An irreverent, honest look at life outside the mainstream Mormon Church.
Townsend’s (Mormon Bullies, 2012, etc.) timely book presents a number of touching vignettes focused on quirky characters struggling to reconcile their own beliefs with the rigid doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He focuses much of his attention on the struggle between homosexuality and acceptance within the faith, providing a number of stories focused on gay men who have fallen away from the church. These men have been excommunicated because of their lifestyle, yet they find themselves unable to completely cut ties and walk away from the belief system in which they’d spent years being indoctrinated. Other characters are also struggling with alternate life choices that have placed them outside the mainstream faith. One couple struggles with the decision to remain childless; a devout man questions his own relevance within the church after being overlooked for a higher calling; a depressing LDS singles cruise leads a desperate man to realize he may be too far outside the norm to truly fit into the Mormon community. Townsend touches on family, addiction, sex and love, concepts that should resonate with all readers. Throughout his musings on sin and forgiveness, Townsend beautifully demonstrates his characters’ internal, perhaps irreconcilable struggles. As appropriate for a compilation of stories that present real characters in gritty reality, nothing is black and white. Townsend condemns facets of the religion yet manages to present conflicted viewpoints with balance. Rather than anger and disdain, he offers an honest portrayal of people searching for meaning and community in their lives, regardless of their life choices or secrets.
A perfect read for the election season, though its appeal will endure.
In this novel, a group of friends gathers to pay respect to a retired Air Force major following his untimely death in an auto accident.
Sharp’s debut is a frame narrative of impressive scope and quality. Between the visitation and interment of Frank Miller, an omniscient narrator defines the role of seven individuals in Frank’s life. In 22 well-paced, retrospective chapters—beginning in 1960 and continuing at intervals to 2010—readers will come to know and relate to these characters. (The script for The Big Chill is strikingly similar, if not as thematically rich.) Stylistically, the novel unfolds by means of colorful dialogue and pungent observations typical of Henry James. Sharp’s astute commentary guides the reader through motivations not otherwise apparent. Many chapters involve Frank’s second wife, Lillian, and his oldest friend, Sam, who brought the two together. Sam, however, keeps from him the high school intimacy he shared with Lillian. Defiantly promiscuous and rebellious as a teenager, Lillian remains a seductress and risk-taker in adulthood. This includes a liaison with Ted, another of Frank’s longtime friends, before she marries Frank when they are both firmly rooted in middle age. Business colleagues Ben and Rafi appear at a memorable business lunch in 1980 that provides the title of the novel. As the colleagues argue about the message scrawled above the urinals in the restaurant’s restroom, some readers may find the novel’s irreverence on par with Joseph Heller’s. Beth—one of Frank’s business colleagues—and Sam’s wife, Fran, are also major players, but other spouses, ex-wives, adult children and lovers take on secondary yet intriguing roles. Each of the major characters has something to hide from Frank, primarily of a sexual nature. But Frank has something he hides from them, too, in this sassy and bold look at life well-lived.
Rosa Rizzio and her friends take different paths to escape the poverty of New York City’s Lower East Side during the 1940s.
In 1942, Rosa Rizzio was a junior high dropout eager to start making money. Growing up during the Great Depression in a crowded, dirty cold-water tenement, she and her Italian-immigrant family lived through grinding poverty. In the time before President Roosevelt’s New Deal and free school lunches, her mother sometimes stole food just to give them one meal a day. Now, with a war raging and jobs plentiful, Rosa charts a path toward financial security that begins with a summer job waitressing then develops into work as a rumba instructor (she changes her name to Rose Rice). Eventually, by the age of 15, she finds herself becoming the pampered mistress of Sam Cohen, a married garment-industry millionaire. She’d prefer someone young, handsome and single—and also rich—but you can’t have everything. Over the years, one childhood friend marries and moves to Long Island; another goes to college; and still another, Ruthie, on the brink of respectable marriage, throws over her potential husband in order to pursue a richer man, with disastrous results. Rose’s hardheaded gold-digging isn’t that different from her mother’s attitude toward theft: “Her family had to eat somehow. They had to dress somehow. And they had to keep warm somehow. It is a question of survival.” No amount of low-wage work could ever earn her the gowns, jewels and high life she craves, Rose reasons. Her sugar daddy wants to pay, so why not let him? By her own lights, she’s a good friend: “When youse go out with Sam’s friends, don’t be ashamed to axk them for money. If youse don’t, they won’t give youse anything and you’ll wind up with nothen but jelly beans,” she advises Ruthie. The novel has its faults—substandard punctuation and grammar, spelling by ear (“Old Lang Zain,” “By Mir Mister Shane”), haphazardly shifting points of view, far too much unnecessary detail, and wandering timelines—but it is undeniably engaging, much like coming across an old diary. Seeing Rose walk step by step into the life of a kept woman is fascinating, and it’s impressive how well debut author Tarcici depicts the temptations of glamor. Rose’s choices are not unlike those made today by young men who want—for various reasons—to be players in the drug trade. Though her family may disapprove, Rose becomes their main breadwinner; they have to eat somehow. Mercenary and vulgar as Rose is, she has the pluck and the luck to get what she wants.
