Wolfe (A Man in Full, 1998, etc.) returns to fine form with this zingy, mile-a-minute novel of life in the weird confines of Miami.
As if the 45 years from Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to here hadn’t passed, Wolfe is back to some old tricks, including an ever-shifting, sometimes untrustworthy point of view, dizzying pans from one actor to another and rat-a-tat prose. Some of his post-yuppie characters might have been extras from Bonfire of the Vanities, while the hero of the piece has the endless self-regard of Gordo Cooper in The Right Stuff—but no matter where they figure on the social ladder or tax bracketing scheme, they’re mystified by one another. The tale opens with Mac the Knife, a 40-something fleshpot behind the wheel of a hybrid car who, scarcely a dozen pages in, falls afoul of a tough Cubana: “Far from shrinking under Mac’s attack, the beautiful rude bitch came two steps closer…and said, in English without raising her voice, ‘Why you speet when you talk?’ ” Cuban and Anglo, Russian and Jew, rich and poor: All of Miami is a meeting place that very often turns into a battleground, over the carnage of which ranges Wolfe’s nominal hero, a waterborne cop named Nestor Camacho, who has his work cut out for him. That’s especially true when he tries to blend in with the beach bimbettes here and the retired New Yorkers there, and though he tries (for, as Wolfe astutely observes, “Walking nonchalantly in a crouch—it couldn’t be done”), he always cuts a fine and heroic figure. Wolfe’s book goes on long, but never too long, and though he often strays into ethnic-clash territory staked out by John Sayles, he makes Miami his own as a kind of laboratory of future possibilities, some dystopian and some not, all ripe for lampooning.
Full of stereotyping and waspishness, sure, but a welcome pleasure from an old master and the best from his pen in a long while.
Sterling collection of short stories by Alexie (Ten Little Indians, 2003, etc.), a master of the form.
The reader can take his or her pick of points where the blasphemy of Alexie’s title occurs in this multifaceted assemblage, for there are several solid candidates. One falls about two-thirds of the way in, when a hard-boiled newspaper editor chews out a young Indian writer who might be Alexie’s semblable. By that young man’s count, the editor had used the word “Jesus” thrice in 15 seconds: “I wasn’t a Christian and didn’t know much about the definition of blasphemy,” Alexie writes, “but it seemed like he’d committed some kind of sin.” In Alexie’s stories, someone is always committing some kind of sin, and often not particularly wittingly. One character, a bad drinker in need of help to bail out some prized pawned regalia, makes about as many errors as it’s possible to make while still remaining a fundamentally decent person; another laments that once you start looking at your loved one as though he or she is a criminal, then the love is out the door. “It’s logical,” notes Alexie, matter-of-factly. Most of Alexie’s characters in these stories—half selected and half new—are Indians, and then most of them Spokanes and other Indians of the Northwest; but within that broad categorization are endless variations and endless possibilities for misinterpretation, as when a Spokane encounters three mysterious Aleuts who sing him all the songs they’re allowed to: “All the others are just for our people,” which is to say, other Aleuts. Small wonder that when they vanish, no one knows where, why, or how. But ethnicity is not as central in some of Alexie’s stories as in others; in one of the most affecting, the misunderstandings and attendant tragedies occur between humans and donkeys. The darkness of that tale is profound, even if it allows Alexie the opportunity to bring in his beloved basketball. Longtime readers will find the collection full of familiar themes and characters, but the newer pieces are full of surprises.
Whether recent or from his earliest period, these pieces show Alexie at his best: as an interpreter and observer, always funny if sometimes angry, and someone, as a cop says of one of his characters, who doesn’t “fit the profile of the neighborhood.”
A treasure trove of graphic artworks—they’re too complex to be called comics—from Ware, master of angst, alienation, sci-fi and the crowded street.
At 44, Ware (The Acme Novelty Library, 2005, etc.) is old enough to remember the day when you could stick a few dollars in an envelope, send it off and have a box full of strange goodness come to your door—a mystery box, that is, with puzzles, games, gag items and maybe one or two things worth keeping. Opening the oversized box that contains the many pieces of this book is a kindred experience: It’s not quite clear what’s inside, save for brightly colored paper in various forms, from foldout poster to ultrathin, small notebook to sturdy hardcover. Each package contains a story set, as the title suggests, in or near a teeming city. How the reader reads these seems not to matter, for the box is like a river, if that’s not too mixed a metaphor, into which one steps where the current seems safest; there’s no beginning to it and no end. One thing is clear: Not many of Ware’s characters are happy, even if they live in buildings that are overstuffed, like this box, with things. One young woman, for instance, recounts, “There were whole stretches of days where I never even left the house at all...never saw or talked to another human being...I just ordered pizzas, watched TV, and read books....Of course, I went grocery shopping, and a couple of times I walked to the ‘downtown’ of the suburb and ate dinner by myself, just for variety’s sake.” That’s a humdrum existence by any measure—especially the being stuck in the suburbs part—but considering the likely fate of the little honeybee, Branford, who is the hero of one of the little books, it’s not to be dismissed. And anyway, try finding a four-room flat for $650 a month in the city these days—one in a building that, in Ware’s surreal inventory, has seen 13,246 light bulbs, 725 roasted turkeys and 158,854 lighted matches—all of which add up, one suspects, to the number of ways in which one can read this puzzling tome.
