase keep sad inevitabilities at bay: “[T]his whole world ain’t made up of ditch-diggers and pugs,” says Monk—a thought that runs contrary to the world Ross handily creates.
A lithe, lyrical collection that packs more than a few punches.
An elegiac novel that deftly combines elements of investigative journalism and crime fiction.
This debut effort follows the morally wrenching aftermath of a major urban catastrophe in a way that’s eerily evocative of the 9/11 attacks. A massive fire consumes the Parramore Plaza in Orlando, Fla., killing 115 people and emotionally scarring untold more. Marko Abissi, arecently fired janitor, immediately falls under suspicion, as he all too perfectly fits the profile of an arsonist: He has a history of violence and a personal life crumbling into disarray. There are also rumors that he has ties to the Middle East. Juni Bruner, a grizzled veteran reporter, tirelessly investigates every lead, desperately trying to make sense of the despairingly senseless. The book’s startlingly innovative structure powerfully captures the city’s madness in response to the disaster. Instead of a traditional novel told from a single perspective, the book is more like a heap of archival documents—including newspaper articles, personal correspondence, transcripts of telephone conversations and even a worker’s compensation report. The reader becomes a proactive participant in the investigation, poring over the dark mystery’s disjointed evidence. From the outset, the novel reveals that Bruner won a Pulitzer Prize for her ace reportage and that she ultimately took her own life, leaving only a 200-page manuscript as a clue to her inconsolable sadness. Her spiraling descent mirrors the city’s frenzied chaos, its people numbed by depression and enlivened by the urgency to assign blame. Although the climax is fairly predictable early on, it’s still a poignant conclusion to a stirring tale. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that the narrative remains a seamless whole, even as it unfolds in fractured parts.
A moving parable about the wounding effects of human tragedy and the collateral damage of the search for moral truth.
In this enjoyable work of historical fiction set in the Jane Austen universe, Cromlin imagines what makes the mysterious Fitzwilliam Darcy tick.
In her book Pride and Prejudice, Austen famously suggests, “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” With these words, the scene is set for Fitzwilliam Darcy, one of the most beloved, well-known characters in Austen’s oeuvre. Cromlin, in her book set prior to Darcy’s debut in Pride and Prejudice, envisions Darcy’s formative years, beginning with Darcy’s birth and continuing through his childhood and young-adult years. She breathes life into his parents, illuminates the bond between Darcy and his sister, and delves with great detail into the history of the contentious relationship between Darcy and George Wickham. Readers are invited to celebrate holidays at Pemberley and travel the world with Darcy during his adventurous grand tourabroad. Perhaps of most interest, Cromlin seeks to explain how Austen’s Darcy, a gentleman of great wealth, good character and impeccable manners, becomes a man perceived as distant and unpleasant. The journey toward understanding this complex character is immensely enjoyable, and the supporting cast of familiar characters, such as Col. Fitzwilliam and Georgiana Darcy, helps round out the satisfying story. Cromlin’s poetic descriptions paint a clear portrait of Darcy’s life of privilege in 18th-century England, tackling the many facets of Darcy’s personality with aplomb, often using his own thoughts to better explain his actions and defining characteristics. Ultimately, Cromlin’s tale arrives at the fateful moment when Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet first set eyes on each other, providing a seamless transition into Austen’s literature and Darcy’s future.
Austen devotees may enjoy this glimpse into Darcy’s background, and Austen newcomers might find themselves searching the shelves for her classic novels.