Vivid period details and a forthright heroine help smooth the rough edges of this rags-to-riches story.
Troncoso tells the story of a Mexican-American family as they come to terms with their cultural heritage over a span of 40 years.
The new novel from Troncoso (Crossing Borders, 2011, etc.) follows Cuauhtémoc and Pilar Martinez and their four children in the border town of Ysleta, Texas. As the children grow up, they feel the pull of their parents’ love for Mexico and the opposing force of their own identities in America. Cuauhtémoc is able to retire early from working as a draftsman and travels with his wife, living off the income from the apartments owned by the family. Pilar, a Catholic mother who is stern but instills strong values in her children, is a hardworking housewife who sold Avon to help with the bills. However, she worries that she hasn’t done enough to fill her children with her beliefs: “Pilar was overcome with incredible sadness. Why had her children abandoned the church? Why had they become like grains of sand scattered throughout the desert?” The oldest, Julia, becomes Aliyah, converting to Islam and moving to Tehran with her husband and three children. Francisco is overweight and attending community college but works tirelessly at the apartments, playing the role of the good son. Marcos becomes a teacher and a member of the Army Reserve, marrying a white woman and living near his family in Ysleta. Ismael, the youngest, goes to Harvard and marries a Jewish woman, escaping the confines of his home in Texas only to meet with the labors of life as a man torn between his duties as a husband and his aspirations as a writer. Troncoso seamlessly intertwines the struggles the grown children face with their parents’ desire to help them become independent and proud Mexican-Americans. The prose is powerful in an unassuming way, making for a captivating read. The author carefully paces the book, with each chapter plotting an era in the family’s lives, ultimately joining the family’s collective narrative of religion and family obligation with the current events of the time. Troncoso is clearly adept at his craft, telling a story filled with rich language and the realities of family life and closing with a son reassuring his mother and literature reassuring them both.
With its skillful pairing of conflict over religious and familial obligations with the backdrop of a Mexican-American family’s love for one another, Troncoso’s novel is an engaging literary achievement.
Zinn (The Happiness Lottery, 2011, etc.) returns with a novel that chronicles the trials of a wandering cowboy who learns to take life by the horns.
Tyler “Ty” McNeil makes his living running rodeo shows, just like his father, now deceased, did. Ty spends several years traveling far from home to do so, which strains his marriage. He eventually chooses the rodeo over his wife, finding himself alone and unfulfilled. As a result, Ty makes a radical decision to take control of his life and live it on his own terms. Rather than blindly following the direction of others, Ty now desires to direct his own path, regardless of his obligations. The peace he makes and his thoughts on life as he grows older are magnificently captured through intermittent reflections. Ty abandons the rodeo and sets his sights on a ranch back home in southwestern Arizona. Zinn’s characterization is purposeful, deep and rich; each character is well-developed and instrumental to the story. An intriguing mix of cultures populates the novel: Anglos, Mexicans, Native Americans and mixed-blood families. Although the story chronicles the changes in Ty’s life over the course of two generations, the setting takes almost equal precedence, brought to life by vivid descriptions of the landscape. Among several entwined themes, family and its different permutations are at the heart of the novel: The rejection of Ty’s biological son contrasts Ty’s relationship with his adopted daughter. The author’s love for Arizona is immersed in her lyrical writing, as the impact of environment on family is threaded wonderfully into various plotlines.
An eloquent, refreshing perspective on the struggles faced by those living along the Mexican border.
A roller-coaster ride through the sex- and thrills-addled brain of the young, modern, American man.