A dazzling document, beautifully if most idiosyncratically drawn; in this iteration, sure to become a collector’s item, though one that begs for an easier-to-handle trade edition.
Addition to Banks’ wonderful space-opera series (without the middle initial, he also writes impressive mainstream novels) about the far-future galactic Culture (Surface Detail, 2010, etc.), a liberal-anarchic, multispecies civilization guided and sustained, more or less invisibly, by Minds, artificial intelligences that take such physical forms as spaceships and habitats.
Vastly more intelligent than humans, millions of times faster and mostly benevolent, Minds are truly godlike entities. (Asked “Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks replied: “If we’re lucky.”) Now, the Gzilt civilization, an almost perversely peaceful military society whose precepts arise from the Book of Truth, an ancient tome containing technological and intellectual predictions nearly all of which have proved correct, are preparing to Sublime, or vanish, into a set of higher dimensions where existence is thought to be almost infinitely rich and complex. As the Gzilt make their preparations, several rather primitive scavenger species gather nearby (one ship comes into orbit, as Banks puts it, with the “warp-engine equivalent of loud clanks and clouds of black smoke”), ready to grab whatever goodies the Gzilt leave behind. But then, a sudden, devastating attack destroys the Gzilt Regimental High Command. The reason seems to involve a shattering secret about the Book of Truth and the establishment of the Culture 10,000 years ago. One of the few survivors, reserve Lt. Cmdr. Vyr Cossont, a bewildered four-armed musician with, self-confessedly, no military skills, receives orders to locate and question Ngaroe QiRia, possibly the Culture’s oldest living person and the only one who might have some idea why the Book of Truth is so important and what really happened 10 millennia ago. Problem is, even assisted by Berdle, a powerful Mind avatar, and an erratic battle android who’s convinced everything’s merely a simulation, can she survive long enough to complete her mission? Scotland-resident Banks’ Culture yarns, the science-fiction equivalent of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, brim with wit and wisdom, providing incomparable entertainment, with fascinating and highly original characters, challenging ideas and extrapolations, and dazzling action seamlessly embedded in a satirical-comedy matrix.
A fictionalized biography of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Its publication will coincide with her appointment as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict.
Eight-year-old Hildegard, a knight’s daughter, accompanies teenage Jutta, a countess’ daughter, as both are imprisoned in an anchorage, a tiny enclosure adjoining a Benedictine monastery chapel in the German hamlet of Disibodenberg. The girls are consecrated as “oblates,” an extreme form of cloistered nun. Their parents have ulterior motives for consigning each child to this sacred interment: Hildegard’s visions embarrass her family, and Jutta, a victim of incest, is unmarriageable. For the next 30 years, Hildegard, with the help of a monk named Volmar, manages to gain an education in music, languages and medicinal arts while Jutta starves herself and mortifies her flesh until she dies. Since the anchorage must now be unbricked for Jutta’s funeral, Hildegarde convinces the Abbot of Disibodenburg to allow her and two other oblates to remain free. Soon, Richardis is brought by her noble mother to serve Hildegard. Richardis is mute, but Hildegard correctly divines that her embrace of religious life is voluntary. When she speaks, it is to defend Hildegard’s visions and writings, which Richardis has helped to illustrate on parchment. This miracle affords Hildegard some credibility at Disibodenburg. Then, word comes that Pope Eugenius wants to scrutinize her first manuscript, Scivias. With the help of Volmar and her beloved brother, Rorich, who serves the Archbishop of Mainz, she is cleared of heresy and is even dubbed “God’s Sybil” by the Pope. Now, Hildegard is free to fulfill her destiny, which she first fully realized at the age of 42, as a writer, healer, composer and abbess. But further hurdles await. Sharratt brings the elusive Hildegard to vivid life, underscoring her ability to evade or transcend Church censure while espousing a protofeminist agenda.
The ideal companion to the elevation of Hildegard by the pontiff who rebuked American nuns for their outspokenness, an irony the saint herself might have relished.
A vast novel—if novel it is—of the tangled lives of anti-Nazi Germans on the Spanish island of Majorca in the years leading up to World War II.
Some of those Germans were communists, others Jews; all were destined to be denounced, and many killed, when Franco’s soldiers finished their fascist revolution with the help of the Third Reich. That’s a grim matter of history, but Thelen (1903–1989) is anything but grim for much of this book, which was published in Germany in 1953 and has enjoyed a somewhat uneasy stance as a classic ever since—somewhat uneasy, that is, because it deals with matters that many Germans of the time would have just as soon forgotten. Even on dark matters, though, Thelen squeezes in unlikely jokes “A Spaniard who is ready to shoot today instead of tomorrow—how very odd!” he exclaims. Or rather, his alter ego, named Vigoleis and married, as was Thelen, to a woman named Beatrice, exclaims. To call this a roman à clef is to risk making too much of the connection between the author’s life and that of his protagonist, though one wonders whether this book is fictional in the same sense that Kenneth Rexroth’s An Autobiographical Novel is fiction—that is to say, not much at all. Whatever the case, Vigoleis is a sharp-eyed observer of his fellow Germans, both those on the island and those left far back home in the untender hands of Herr Hitler. Vigoleis may wish for detachment—he describes early on his “congenital aversion to contact with the external world”—but he becomes the unlikely center of a wheel whose spokes are both Spanish and German, and he is expected to perform miracles on behalf of all concerned. Of one clergy-hating Majorcan who asks him to invent a gallows that could humanely kill a priest “in a single stroke,” he notes, “I referred him to my fellow countrymen in the Third Reich, who were now the experts in mass executions.” Fortunately, Vigoleis—like Thelen in real life—manages to get away before he himself is the subject of an execution, leaving behind his beloved island, not quite a paradise but not quite a slaughterhouse, foreboding imagery notwithstanding.
