A sharply observed coming-of-age memoir about an aspiring writer’s entry-level job at a fading literary agency.
Though Rakoff earned acclaim for her debut novel (A Fortunate Age, 2009), her memoir is more engaging, particularly for its mastery of tone. The author establishes herself as something of an innocent, a master’s grad who wanted to write poetry but required a job to tide her over. She found one at an unnamed literary agency that continued to operate with typewriters and fax machines and where her boss’s main responsibility was the nonbusiness of J.D. Salinger. It would be easy for a satiric hipster to have satirical fun with the material—particularly with the onslaught of letters from generations of Salinger fans who actually expected (or even demanded) a response—but Rakoff isn’t that sort of author. She reserves just the slightest bit of judgmental irony for herself and for her boyfriend, a socialist, boxer and aspiring novelist. Her family recognized that she was a glorified secretary at a menial job that would bring her no closer to fulfilling her literary ambitions and didn’t provide her with sufficient salary to pay her bills. Against her boss's admonitions, she developed something of a telephone relationship with Salinger (whom she’d never read before taking the job), finding him “never anything but kind and patient. More so than plenty of people who called the Agency. More so than plenty of his fans.” Eventually, Rakoff fell in love with his books, established correspondence with some who wrote him (and learned why a form letter was previously the standard response), assumed more responsibility as a manuscript reader and something of an agent herself, and left the agency as a published poet.
Many of the mysteries of the literary world remain mysteries to the author, but she provides good company as she explores them.
Five kind and honorable people are caught up in the depredations of the Great War in this first stand-alone novel by the author of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series (Leaving Everything Most Loved, 2013, etc.)
In 1914, as war looms, newlyweds Tom and Kezia Brissenden are making a go of the farm Tom inherited from his father, a farm that would have been part of the estate of wealthy gentleman Edmund Hawkes had not his great-grandfather lost it to Tom’s great-grandfather in a darts game. Kezia, a vicar’s daughter, is earnestly striving to supplant her finishing school ways with those of a farm wife, consulting a housewifery guide, The Woman’s Book. Although Hawkes is attracted to Kezia, he keeps a respectful distance, just as he is cordial but not friendly toward Tom. This distance persists as Tom and Hawkes both enlist and are sent to the front line in France, where Tom, a private, serves under Capt. Hawkes. Kezia keeps Tom’s spirits up with her letters describing the sumptuous meals she prepares for him in her imagination, where wartime food shortages and government inroads on the farm’s production aren't problems. The whole battalion soon looks forward to her letters and the occasional fruitcake. However, Tom is scapegoated by this novel’s closest thing to a villain, the cynical and embittered Sgt. Knowles, who resents the influx of so many green recruits. Meanwhile, Tom’s sister (and Kezia’s best friend), Thea, anguishes over whether she will be arrested for her activities as a suffragette and pacifist. Ultimately, she decides that the only way to escape government oppression is to reaffirm her loyalty: She becomes an ambulance driver at the front, where Kezia’s father, Rev. Marchant, is ministering to troops in the trenches. Without questioning either the cause of the war or the dubious tactics employed, seemingly, to ensure maximum loss of life for minimal military advantage, these characters simply get on with it, reaffirming our faith in the possibility of everyday nobility.
A sad, beautifully written, contemplative testament.
At the end of an isolated road outside a small village in Holland in 1937, Fing and her eccentric family find themselves in a strange house that gives up its secrets reluctantly and with far-reaching consequences.
Young Fing is stalwart, compassionate and truth-seeking, but she is not an omniscient narrator, for she learns the intricate, tangled stories as they are doled out piecemeal by her grandmother Oma Mei, who is hiding as many secrets as the house. The work’s three-part construction weaves the events surrounding Fing’s family with an earlier cast of characters from the 1860s. Each part has a distinct tone and sensibility. In the first and third parts, Fing and her sisters rise to the challenges of life with their ever optimistic father, their somewhat inept older brothers, and the mad and mysterious Hatsi. All the while, they grow increasingly uncomfortable with the puzzles posed by the house and Oma Mei’s sometimes-contradictory tales. The middle part, Charley and Nienevee’s story, is narrated by Oma and has a darker and more sinister quality. Lindelauf lures readers into the intrigue and mystery of it all and then demands their intense concentration. Every element of the tale has a purpose, and in the end, the multiple layers of past and present separate and come together in surprising, often discomfiting twists and turns.
A challenging and entirely unique Dutch import.
(translator’s note, character list, slang word list, map, contents)
A brutally comic chronicle of high-end divorce told through letters, emails and a huge pile of legal memorandums. This is the first novel from Columbia Law School graduate Rieger.