Brian Fry is your average middle-class, college-educated, perpetually dissatisfied, 25-year-old male. He thinks an awful lot about booze, boobs and Bertrand Russell, and he defines his emotional growth relative to his bouts with intense sexual desire, jealousy and fistfights. His discovery of—and subsequent addiction to—the wonders of the Internet further fuels both his lust and discontent. On his travels to Scotland, New York, Los Angeles, Cancun and Canada, Brian muses about evolution and sociology, as he compares the relative assets of strippers and girlfriends. Slowly growing up, he finds that trading some immediate pleasures for long-term gratification may contain rewards that extend beyond the thrill of a lap dance. But can this pleasure-seeker’s shallow philosophizing ever lead to true happiness? Henry free-associates throughout his protagonist’s life, connecting the vivid description of a night of drinking to F. Scott Fitzgerald and a tale of lost virginity to Genghis Khan and the Minnesota Vikings. Although Henry’s style tends to tell rather than show, Brian’s psyche tells of a striking array of brain waves: Sexual freedom runs parallel to fear about diseases and pregnancy, and displays of wealth bump up against extreme economic hardship. The unvarnished portrait is studded with facts—historical, scientific, zoological and, for more than a few, dubious. While some readers may find Brian’s simultaneous worship and disdain for women distressing, the narrative’s candid revelations make for a riveting read.
An honest, funny and occasionally troubling look at socially bewildered masculinity in the 21st century.
Trace the curved line between love and obsession in this steamy novel.
Sor Avraham is content with his structured life: He and his wife Jasmine have settled into a comfortable partnership in their house by the ocean in Florida. Sor finds fulfillment as an English professor at a local university, a job that allows him to focus some of his repressed passion. He’s a model teacher, colleague and husband until a chance encounter with the mysterious and sensual Marguerite, a free-spirited artist and professor whose bohemian spirit has been temporarily tamed by marriage and two young boys. Marguerite and Sor quickly fall into a whirlwind affair, as Sor, who once exhibited precise control over his thoughts and emotions, is swept away on the tide of desire. The intense sexual encounters and lust-soaked emails fly between the two, disorienting Sor until he feels he has “lost his equilibrium.…He was no longer Sor Avraham.” His marriage and job fall apart as his fixation with Marguerite consumes him—he becomes infatuated with the smell of jasmine, Marguerite’s signature perfume. Then, as Marguerite slowly begins to draw away from Sor, eventually ending the affair, he recognizes himself as a man who has lost nearly everything. Aarons artfully portrays the demise of his lead character’s control in the stable world he once inhabited. Vivid characters enliven a compelling story that reveals Sor’s innermost thoughts and personal letters. The style and pacing of the narrative realistically parallel the timeline of Sor’s affair, while rising to meet his transformation from a controlled, settled husband into an adulterous obsessive. Eventually, the intense love scenes dim as the narrative resettles for Sor to consider the contentment he abandoned.
A well-crafted tale of passion, loss and the dangers of obsession.
Hopelessness dims this poignant tale of a young woman’s tumultuous, modern American life.
Vera Violet, as she’s called by her boyfriend, Jimmy James Blood, lives a life of misery. In this depressing narrative darkened by doom, she knows only poverty, drugs, murder and incest. The sense of despair weighs heavily; perhaps too heavily for some readers. But those who persevere will be rewarded with an eloquent description of today’s desensitized, emotionally detached youth. Drugs and absent parents are mostly to blame, according to Anne, although unexplored causes, like technology and culture on a larger scale, could also play a part. Frequent drug use mirrors James Fogle’s sobering autobiography, Drugstore Cowboy, a term Anne frequently references in her debut. From the gloom of Washington state, where the timber industry rules, to the rotting bowels of St. Louis, Vera sees despondency in the clouds and pain in the stars while she sinks into the helpless feeling that her future holds nothing more than agony. Nonetheless, she lives on to take solace in the small things: her oxblood boots, which serve as her special connection to Jimmy James, the love of her life; and cherished memories of Colin, her troubled brother. Anne’s powerful storytelling startles readers with its unapologetic bleakness. Her crafting, although gray and humorless, candidly frames the drifting characters in a snapshot of life outside the confines of comfort.
An intense, lyrical portrait of America's vulnerable underbelly.
Groves’ debut historical novel, set in mid–20th-century Japan, is a well-tempered story of cultural dislocation, the ruin of war and faith in love.
The author has created an epic here, but it is of the intimate rather than the sprawling variety. The book opens in the 1930s when a young man, Jiro, is sent to San Francisco on a work-study program to learn the American end of his family’s silk business. The story moves back and forth between those months in the United States and Jiro’s life in Kyoto, two very different experiences. As Japan invades China and a more expansive war looms, the book illuminates the importance of gardens in Japan, as well as bathing rituals and fried squid. Despite being minutely plotted, the narrative offers many unforced insights into Japanese culture, drawing some fiercely dark moments and cushioning others with light humor: “Its driver was sitting on the front, oblivious to the uplifted tail of his one-horsepower machine and the straw-filled remains of the day the swaybacked nag was depositing on the pavement.” When Jiro becomes a fighter pilot, the novel offers readers an entertaining tour of the Zero aircraft, later describing in stunning detail the action of aerial dogfights. With equal flair, the author draws a lovely wedding and outlines the workings of sericulture. There is much death and intolerance here, but readers will find balance in Jiro, whose proud Japanese personality is slightly beveled by his Western sojourn. In the end, Jiro does not rue surviving the war; others who chose suicide didn’t realize that “the Americans weren’t going to invade Japan, just occupy her. This meant they would not rape and kill their women, just marry them.”