Worthy of a place alongside On the Marble Cliffs, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Death of Virgil and other modernist German masterworks; a superb, sometimes troubling work of postwar fiction, deserving the widest possible audience.
The dark, silent, forbidding Ohio River flows like a line of moral demarcation in Hunt’s (The Exquisite, 2006, etc.) latest literary foray.
Hunt’s story arises from the rough edges of mid-19th-century civilization, before and after the great Civil War. It follows a young girl, Ginny, in a tragic odyssey from Indiana to Kentucky and home again. Full of pride and promises—"struck it rich as a king in trade and now was going to let the land care for him"—widower Linus Lancaster journeyed north to Indiana to marry a cousin he had long fancied. He assumed her widowed, with rumors of her husband dead in a far-off war. But the husband was only wounded, left with a wooden foot and a cane. The cousin had a daughter, Ginny, and as young girls do, Ginny flirted, and Linus’ attentions turned her way. There is a marriage, and the couple treks into Kentucky, where the boastful talk and sweet promises end, not with a fine home, all columns, gables and a 50-foot porch, but instead, at a rough cabin with extra rooms tacked on, a place where Ginny, only 14, must care for Linus’ daughters, 10 and 12. Opening with a prologue in the form of an extraordinarily beautiful meditation on loss, Hunt’s writing deepens into allegory, symbolism and metaphor, all while spinning forth a dark tale of abuse, incest and corruption reminiscent of Faulkner, a circuitous tale in which pigs continually darken the narrative, right to the point where the brutal Linus is killed with a "pig sticker," and Ginny becomes captive within a shadowy, ambiguous gothic-tinged maelstrom of revenge. Blood, race and slavery thread through the story, until Ginny returns across the river again to Indiana where she lives out her life as Scary Sue, working as a housekeeper for another widower, turning away more than once from love and reconciliation in pursuit of a redemption only she understands and desires.
The acclaimed mystery writer again tries his hand at historical fiction, combining period detail from the Prohibition era with the depth of character and twists of plot that have won him such a devoted readership.
Though this novel serves as a sequel to The Given Day (2008), it can be read independently of Lehane’s previous historical novel and is closer in its page-turning narrative momentum to his more contemporary thrillers such as Mystic River (2001). Its protagonist is Joe Coughlin, the morally conflicted youngest son of a corrupt Boston police official (oldest brother Danny was protagonist of the previous novel and makes a cameo appearance here). One of the more compelling characters ever created by Lehane, Joe is a bright young man raised in an economically privileged Irish household who turned to crime as a teenager because “it was fun and he was good at it.” He’s the product of a loveless marriage, for whom “the hole at the center of his house had been a hole at the center of his parents and one day the hole had found the center of Joe.” Among the ways he tries to fill that hole is through love and loyalty, both of which put him at odds with the prevailing ethos of the gang bosses among whom he finds himself caught in the crossfire. He ultimately builds a bootlegging empire in Tampa, backed by a vicious gang lord whose rival had tried to kill Joe, and he falls in love with a Cuban woman whose penchant for social justice receives a boost from his illegal profits. (“Good deeds, since the dawn of time, had often followed bad money,” writes Lehane.) Neither as epic in scope nor as literarily ambitious as its predecessor, the novel builds to a powerful series of climaxes, following betrayal upon betrayal, which will satisfy Lehane’s fans and deserves to extend his readership as well.
Power, lust and moral ambiguity combine for an all-American explosion of fictional fireworks.
From Attenberg (The Melting Season, 2010, etc.), the deeply satisfying story of a Chicago family coming apart at the seams and weaving together at the same time.
Former lawyer Edie Middlestein has always been a large presence, brilliant as a lawyer, loving as a mother, shrewish as a wife. Since early childhood, food has been her private if not secret passion. The novel is organized according to Edie’s fluctuations in weight, and the descriptions of her sensual joy in the gluttony that may be killing her are often mouthwatering. Sixty-ish Edie is obese and ravaged by diabetes. When her pharmacist husband, Richard, leaves her shortly before she’s scheduled for an operation, Edie’s children are outraged. Thirty-one-year-old teacher Robin is a fearful near alcoholic who has avoided intimacy since a disastrous experience in high school. Ironically, her new self-proclaimed hatred of her father opens her to the possibility of a relationship with her geeky neighbor Daniel, a gentle soul with a hidden but strong spine, not unlike Robin’s older brother Benny. Benny is happily married to Rachelle, a woman of fierce protectiveness who initially denies Richard all access to his grandchildren to punish him for his desertion. Is Richard a heartless, selfish man, or is he correct that Edie left him years before he left her? A little of both. All these characters feel more than one emotion at a time, and all are more than they first seem. Edie is an overbearing matriarch in her family, but a lovable saint to the owner of her favorite Chinese restaurant. Richard is a schlemiel, except that he is capable of real love. While the novel focuses intensely on each member of the family, it also offers a panoramic, more broadly humorous, verging-on-caricature view of the Midwestern Jewish suburbia in which the Middlesteins are immersed, from the shopping centers to the synagogues. But as the Middlesteins and their friends move back and forth in time, their lives take on increasing depth individually and together.