Brilliant 29-year-old Sophie Diehl is an up-and-coming criminal defense lawyer in the prestigious firm of Traynor, Hand, Wyzanski in the fictional New England state of Narraganset. Mia Durkheim, nee Meiklejohn, the daughter of one of Traynor, Hand, Wyzanski's wealthiest clients, has been served divorce papers by her husband of 18 years, pediatric oncologist Daniel. After Sophie fills in for the firm’s vacationing divorce specialist, Fiona McGregor, to take Mia’s initial interview—transcript provided—Mia decides she wants Sophia to represent her. Sophie reluctantly accepts the civil case under pressure from managing partner David Greaves. The intimacies of Mia and Daniel’s marriage are laid bare largely through Mia and Sophie’s emails and Sophie’s detailed memos to David about the case’s progress. The couple’s skirmishes are comically vicious, while the issue of custody concerning their sensitive, precocious 10-year-old daughter deepens the marital drama. As Sophie gears up to battle the sleazy New York lawyer Daniel has hired, she also must contend with Fiona’s ruffled feathers and office politics involving ethnic, class and gender issues brought to light in a flurry of interoffice memos—shades of The Good Wife. Meanwhile, Sophie’s emails to her best friend chronicle a nonstarter romance and her complicated relationships with high-achieving, eccentric parents whose divorce still troubles Sophie. Rieger pulls out every legal document connected to the case, including witness affidavits, settlement offer breakdowns and legal invoices.
Extremely clever, especially the legal infighting; this book should prove hugely popular with the legal set as well as anyone who has ever witnessed a divorce in process.
Flowing free verse tells the story of a teenage dancer in Chennai, India, who loses a leg and re-learns how to dance.
As a child, Veda climbs a stepladder in the temple to reach up and trace the dancers’ feet carved into granite with her fingertips. Shiva’s the god of dance and creator of universes, and a priest teaches Veda to “feel Shiva’s feet moving” inside her chest, as her heartbeat. Years later, as a teen, she wins a Bharatanatyam dance competition and relishes the applause. Then a van accident leads to the amputation of her right leg below the knee. Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one: Veda’s bodily exertion, learning to dance with her prosthetic leg; her process of changing her dance technique to be emotional and spiritual as well as physical; and all the rest of Veda’s life, including young love, grief, insecurity and a dawning awareness of class issues. The fluid first-person verse uses figurative speech sparingly, so when it appears—“A bucket of gold melting from the sky”—it packs a punch. Veda’s no disabled saint; awkwardness and jealousy receive spot-on portrayals as she works to incorporate Hinduism and Buddhism, life experience and emotion into her dancing. When she does, her achievement is about being centered, not receiving accolades.
A beautiful integration of art, religion, compassion and connection.
(Verse fiction. 13-17)
Straub refreshes a conventional plot through droll humor and depth of character.
By now, the premise is so familiar it seems like such a novel could write itself, but it wouldn’t write itself nearly as engagingly as Straub has (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, 2012, etc.). Starting with the somewhat generic title, she has all the predictable elements in place: family and close friends gathering at an exotic removefrom their daily lives, reveal secrets (and articulate unacknowledged truths), learn how well they know each other and how well they don’t, discover which relationships will endure—even strengthen—and which will dissolve. At the end of the idyll—in this case two weeks on the Spanish island of Mallorca—all will return transformed. The reason for this group gathering is the 35th anniversary of Jim and Franny and the high school graduation of their daughter, Sylvia. Franny is a successful journalist, specializing in travel pieces, and Jim had a career at a GQ-style magazine until he lost his job as editor for reasons that threaten their marriage. Sylvia is the novel’s most perceptive character, with a single goal for the vacation—losing her virginity. Joining them are their older son, Bobby, and his older girlfriend, whose lives in Florida are something of a mystery to the New York family, as well as Franny’s lifelong friend Charles and his husband, Lawrence. From the periphery, Lawrence observes that “[o]ther people’s families were as mysterious as an alien species, full of secret codes and shared histories.”Yet even those who share that history remain enigmas to each other, as Franny discovers about Jim: “What did anyone know about anyone else, including the person they were married to?”Ultimately, the reader will savor the novel’s illumination of these characters, who are neither good nor evil but all too human. Will Jim and Franny stay together? Will Sylvia achieve her goal?
A novel that is both a lot of fun to read and has plenty of insight into the marital bond and the human condition.
There is a place where Arlo goes to break free—free from his mother’s recent murder, his father’s grief, his sister’s progressing Huntington’s disease. In this place, the Drone Zone, it all falls away and there is just the moment.