Lively, illuminatingly exotic and richly told tale of life during wartime.
A novel about one man’s struggle with alcoholism and anxiety after hitting rock bottom.
The title refers to something of a mantra, a phrase that former architect Will Valentine repeats to himself because the idea of his very last drink—the one that will probably kill him—is too disheartening to bear. The story follows Will through individual therapy and group sessions as he attempts to rebuild his life and control his alcoholism, which seems to have been both the cause and the result of his deep-seated anxiety. It takes courage to write a book with an unlikable main character and even more to write one with a plot that’s less of an adventure than an internal journey. But Mathieu has a grasp on both the despair and the attendant ennui that accompany the fight for sobriety, and she’s able to effectively express the struggle. Depression is, of course, a complicated subject to write about because of the difficulty in conveying those attendant emotions to someone who is not or has not been in the throes of the disease. Yet Will’s internal debate about visiting his old bar and his belief that he could have just a little bit of wine are heartrending, and his relapse is especially poignant, perhaps because it’s such a believable story. There are a few structural problems, though, particularly with the imprecise amount of time that passes between events. Also, Will’s lack of compassion for his fellow addicts and his impatience with the process of recovery make him somewhat unsympathetic, even as the reader hopes for his sober success.
A powerful story that approaches a happy ending—or at least a hopeful one.
When the secrets behind an intriguing nude portrait trickle out into the open, a photographer and her artist lover must grapple with the fallout in Sisu’s masterful debut.
Photographer Gwen Mason has just opened up her own studio in Miami and hopes to find her niche in the trendy city. Though she lives with her divorcee mother and doesn’t think she’s interested in a relationship, meeting upcoming artist Adam Straker changes all that. Adam’s paintings are causing quite a stir in the art world, and Gwen knows she’s found something special. He might be 20 years her senior, but that doesn’t stop the couple from embarking on a passionate affair. Yet one of Adam’s paintings arouses Gwen’s curiosity like no other; it’s a striking portrait of a nude woman, one Adam keeps hidden and pointedly refuses to discuss. When Adam has the chance to land a spot in a prestigious New York City gallery, Gwen believes the painting will secure his place, and she shows “The Nude” to Adam’s manager without Adam’s knowledge. Though the painting clinches the New York deal, it starts an explosive chain reaction for Adam and Gwen. In the coming weeks, decades-old secrets of destroyed lives and loves, of tragedy and revenge, of greed and madness, are revealed at a cost no one could have foreseen. Sisu nicely ramps up the suspense with her excellent pacing, while her vibrant depiction of the art world breathes energy and authenticity into the narrative. Gwen and Adam’s stormy relationship rings true, though delving into Adam’s point of view earlier would have delivered a more well-balanced story. Gwen’s feistiness and sometimes bad choices make her sympathetic and fully human, and readers will root for her to discover her past and keep her man. But it is Sisu’s analysis of the creative process that forms the heart of this novel; she explores the artistic mentality in all its bizarre and often-misunderstood facets and digs deep into the dark underbelly of creative genius and its unintended consequences.
An enthralling first novel.
In addressing both man against nature and the nature of man, Ness’s novel raises challenging questions about the balance between hunting for sport and hunting for survival.