A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life.
Chen (Brothers, 2006, etc.), a Chinese-born writer and now resident of New York's Hudson Valley, has a profoundly developed feel for the sweep of history—though here, unlike in Brothers, he compresses what might have been a saga into 300 pages. His story has an epic feel all the same: Samuel Pickens, a Yankee born into wealth and privilege, falls into head-swooning love with the daughter of a New England missionary who has spent her youth in China. Alas, their young love is fleeting, but events pull Samuel across the ocean and into a web of mystery, not least the fact that, years later, Samuel comes into contact with a young woman in the imperial court who looks very strangely like his lost love. The discovery turns Samuel’s world upside down, of course. Chen is a master of suggestion by telling detail: Of the man who teaches Samuel Chinese, for example, he writes, “No one had taught us more with less,” while Samuel’s plans first come a cropper with a potential employer’s being “choked to death by butterflies in his throat”—a neat allusion to Madama Butterfly there, perhaps. Chen sets up the enigma that Samuel must decipher before the first act closes, and though the solution isn’t deeply buried, he takes his time in uncovering it elegantly. For those with an eye for such things, Chen also does a nice job of serving up literary erotica of a sort to do Colette proud: “Then she rode with gentleness, as if the horse beneath her was trotting on a soft path; her rosebud breasts heaved and her hair tossed with each motion.”
A lyrical tale of crossed borders, boundaries and destinies, expertly told.
The internationally popular detective series by the Norwegian author builds to a blockbuster climax.
The Nesbø phenomenon has transcended “next Stieg Larrson” status. In practically every comparison except books sold (and, with millions to date, Nesbø’s catching up), he’s superior to his late Swedish counterpart: more imaginative, better plotting, richer characters, stronger narrative momentum, more psychological and philosophical depth. No, he doesn’t have an androgynously attractive tattooed girl, but he does have Harry Hole: long an Oslo detective who specialized in (increasingly gruesome) serial killers, now a recovering alcoholic involved in some shadowy pursuits in Hong Kong while trying to reclaim his soul. Only the most powerful lure could bring Harry back to the dangers and temptations he faces back home, and that lure is love. Readers of earlier books (and some back story is necessary to feel the full impact of this one) will remember his doomed relationship with Rakel and the way he briefly served as a surrogate father to her son, Oleg. That innocent boy has now become a junkie and an accused murderer in a seemingly open-and-shut case, with Harry the only hope of unraveling a conspiracy that extends from a “phantom” drug lord through the police force to the government. The drug is a synthetic opiate called “violin,” three times stronger than heroin, controlled by a monopoly consortium. The murder victim (whose dying voice provides narrative counterpoint) was Oleg’s best friend and stash buddy, and his stepsister is the love of Oleg’s life. As Harry belatedly realizes, “Our brains are always willing to let emotions make decisions. Always ready to find the consoling answers our hearts need.” As all sorts of father-son implications manifest themselves, the conclusion to one of the most cleanly plotted novels in the series proves devastating for protagonist and reader alike. Hole will soon achieve an even higher stateside profile through the Martin Scorsese film of Nesbø's novel The Snowman (2011), but those hooked by that novel or earlier ones should make their way here as quickly as they can.
Where earlier novels provide a better introduction to Hole, this one best takes the full measure of the man.
A visually arresting and verbally cadenced transformation of the Coleridge classic into a timely (and timeless) eco-apocalyptic fable.
Where most graphic narratives tend to be heavier with text, this book debut by an award-winning British cartoonist relies far more on the power of its dreamlike visuals, where subtleties of color and motion suggest psychedelic woodcuts. The words on each page are never more than couplets, sometimes phrases, while there are stretches of pages of indelible images with no words at all. The poetry evokes the spirit of the original, written in a tone of millennial prophecy in 1797, now imbued with greater urgency in a sea of sludge and oil spill, in phrasing that somehow intersperses 18th-century diction with references to email, Blackberry and Tupperware without jarring the reader. It begins with a man who is a bit of a detached dandy and who has just executed his divorce, tossing aside his marriage (his wife is barely mentioned) like he does a plastic foam cup. He encounters a mariner who proceeds to tell him a tale, one that involves a seafaring adventure, the fateful killing of an albatross, a descent through an ocean of pollution into hell and a rescue that allows the mariner to survive and sound his warning. After hearing the mariner’s soliloquy, the divorcé brushes it off, returning “To a world detached of consequence / Where he would not live for long.” The reader will likely find the story far more moving, as the nightmarish imagery trumps the occasional tendency toward thematic overkill.