Arlo’s two mechanisms for reaching the Zone are pulling stunts on his dirt bike and playing “Drone Pilot,” a video game that simulates drone flight and at which he is currently the best in the world. With these tools, Arlo is able to fly, and for his incredible skill with each, he begins to attract attention. A reality TV show that specializes in capturing daredevil stunts wants to pay him to risk his life for entertainment. The military also takes notice, wanting Arlo to work for them secretly, flying drones and gathering reconnaissance that could lead to the capture, or death, of the world’s most notorious terrorist. Both options offer to provide his family with financial resources they direly need. Which, if either, is worth the risk is what Arlo must decide. Readers will worry, laugh and ultimately soar along with Arlo as he finds his way. Nuanced supporting characters and a vivid New Mexico landscape ground Arlo’s dilemma, creating a superbly well-balanced narrative.
As complex as life itself, this novel addresses serious topics without taking itself too seriously.
A historical novel of early medieval England to do T.H. White proud, based on the real life of the “Anglisc” girl who would become Saint Hilda of Whitby.
Of Hilda’s—Hild’s—life not much is known, save that she was an adept administrator and intellectually tough-minded champion of Christianity in the first years of its arrival in Britain. The lacuna affords Griffith (Stay, 2002, etc.) the opportunity to put her well-informed imagination to work while staying true to the historical details, over which she lingers with a born antiquarian’s love for the past. Griffith’s attention to those details is refreshing and welcome, for the Dark-Age time of Hild is a confusing welter of battling Angles, Celts, Picts and even a few holdover Romanized Britons, of contending lords and would-be lords; Griffith’s narrative may be densely woven, but she provides clues and context enough for readers to keep the story and its players straight in their minds. “Straight” is perhaps not the best operative word, though, for Griffith does manage to get in a few scenes in which our saint-to-be finds herself on the verge of doing Very Naughty Things to and with her “bodyman”: “She ached. She felt so alone. She wanted to feel Gwladus respond, rise under her, strong and fierce. Hers.” No wonder those British huts, as Griffith writes early on, were always hot. In all events, Griffith does admirable work in imagining and populating the ancient British world and all its to-us exotic customs, its deep learning, its devotion to magic and prophesy—and Hild is a master thereof, from ferreting out plots against the crown to determining from a taste of mead that secret deals are being cut with the nasty Franks.
A book that deserves a place alongside T.H. White, to say nothing of Ellis Peters. Elegantly written—and with room for a sequel.
Feisty thieves-in-training Jules and March are faced with a daunting challenge after their father plunges to his death while committing a crime.
The twins only gradually discover the full extent of the problem they face, but each new revelation fits perfectly into the often hair-raising narrative. First March finds out he has a twin sister, then that their mother died during the commission of a crime years ago, the theft of a set of valuable—but cursed—moonstones. The curse has come to rest on them, and it looks like it may be lethal by their 13th birthdays if they can’t recover the full set of gems, each now belonging to a different owner and requiring another clever theft. Aided by oversized Darius and tiny Izzy, whom they meet in a nasty group home, they each bring different talents and ideas to the imaginative crimes. Driven by thrilling, nonstop action and featuring very brief chapters that readily sustain interest, this twisting and turning but ever-so-clever thriller is akin to the best of roller-coaster rides. Pitch-perfect characters, from scheming criminals to a twisted former cop to the twins’ father, move in and out of the narrative, but it’s the four young teens that drive the tale forward with enviable schemes and ingenious plans.
Taut, engrossing and unstoppable.
Rival magicians square off to display and match their powers in an extravagant historical fantasy being published simultaneously in several countries, to be marketed as Harry Potter for adults.
But English author Clarke’s spectacular debut is something far richer than Potter: an absorbing tale of vaulting ambition and mortal conflict steeped in folklore and legend, enlivened by subtle characterizations and a wittily congenial omniscient authorial presence. The agreeably convoluted plot takes off with a meeting in of “gentleman-magicians” in Yorkshire in 1806, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The participants’ scholarly interests are encouraged by a prophecy “that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians” and would subsequently be stimulated by the coming to national prominence of Gilbert Norrell, a fussy pedant inclined to burrow among his countless books of quaint and curious lore, and by dashing, moody Jonathan Strange, successfully employed by Lord Wellington to defeat French forces by magical means. Much happens. A nobleman’s dead wife is revived but languishes in a half-unreal realm called “Lost-hope”—as does Stephen Black, the same nobleman’s black butler, enigmatically assured by a nameless “gentleman with thistle-down hair” that he (Stephen) is a monarch in exile. Clarke sprinkles her radiantly readable text with faux-scholarly (and often hilarious) footnotes while building an elaborate plot that takes Strange through military glory, unsuccessful attempts to cure England’s mad king, travel to Venice and a meeting with Lord Byron, and on a perilous pursuit of the fabled Raven King, former ruler of England, into the world of Faerie, and Hell (“The only magician to defeat Death !”). There’s nothing in Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, or any of their peers that surpasses the power with which Clarke evokes this fabulous figure’s tangled “history.” The climax, in which Strange and Norrell conspire to summon the King, arrives—for all the book’s enormous length—all too soon.
An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.