Survival of the fittest plays out with personalities and past regrets in sharp relief, as hunter and hunted confront unforgiving nature in the remote Yukon. The story skillfully weaves together the lives of seemingly disparate individuals into a conflict-ridden tapestry of self-discovery. The principal storyline centers on high-profile eco-warrior Hannah Weinberg. Her mission: to confront and raise public awareness of the wealthy trophy hunters who scour the remote Yukon Mountains in search of grizzly bears. The titular figurehead of a save-the-bears group called Grizzly Watch, Hannah meets her perceived nemesis in Dan MacKay, an unemployed, half-Indian moose hunter who lives in a small First Nation community. Dan runs into a lost Hannah while hunting moose on the Macmillan River. Elsewhere, Dan’s attorney, Susan Field, is driven by conscience rather than cash to uncover the truth about Dan’s ex-wife, Tara, and her suspicious pedophile boyfriend, Gary. Seems Gary has taken an interest in Dan’s preteen daughter, Starla. Another intersecting storyline revolves around Hannah’s husband, David Hellman. Rich and powerful, he cheats on Hannah, but when she’s reported missing, David swings into action and hires Yukon mountain experts to accompany him on the search. At times, details in the supporting storylines run too deep and risk overwhelming the central story. Thinning them a bit in favor of the Dan–Hannah relationship, and how their initially opposing views slowly begin to dovetail, could improve the novel’s focus. Adding an extra dimension to the narrative are the internal dialogues of several animals. Raz, Dan’s loyal, well-trained hunting dog, expresses his own feelings and insight about “his Dan” and the new girl, Hannah. Raz eventually becomes indispensable to both the hunt and Dan’s survival. There’s also a “talkative” raven who provides some whimsical observations about human “bobbleheads” and their strange habits, and several moose express their feelings and various sexual pangs. Finally, there’s the heartbreaking struggle of a gut-shot bear, lumbering through the forest to find relief from the pain that accompanies his every step. Richly detailed and generously storied with characters both sympathetic and loathsome, this is the action-adventure novel for wilderness enthusiasts.
An uplifting read that informs, enlightens and satisfies.
Young drug dealers cope with love, loss and voracious smack habits in this scintillating saga of Chicago’s lowlife demimonde.
Michael Lira is a decent kid from a working-class Italian-American family, just trying to make enough money from petty crime to satisfy his heroin jones. He has an urban village backing him up, including his roommate, Sal, a fellow junkie who’s obsessed with film noir and constantly hatching ill-advised capers; their boyhood friend, Dante, a former high school football star who’s into old-school self-destruction with booze; and Dante’s girlfriend (and Michael’s secret lover), Lila, a struggling artist who does sex shows on the side. They party, abuse substances and ponder their feckless lives in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, a hipster enclave that the author depicts with wonderfully atmospheric precision. (Michael and Sal’s tribal animus against yuppie gentrifiers knows no bounds.) After a B&E goes hilariously wrong, Michael decides to shape up; he industriously builds his drug-dealing business, swears off personal use of everything except marijuana and cocaine, and invests money with one of his customers, a financial adviser whose amoral hustling puts Michael’s to shame. His life soars into easy money, hot sex and ravishing highs—with the ever-present threat of arrest, overdose or a relapse that spells helpless dissolution. Writing with a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a keen eye for social nuance in every setting from housing projects to chic galleries, Mendius makes this classic junkie opera feel fresh and believable. His portrait of the drug industry is fascinating in its matter-of-fact detail—Michael’s supplier is an upstanding ghetto family business—as is his rendering of the psychology of addiction as it swells from seductive whisper to unappeasable tyranny. In the background is a vivid sketch of the Clinton-era dot-com boom; everyone is on the make, drenched in delusions they know aren’t real yet can’t shake off. Mendius’ prose is colorful and evocative but suffused with irony, hangdog humor and muted pathos; he makes a lurid subculture both raucously entertaining and profoundly real.
A superb tale of the druggie lifestyle, by a writer with talent to burn.
Sutherland’s (Windsong, 2008) contemporary novel takes readers to the small, fictional Australian town of Trundle, offering a peek at the lives of its residents over the course of a year.
Grown sisters Ronnie and Marie have returned to their family home in Trundle, each of them recovering from a personal heartbreak. They’re not sure what to make of their troublesome neighbors, the Lals, who have built a large, modern house next door. The sisters and the Lals are at the core of the story, but Sutherland expertly weaves the lives of various residents into a rich tapestry. Trundle possesses many elements found in any small town: mom-and-pop shops, a struggling economy and a colorful cast of characters. What sets it apart from other towns is a place called Pelican, a commune founded in the 1980s on the outskirts of town. Marie, a former resident who left Pelican under a cloud of disgrace, returns to find she is welcome in the community; burned out from work, Ronnie finds herself restored by her stay there. Meanwhile, the grieving Mr. Lal sees Pelican as the perfect spot to build his own version of the Taj Mahal in tribute to his deceased wife, and his son, Vijay, struggles to find himself and the meaning of life. The story shifts perspective, often jumping among the central protagonists and various Trundle figures, giving readers an intimate view of the town. But well-defined, realistically drawn characters enable readers to easily follow these shifts in perspective. In spite of occasional scandals and disturbing events, Sutherland’s novel is, at heart, a quiet story of ordinary people dealing with everyday problems. Her graceful descriptions—“Through the open window flowed a deep and restful stillness punctuated by the chime of birds and the tolling of frogs”—bring to life both the landscape and the people who inhabit it.
This lighthearted, sparkling novel presents the adventures, romantic and otherwise, of a man, his dog, his mother’s ghost and other assorted characters.