More than a classic-comics adaptation, this is an original work of art.
Australia-based writer Robotham’s insightful psychologist Joe O’Loughlin once again tackles a tough case involving crimes that, at first blush, do not seem related.
Two young girls from a small English village disappear one night after attending a local funfair. Gorgeous, promiscuous Tash and quiet, athletic Piper had little in common, but became fast friends. Tash was brilliant, but underachieving. Her lower-middle-class family was troubled, and she attended a prestigious private school on scholarship, while Piper’s mismatched former-model mother and wealthy banker father lived in the area’s toniest neighborhood. While their disappearance initially sparked teams of searchers and outrage from the local citizenry, it simmered down once the police become convinced the girls were runaways. Three years later, the girls are still missing. In the meantime, O’Loughlin and his teenage daughter are trying to rebuild their fractured relationship, damaged by his estrangement from his wife. While attending a conference, police seek out the savvy profiler and ask for his help in solving a terrible double murder. As investigators wade through the blood bath of a crime scene, they learn that the home is connected to the girls’ disappearances. In fact, while the couple killed was no relation to Tash, the home in which it occurred was where she’d lived before she vanished. While police puzzle through the homicide, another body is found, but this time it’s an unidentified young woman found frozen in the ice of a nearby pond. O’Loughlin wants no part of either case but is soon sucked into helping police while racing against the clock to prevent another tragedy. Robotham’s writing ranges from insightful to superb and he has no qualms about burdening his hero, O’Loughlin, with not only a broken personal life, but also a broken body courtesy of a case of Parkinson’s, making him not only more human, but more likable.
Subtle, smart, compelling and blessed with both an intelligent storyline and top-notch writing, this book will grab readers from page one and not let go until the final sentence.
Elegant, elegiac novel of life in postwar America, at once realistic and aspirational, by the ever-accomplished Helprin (A Soldier of the Great War, 1991, etc.).
Harry Copeland is a sturdy-looking man, so much so that a wise aunt likens him to a young Clark Gable, to which he replies, “For Chrissakes, Elaine, when he was young, without the mustache, Clark Gable looked like a mouse.” There’s nothing mousy about Harry, though he does share Gable’s burden of tragedy. But that is far from his mind when he lays eyes on Catherine Thomas Hale on a New York ferry and is stopped in his tracks. He pursues her, and in time he wins her over, only to find that Catherine harbors many secrets—and that her family harbors more than a few hidden prejudices and is not at all happy when Harry comes a-courting in the place of Catherine’s longtime beau. The lovers' story is appropriately tangled and star-crossed, for if Catherine has a wagonload of baggage, Harry, a former paratrooper, hasn’t quite forgotten the horrors of the war in Europe. The story crosses continents and is suffused with the California dream, but Helprin is really most at home in New York, which he describes with the affection and beauty that Woody Allen invested in his film Manhattan. There are other celebrations—of love, of books and learning—and other regrets, as when Harry finds himself “plundered by alcohol” and on the verge of doing things he will rue. Helprin charges the story with beautiful passages: “More like gentle lamps than stars, their blinking was not cold and quick like the disinterested stars of winter, but slow and seductive, as if they were speaking in a code that all mankind understood perfectly well even if it did not know that such a language existed.”
A fine adult love story—not in the prurient sense, but in the sense of lovers elevated from smittenness to all the grown-up problems that a relationship can bring.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road meets Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in this frightful medieval epic about an orphan girl with visionary powers in plague-devastated France.
The year is 1348. The conflict between France and England is nothing compared to the all-out war building between good angels and fallen ones for control of heaven (though a scene in which soldiers are massacred by a rainbow of arrows is pretty horrific). Among mortals, only the girl, Delphine, knows of the cataclysm to come. Angels speak to her, issuing warnings—and a command to run. A pack of thieves is about to carry her off and rape her when she is saved by a disgraced knight, Thomas, with whom she teams on a march across the parched landscape. Survivors desperate for food have made donkey a delicacy and don't mind eating human flesh. The few healthy people left lock themselves in, not wanting to risk contact with strangers, no matter how dire the strangers' needs. To venture out at night is suicidal: Horrific forces swirl about, ravaging living forms. Lethal black clouds, tentacled water creatures and assorted monsters are comfortable in the daylight hours as well. The knight and a third fellow journeyer, a priest, have difficulty believing Delphine's visions are real, but with oblivion lurking in every shadow, they don't have any choice but to trust her. The question becomes, can she trust herself? Buehlman, who drew upon his love of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in his acclaimed Southern horror novel, Those Across the River (2011), slips effortlessly into a different kind of literary sensibility, one that doesn't scrimp on earthy humor and lyrical writing in the face of unspeakable horrors. The power of suggestion is the author's strong suit, along with first-rate storytelling talent.
An author to watch, Buehlman is now two for two in delivering eerie, offbeat novels with admirable literary skill.
All the best secrets are hidden in plain sight. The trick is to notice the secret in front of you.