Schoolteacher Chesterfield is a man satisfied with life: His parents and his dog are “in super fettle,” his sixth-graders are doing well and he’s happily married. Or so he thinks, until the “one rummy morning” his wife, Deborah, (having grown impatient of Chesterfield’s low pay and despairing of his ever inheriting the perhaps-mythical family fortune) leaves him for newly rich Benedict Hoepplewhite, “mortgage broker, wife-stealer and cur.” This sets in motion a series of events, including an aborted revenge attempt, tenure struggles at Chesterfield’s school, wrongdoings at a fitness club, a new romance with a pretty kindergarten teacher and not a little heroism. Then there’s his mother’s death and reappearance as a ghost, her arrival signaled by the tinkling of ice cubes in her ever-present drink. In these adventures, Chesterfield is joined by “the smashingest girl ever, name of Carrie Hahn, and the stellar dog Daisy, who sniffs out villains a mile away, and the lioness-hearted ‘gym-chick’ Jeanine, who carried the day when I fell wounded, and who made a man of my gormless pal Larry.” Chesterfield—whose American father was “the fightingest blood and guts Marine of his day”—talks like someone out of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s because, he says, his father was always out of the country, while his British mother “spoke the language and ethic that I breathed in: ‘There never was a time like good King Edward’s, dear. For fun, for peace, and for talk. It was Shakespeare and Elizabeth with proper drains and no bear-baiting.’ ” Even in Britain, Chesterfield’s what-ho slang would probably be out of date, but no matter; it’s fun. Chesterfield’s gentlemanly ethic includes not initiating his divorce (“only a swine” would do that) and declining to entrap Hoepplewhite, finally wishing him no harm: “I sensed approval by the good old Anglican deity who made dogs and trout streams, has humour, and stands like a Gentleman mostly out of the way.” Literate, funny and romantic, with amusing comments on American culture, this novel has its heart in the right place.
The only unsatisfying feature of Parry’s debut is that it ends.
Lush landscapes, enchanted happenings, tangled roots and violence suffuse this beguiling collection of stories set in the highlands of Guatemala.
Quince, the narrator of these interlocking stories, is a writer living in the village of Panimache, near three volcanoes and a deep blue lake. He serves as a keen observer of the vibrant, tense surroundings in a land that “bled from a war no one wanted to notice.” Panimache is a town divided by conflict, caste and consciousness. It’s teetering between bourgeois aspirations and Mayan peasant culture, seemingly placid but on edge from the fighting between government soldiers and guerillas and simmering with repressed bad memories. The title novella introduces a diverse, intriguing set of characters—shopkeepers and restaurateurs; Quince’s friend Uno, a nature photographer and reputed shaman; El Capitan Lobo, the urbane army commander who feels apologetic about the brutal counterinsurgency he’s waging (“[s]ometimes we massacre the Indians, other times it’s the guerillas”); and La China, a whore longing to be a muse. These and other figures recur in 10 more yarns that are often shot through with exquisite threads of magical realism: A youth is beguiled to his doom by a gorgeous vampire; a con man makes his living with a fortunetelling sparrow; a man’s frantic search for buried treasure yields an astounding payoff; an orphaned, ostracized Mayan girl hides herself in the shapes of birds and animals. Moulun’s clear prose balances sensual sounds, colors and foods against a deadpan humor and a detached, meditative mood. His writing has a fablelike quality, featuring strong narratives linked to mythic themes, but it’s also full of social nuance and subtle psychological shadings. Moulun transforms Guatemala’s troubled, complex reality into a rich, compelling aesthetic vision.
Imaginative storytelling with real literary depth.
An unapologetic, perverse, yet spiritual first novel that follows one man’s mistakes and triumphs when he learns that he can live forever.
David’s novel follows Israel “Izzy” Stern, a recent Boston University graduate living alone in Providence, R.I. All the family Izzy has is his grandfather’s friend, Uncle Jack, who meets with him at a Starbucks the summer after college to play chess, ogle the busts of coeds from Rhode Island School of Design and Brown, and for Uncle Jack to tell Izzy his secret—he’s immortal. Jack’s wisdom, money and immortality—a gift Izzy learns he shares with Uncle Jack—catapults Izzy from his life of womanizing and grappling with his insecurities to one of wandering, helping and learning. But Izzy’s transformation comes not without him first hitting rock bottom: “He had become a riches-to-rags cliché. Izzy too, like Aqualung had stared at young girls with bad intent. And Izzy, like Mrs. Robinson in the Simon and Garfunkel song, now prayed for a place in heaven with God. His agnosticism was now completely suspended due to his new low standing in the world.” David’s writing is punchy and incorporates lyrics to classic songs as well as pop culture and perversity. Although the occasional authorial interruption is distracting, David makes up for it with his honest prose that questions societies’ beliefs about God and discusses the growing problem of militant and persecutory views that jeopardize human lives. In the style of Salman Rushdie—though David is not quite as ambitious—magical realism is used to explore religion, spirituality and the state of our world today. This work should secure David a place within the genre as a writer who will tickle the reader, make her think and then take a hard look at the world around her.
David’s compelling debut successfully incorporates pop culture, profanity and religion into a resonant exploration of existence.
In this novel, life turns toward a dark horizon for a precocious adolescent grieving for her father in 1941 Tennessee.
It’s difficult to harbor secrets in a rural mountain town of maybe 80 souls, especially when adult siblings live within spitting distance of the family home. Most of the townsmen work at the sawmill, and most of the young women have been harassed at one time or another by creepy Johnny Monroe. But Louisa May McAllister, nicknamed Wildflower, knows that revealing her frequent forays to the cemetery, where she talks to her beloved late father, would only rile her embittered mother. She also knows to hide her “secret sense,” as it would evoke scorn from all save eccentric Aunt Sadie, who shares her tomboy niece’s gift. Those secrets come at a cost when, on one of her graveyard visits, Louisa May ignores her premonition of danger. The consequences—somewhat expected yet still horrific—are buffered by the visions into which the 13-year-old escapes. Sharp-witted, strong, curious and distrustful of any authority figure not living up to her standards—including God—Louisa May immerses us in her world with astute observations and wonderfully turned phrases, with nary a cliché to be found. She could be an adolescent Scout Finch, had Scout’s father died unexpectedly and her life taken a bad turn. Though her story is full of pathos and loss, her sorrow is genuine and refreshingly free of self-pity. She accepts that she and her mother are “like vinegar and soda, always reacting,” that her best friend has grown distant, and that despite the preacher’s condemnation, a young suicide victim should be sent “to the head of heaven’s line.” Her connection to the land—a presence as vividly portrayed as any character—makes her compassionate but tough; she’s as willing to see trees as angels as she is to join her brothers-in-law in seeking revenge. By necessity, Louisa May grows up quickly, but by her secret sense, she also understands forgiveness.
A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing but ultimately a joy to read.
A young attorney struggles to humanize the law—and himself—in this quietly absorbing legal tale.
Fired from his high-powered Boston law firm for an unseemly attack of conscience, 32-year-old Mark Langley has descended to the lowest rung of the lawyering trade as a legal services attorney doing eviction cases in his blue-collar hometown of Worcester, Mass. In the assembly-line proceedings of Housing Court, there’s little he can do for his impoverished clients—many of them tenants in the town’s bleak housing projects—except postpone the day they’ll be evicted. Then a case comes along with a mixture of technicalities and pathos that grabs his attention: a single mom faces eviction from public housing because her son was arrested on drug charges; a guilty verdict would cause her other son to lose his college scholarship. While he pursues a long-shot trial in the case, Mark also squares off against the haughty mandarins in his old firm to challenge the corrupt diversion of anti-poverty funds to a well-connected developer. In his first novel, Dinnocenzo, himself an attorney with legal-services experience, ventures into John Grisham territory—a callow, idealistic lawyer battles the establishment—but with less histrionics and more social insight. Poverty, chaos and infuriating regulations precipitate one crisis after another in the lives of his underclass strivers. The seemingly low-stakes Housing Court becomes an arena of tense legal strategizing and real drama, where verdicts destroy families. Writing in a limpid, nuanced prose, Dinnocenzo crafts sharp but subtle portraits of his characters and their agonizing dilemmas. Mark in particular is a flawed but appealing hero plagued by self-doubt and courtroom stage fright. He’s torn between glittering yuppie Boston and dilapidated Worcester as he obsessively sharpens his arguments in pursuit of justice for people who can’t afford it otherwise.
A notable debut that infuses an engrossing legal procedural with deep empathy.
Inspired by her heritage and research of the Irish Industrial School system, Henry’s auspicious debut chronicles a couple’s attempt to save their son from horrific institutions.