Sloan’s debut novel takes the reader on a dazzling and flat-out fun adventure, winding through the interstices between the literary and the digital realms. Art school graduate and former NewBagel web designer Clay needs a job. One day, he stumbles into Mr. Penumbra’s store and, seemingly on the basis of his love for The Dragon-Song Chronicles, lands himself a job as the night clerk. Narrow and tall, the bookstore is an odd place, with its severely limited selection of books to sell. Yet, just behind the commercial section, the shelves reach high toward the shadowy ceiling, crammed with a staggeringly large collection of books: a lending library for a small, peculiar group of people. Clay is forbidden to open the books yet required to describe the borrowers in great detail. Late-night boredom catalyzes curiosity, and soon Clay discovers that the books are part of a vast code, a code the book borrowers have been trying to crack for centuries. Could computers solve the paper puzzle? To assist him on his heroic quest, Clay collects a motley band of assistants. Among the crew is Kat, a Google employee and digital wizard, commanding code as well as a legion of distant computers. Neel, former sixth-grade Dungeon Master, is the financial warrior with his empire balanced on digital boob simulation. Book borrowers, cryptographers and digital pirates all lend a hand, but the gray-suited Corvina opposes them with all the power of a secret society.
From the shadows of Penumbra’s bookshelves to the brightly lit constellation of cyberspace to the depths of a subterranean library, Sloan deftly wields the magicks (definitely with a “k”) of the electronic and the literary in this intricate mystery.
Elegant and multifaceted, Engelmann’s debut explores love and connection in late-18th-century Sweden and delivers an unusual, richly imagined read.
Stockholm, “Venice of the North,” in an era of enlightenment and revolution is the setting for a refreshing historical novel grounded in a young man’s search for a wife but which takes excursions into politics, geometry (Divine and other), numerology, the language of fans and, above all, cartomancy—fortunetelling using cards. Emil Larsson, who “came from nothing” and now works for the customs office, is under pressure to marry. Offered advice by the keeper of a select gaming room, Mrs. Sparrow, he is introduced to the Octavo, a set of eight cards from a mysterious deck representing eight characters he will meet who will help him find the fiancee and advancement he seeks. As they appear, these characters each have their own story to tell, like Fredrik Lind, the gregarious calligrapher, and the Nordéns, refugees from France who fashion exquisite fans. But Emil’s Octavo overlaps with Mrs. Sparrow’s own, and his ambitions become enmeshed in a larger scenario involving a plot against King Gustav himself. Another of Emil’s characters, an apothecary fleeing a violent fiancee, who is taken on and groomed by a powerful but cruel widow, holds the key.
The setup is wonderfully engrossing; the denouement doesn’t deliver quite enough. But this is stylish work by an author of real promise.
Elegantly structured, emotionally compelling fiction from novelist/memoirist Wickersham (The Suicide Index, 2008, etc.).
The seven pieces here tell seven different stories, though each has the same title. “The News from Spain” is also a touchstone phrase in each, its meaning transformed by the characters’ experiences. In the first tale, a woman whose longtime marriage has been rocked by a single infidelity sits on the beach with her friend, a man marrying for companionship and hoping his bride-to-be doesn’t want sex; they listen to “the news from Spain” roaring in a seashell, a recollection of simpler times. The phrase encapsulates a daughter’s discovery of her profound love for her dying mother; the excitement a teacher brings into a student’s life; betrayal, tragedy and the eternal sameness amid varieties of love. Four pieces are pure fiction, but Wickersham is particularly interesting when she rings changes on history. A very long tale insightfully examines the real-life marriage of choreographer George Balanchine and ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, stricken by polio and forced to accept her husband’s unfaithfulness; but it is just as nuanced and shrewd about Le Clercq’s relationship with her gay caregiver. The collection’s best story imagines modern odysseys for the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and Elvira from Don Giovanni, interpolating the memoirs of their creator, librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte; what could have been a gimmick is instead a beautiful meditation on art, love and friendship. The final piece is slightly bumpier as it interweaves memories of a platonic adultery that may or may not be fictional with the story of a New York doctor beloved by both a president’s widow and a female journalist (unnamed, as were Balanchine and Le Clercq, but clearly Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Gellhorn, and David Gurewitsch). Yet, here too Wickersham dissects the human heart with precision and restraint that make her work all the more moving.
Short stories don’t get much better than this, and for once, the overarching framework strengthens rather than dissipates their effectiveness.
Bad-boy funnyman Jacobson waxes pensive and topical—but no less mirthful—in his latest assault on the foibles of modern life.
These days, grumbles Guy Ableman, “one has to apologize for having read a book, let alone for having written one.” That’s bad for old Guy, who’s a reader and a writer, the author of smart literary fictions of very modest success who suddenly realizes that his bookish world is crumbling around him. It doesn’t help that his agent commits suicide rather than negotiate yet another e-book deal or that his wife, voluptuous and wonderful, has decided that she’s going to write something of her own or that his wife’s mother is sending decidedly un-mother-in-law-like vibes his way: Guy is in a bad existential state, and the world of publishing is going down the tubes with him. The obvious solution? Why, to craft an irresistible best-seller, a dumb and juicy confection that twists all the right knobs. It’s a lovely setup, one that affords Jacobson, never shy about skewering modern mores, plenty of opportunities to lampoon modern trends in the litbiz. He gets in digs at just about everything, in fact; for instance, we learn, courtesy of Guy, that novels about single fatherhood sell well in Canada “because Canadian women were so bored with their husbands that the majority of them ran off sooner or later with an American or an Inuit.” So fast and furious are the jibes that one wonders if Jacobson will have anything left to lampoon, but of course, the world has a way of providing targets for the careful satirist, and he’s an ascended master. His latest is more fun than Lucky Jim, and if some of its tropes are more ephemeral, Jacobson is willing to take some big risks in the service of art, as when Guy muses of one of his confections, “I had to cheat a bit to get the Holocaust in, but a dream sequence will always make a chump of chronology.”