Marian McKeever and Ben Ellis are not typical young lovers in 1957 Dublin, Ireland; she’s Catholic and teaches at Zion School, and he’s Jewish and a budding journalist. The two plan to wed, but their families object to an interfaith marriage. And when Marian becomes pregnant, she doesn’t tell Ben. Coerced by Father Brennan (a Catholic priest who is also her uncle), Marian goes to Castleboro Mother Baby Home, an institution ruled by Sister Paulinas and Sister Agnes where “sins are purged” via abuse; i.e., pregnant girls are forced to mow the lawn by pulling grass on their hands and knees. Marian is told that her son, Adrian, will be adopted by an American family. The riveting storyline provides many surprises as it fast-forwards to 1967 where Marian and Ben are married and have a 10-year-old daughter. Marian’s painful secret emerges when she learns that her son was dumped in an abusive orphanage not far from her middle-class home and Sister Agnes is his legal guardian. Thus begins a labyrinthine journey through red tape as the couple fight to regain their firstborn child. Ultimately, 12-year-old Adrian is placed in the Surtane Industrial School for Boys, which is rife with brutality and sexual abuse at the hands of “Christian Brother Ryder.” Though unchecked church power abounds, this is not a religious stereotype or an indictment of faith. Hateful characters like Brother Ryder are balanced with compassionate ones, such as a timid nurse from the Mother Baby Home. Father Brennan deepens into a three-dimensional character who struggles to do what is right. Henry weaves multilayered themes of prejudice, corruption and redemption with an authentic voice and swift, seamless dialogue. Her prose is engaging, and light poetic touches add immediacy. For example, when Marian returned to Mother Baby Home after 11 years, she “opened the car door and stepped onto the gravel, wanting to quiet its crunch, like skeletons underneath her shoes.” Echoing the painful lessons of the Jewish Holocaust, Henry’s tale reveals what happens when good people remain silent.
A powerful saga of love and survival.
In a world ruled by capitalism, an empathetic corporate worker questions the principles upon which the society functions.
Soutter’s debut novel is a scathing, ceaselessly engaging examination of capitalism and corporatism. At Ackerman Brothers Securities Corporation, Charles Thatcher works as a perception manager; his job is to process and deflect any negativity regarding the corporation. Now that the government has crumbled, capitalism is the new regime, with constant demands for profitable information, either substantiated or speculative. Charles hopes for higher compensation by spinning the story of a woman stealing rainwater, but soon after his ploy, he begins to mull over the consequences and regret his actions. A meeting with Kate, a friend of the woman, leaves Charles reassessing the value of a civilization run by the rich, as he wonders how long capitalism can sustain itself. The story intimates that men and their actions—not just an immaterial idea—are the essential cause of immorality, but it centers on the undesirable fallout of money as the corollary source of power. Soutter’s vision of capitalistic supremacy is gleefully absurd: A simple elevator ride costs five cents per floor, and information is only conveyed for a price. Societal classes are now purchasable contracts, and the poor reside in LowSec (Low Security); a citizen’s lot in life, like all commodities, is bought and paid for. There are also welcome dashes of satire derived from characters unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge irony: a perception manager writing a report on an unflattering anti–perception management story; Linus, Charles’ higher-ranking colleague, offers an alternative moral regarding mendacity (he’s not against lying, but rather against telling the same lie more than once). Charles has many lengthy discussions with Kate over now-archaic standards (to them), like people electing other people into power, but their talks are never tedious or repetitive. Their conversations also lead to one of the book’s most potent lines: “The single best indicator of where you end up in life is where you start, no matter what the capitalists tell you.”
Profound, provocative and sure to spark a reaction.
In Lee’s novel, set in Victorian London and based on real events, a group of rebellious young artists battles the repercussions of their refusal to conform.
It’s 1848, and William Holman Hunt has just been accepted to study at the prestigious London Academy of Art. However, he resents the overly prettified, sentimental landscapes that litter the annual Academy Exhibition. He wants to create art that imitates life—all the color, confusion and even ugliness. A few like-minded young men, most notably John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, share Hunt’s views, and together they form a group called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Like any revolutionary group, the PRB has plenty of naysayers, including the vehemently jealous traditionalist Frank Stone and his more famous compatriot Charles Dickens; Lee litters her novel with mentions of these and other notable artistic celebrities of the period, such as Keats, Tennyson and Wilkie Collins. Her novel—a quick read despite the hefty page count—features many detailed descriptions of the Brotherhood’s artwork, and it could have benefited from an illustrated appendix with paintings shown rather than merely described. Nonetheless, Lee has a talent for making the minutest artistic details sound interesting. She also has a historian’s accurate eye for the period, but she doesn’t allow those details to bog down the story and turn it into a dry, purely factual text. The artists of the Brotherhood are portrayed with distinct personalities, styles and beliefs, which, in the novel’s central dramatic vein, affects their struggle to remain united in the face of adversity. Anyone interested in the culture of Victorian London will find plenty to celebrate.
An illuminating look at an influential artistic period, which may well inspire readers to pick up their own pen or paintbrush.