Guy’s not a lucky guy, to be sure, but if there’s justice, Jacobson will enjoy best-sellerdom in his place with this latest romp.
Having survived brushes with ruthless killers, human monsters and treacherous colleagues of every stripe (Red Mist, 2011, etc.), forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta limps into her 20th case to encounter more of the same.
Scarpetta’s latest casts her as Zeno trying to overtake the tortoise. Before she can track the provenance of the video that’s been emailed to her—a video apparently featuring footage of missing University of Alberta paleontologist Emma Shubert’s severed ear—she has to testify, however unwillingly, for the defense in Channing Lott’s trial for the murder of his vanished wife. Before she can leave for court, she has to examine the mummified remains of an unidentified woman who’s been spotted in Boston Harbor—an examination that has to begin instantly, before the deterioration delayed by the corpse’s long period of climate-controlled storage resumes at top speed. But before Scarpetta can get the corpse on a slab, it’ll have to be gently cut loose from the leatherback turtle who’s gotten tangled up with it, an animal whose endangered species status gives it priority over a mere human cadaver. The first half of this sprawling, ambitious tale may make the reader feel like Zeno as well, constantly struggling to catch up to what Scarpetta already knows about the latest round of traumas posed by her husband, Benton Wesley, her niece, Lucy Farinelli, and her investigator, Pete Marino. It’s not till the second half, when Cornwell hunkers down to tie all these cases together, that excitement rises even as disbelief creeps in.
An ingenious murder method, more hours in the mortuary and forensics lab than usual, an uncharacteristically muffled killer, and all the trademark battles among the regulars and every potential ally who gets in their way.
Eight years after the events in Harris’ best-selling Chocolat (1999, etc.), her heroine is summoned back to the French village she once revitalized with confections.
Vianne Rocher is living in Paris on a houseboat with her husband, Roux, and daughters, Anouk and Rosette, when a posthumous letter arrives from Armande, the crusty old lady who had been her ally in upsetting the straight-laced mores of Lansquenet. This tiny hamlet once more needs Vianne’s intervention, Armande writes, without specifying exactly what is amiss. When Vianne arrives, she is surprised to learn the person most in need of rescue is her erstwhile antagonist, the tightly wound, chocolate-hating Monsieur le Curé Francis Reynaud. As parish pastor, Reynaud has been supplanted by a young, smug priest who wants to turn Mass into a PowerPoint presentation and replace the church’s old oaken pews with plastic chairs. The Bishop has not been pleased since rumors started circulating that Reynaud set fire to a school for Muslim girls housed in Vianne’s former candy shop. Reynaud is suspect because he clashed with the Imam of Les Marauds, Lansquenet’s Muslim neighborhood, over the installation of a minaret complete with call to prayer. The school’s founder, Inès Bencharki, whose brother, Karim, is the Imam’s son-in-law, has, along with her charismatic sibling, introduced Muslim fundamentalism into previously free-wheeling Les Marauds, requiring her pupils to veil themselves. Vianne is drawn into the fray when she takes in Alyssa, the Imam’s granddaughter, whom Reynaud saved from drowning herself. As they forge a gingerly alliance, Reynaud and Vianne suspect that Inès and Karim are hiding something, and those secrets, when revealed, are shocking. While Harris’ loving attention to the details of cuisine, French and Moroccan, and the daily lives of the eccentric village characters conveys a certain charm, the indolent pace of the novel doesn’t accelerate until the puzzle explodes with incandescent intensity near the end. The patient reader, however, will be amply rewarded.
Two more novellas in one volume, continuing Mosley’s Crosstown to Oblivion series (The Gift Of Fire / On The Head Of A Pin, 2012), the common theme being, "a black man destroys the world."
Longer, more substantial and carefully worked-out, Merge begins when Rahl Redman notices something resembling a dead branch in his apartment. The being, an Ido, is one of many refugees from a remote planet with an eerie and complex ecology. He feeds the creature, and slowly, it transforms into something approximating human. Meanwhile, the news is rife with stories of other Ido that drink blood, spew poison gas or explode. They can only survive on Earth by merging with an existing life-form. Earth’s governments, meanwhile, decide that the Ido represent an existential threat and prepare to use any and all means to exterminate them. Rahl decides to merge with his Ido and help their race—an action that will bring him through transcendental bliss and unimaginable agony to, perhaps, salvation. Disciple, by contrast, is the more mystical, less logical, and weaker partner. Hogarth “Trent” Tryman, a nonentity toiling in a dead-end job, receives a bizarre instant message from someone calling himself Bron. What Bron has to say seems unbelievable, but in a matter of days, Hogarth finds he’s now the boss of the corporation. Bron, it emerges, serves a godlike entity called the Stelladren, which if it dies, will wither the souls of all intelligent beings everywhere. But to preserve the Stelladren, most of humanity must die. So what is Mosley offering here? Analogy, parable, allegory? Are only black Americans disaffected or alienated enough to go along, or do his protagonists just happen to be black?
For thoughtful readers, the questions posed by the book are well worth pondering.
Connolly, in her debut, delivers a supernatural spin on Jane Eyre set in a gothic, alternate version of the Victorian era, in the aftermath of a war with powerful, forest-dwelling beings called the fey.
Jane Eliot, a young teacher and former governess, responds to a notice which reads, in part: “Governess needed, country house, delicate situation.” Dorie, the child in question, was born during the Great War between humans and fey that ended years ago and has telekinetic powers as the result of her mother, now dead, being “taken over” by a fey while pregnant. Jane dedicates herself to teaching the peculiar, stubborn child but wonders whether Dorie’s disquieting powers can be curtailed. Jane herself was disfigured by a fey curse during the war, and she wears an iron mask that partially obscures her face; without it, her glowing scar can supernaturally infect others with rage. Meanwhile, the child’s father, the charming but mysterious artist Edward Rochart, creates strange masks for his clients and hides a dark secret. Jane soon comes to realize that the war with the fey may not, in fact, be over after all. Connolly has created a complex and well-drawn world here, and the story is indeed an original and imaginative take on the gothic-fiction tradition. Some readers may find the prose somewhat bland and the occasional neologisms a bit distracting (such as “feyjabber” as a term for an iron spike). That said, Connolly will keep most readers engaged with her impressive worldbuilding, as details stack up about the Great War, the fey and a scarred postwar society.
Silver rings, a profusion of flowers, hazy graveyards and perhaps the fae embroider this hypnotic tale.
Block (Pink Smog, 2012, etc.) returns with her distinctively smoldering style. Primarily aimed at young adults, this book may appeal to an adult audience as well, with its shimmering imagery and nimble characterization. On a school-sponsored visit to UC Berkeley, Ariel Silverman’s best friend, Jeni, strangely disappeared. Just as Ariel herself is set to go off to Berkeley, her parents reveal that Ariel’s mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Still reeling and numb with grief, Ariel heads to college, determined to pursue the mystery of Jeni’s disappearance. Life quickly becomes a routine of classes, running and passing out flyers with Jeni’s face. To escape frat boys, obnoxious football players and her lascivious roommate, Ariel begins to wander the streets at night. On Halloween, an ominous giant of a homeless man hands her a flyer, an invitation to a party at the House of Eidolon. Given that dorm life is hell, Ariel goes to the party, and there, her life takes a sudden, irrevocable turn. The gorgeously Gothic house is home to three enigmatic graduate students who seduce Ariel into their glamorous lives. Perry, faunlike with his curly hair and sly attentiveness, is a classics major. Bewitching Tania has focused her psychology studies on magic, divination and superstition. Yet Ariel’s eyes lock with those of John, who is studying the continuance of the soul. Worried still about Jeni, Ariel soon finds herself physically compelled to return again and again to her enchanting new friends. Why does she feel ill without them? Who is the giant who seems to be lurking about? What does the tattoo on John’s wrist say? Why is Tania so welcoming? And how does Jeni fit into the puzzle?
Moving through recent history into the near future, Burton’s debut novel finds Kate Skylar certain that God is real. Proof grows in her belly.
Kate’s pregnant. No one believes her, but she’s never let a man’s seed touch her body. Kate’s the only child of a wealthy South Carolina Catholic couple. The family’s patriarch, “Papa Jim” Osbourne, owns Oz Corporation, “the largest faith-based prison construction and management company in the nation.” A compelled abortion fails. Discovering the pregnancy, Papa Jim, prominent member of The Way, an anti-Vatican II organization, hides Kate in an Italian convent. She gives birth, but she’s told her son, Ethan, is stillborn. Within the church, two insidious forces battle. Using confessional secrets and computers, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith awaits the Antichrist, in the meantime killing male children born to women claiming sinless conception. The Conversatio, a clandestine ancient group, believes a second virgin birth will bring the divine Son of Man into the world. Ethan grows up in Kansas, adopted son of Conversatio agents. His friends are Peter, whom he converts from being a bully, and Maggie, a girl he loves. Ethan’s revealed as the Son of Man amid riots and worship, with the malevolent Grand Inquisitor, the Congregation’s self-aware computer evolved from J.H. Müller’s 1786 difference engine, seeking to find him. Its parallel processing networks leave “the Congregation’s grasp of computer science and programming far in advance of the rest of the world.” Entwined in politics and commanding a private army known as the “munchies,” Papa Jim has its counterpart, AEGIS (Artificially Engineered Global Intelligence System), and he’s intent upon establishing a Catholic theocracy. While Ethan preaches love and forgiveness, the Congregation plans his assassination and a priest/computer scientist ventures deep within the Vatican’s basement to confront a saint in a “noötic field,” only to hear the Grand Inquisitor ask him to receive its confession.
With its deeper, more sophisticated narrative, classifying Burton’s brilliantly imaginative effort as a Da Vinci Code thriller sells it short.