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.
Of wide open spaces and lives narrowly, desperately lived at the bitter ends of dirt and gravel roads.
The spur of the Rockies at the northwestern corner of Montana is as hard and remote a stretch of country as any in the Lower 48, good reason why a person might want to disappear into it. Social worker Pete Snow, delivered to us in medias res, is well-used to what happens to people with too little money and too much booze or meth in tow. But he’s not quite prepared for how years of being used to such things can wear a person down—and what will touch him off to the point that he’s willing to smack a client. Says Pete to his target, trying to explain the rightness of his act, “[t]hose punches sure as shit come through me but they were not mine. As meant for you as they were, they were not mine.” He’s willing to cop to most responsibilities, but that doesn’t stop his own life from dissolving. Meanwhile, he’s caught up in a curious knot: In a land of snarling dogs and WIC checks, he has to sort out the life of a very nearly feral child, bound up in the even more complex life of a survivalist, paranoid and anti-statist, who may or may not be a Unabomber in the making. That brings the feds into the picture, and if Pete resorts to fisticuffs reluctantly, the FBI thinks nothing of beating their way around a countryside that looks ever more apocalyptic with each passing page. Henderson, a native Montanan, finds ample room for deep-turning plot twists in the superficially simple matter of a man looking for meaning in his own life while trying to help others too proud and mistrustful to receive that assistance. The story goes on a bit long, but the details are just right: It’s expertly written and without a false note, if often quite bleak.
Of a piece with Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in imagining a rural West that’s seen better days—and perhaps better people, too.
Hiding a teenage murder witness among a bunch of delinquent kids in a survival-training program in Montana seemed like a good idea. But when two coldblooded killers track him there from Indiana, everyone's life is at grave risk.
The program is run by Air Force veteran Ethan Serbin, who lives with his wife, Allison, in a mountain cabin. She distrusts Jamie Bennett, a federal marshal and former trainee of Ethan's who shows up in the middle of the night, having recklessly driven into a blizzard, to plead for their help. Jamie says the boy, Jace Wilson, is too hot for even a witness protection program. When Jace arrives, it's anonymously, under the name Connor Reynolds. He's badly lacking in confidence but proves adept in handling himself outdoors. Just as he's settling in, though, the killers—two brothers with a creepy way of conversing with each other even as they're about to commit an atrocity—infiltrate the mountain community. Knowing what they're capable of, Jace/Connor drifts away from the pack, teams up with a female fire ranger who feels responsible for her boyfriend's accidental death and fervently hopes an escape route he devised as part of his training will lead them to safety. Having joined the ranks of the very best thriller writers with his small-town masterpiece, The Prophet (2012), Koryta matches that effort with a book of sometimes-unbearable tension. With the exception of one plot turn you'll likely see coming from a mountain pass away, this novel is brilliantly orchestrated. Also crucial to its success is Koryta's mastery of the beautiful but threatening setting, including a mountain fire's ability to electrify the ground, radiate a lethal force field—and create otherworldly light shows.
A family from Mexico settles in Delaware and strives to repair emotional and physical wounds in Henríquez’s dramatic page-turner.
The author’s third book of fiction (Come Together, Fall Apart, 2006; The World in Half, 2009) opens with the arrival of Arturo and Alma Rivera, who have brought their teenage daughter, Maribel, to the U.S. in the hope of helping her recover from a head injury she sustained in a fall. Their neighbors Rafael and Celia Toro came from Panama years earlier, and their teenage son, Mayor, takes quickly to Maribel. The pair’s relationship is prone to gossip and misinterpretation: People think Maribel is dumber than she is and that Mayor is more predatory than he is. In this way, Henríquez suggests, they represent the immigrant experience in miniature. The novel alternates narrators among members of the Rivera and Toro families, as well as other immigrant neighbors, and their stories stress that their individual experiences can’t be reduced to types or statistics; the shorter interludes have the realist detail, candor and potency of oral history. Life is a grind for both families: Arturo works at a mushroom farm, Rafael is a short-order cook, and Alma strains to understand the particulars of everyday American life (bus schedules, grocery shopping, Maribel’s schooling). But Henríquez emphasizes their positivity in a new country, at least until trouble arrives in the form of a prejudiced local boy. That plot complication shades toward melodrama, giving the closing pages a rush but diminishing what Henríquez is best at: capturing the way immigrant life is often an accrual of small victories in the face of a thousand cuts and how ad hoc support systems form to help new arrivals get by.
A smartly observed tale of immigrant life that cannily balances its optimistic tone with straight talk.
Rachman follows his best-selling debut (The Imperfectionists, 2010) with the haunting tale of a young woman reassessing her turbulent past.
In 2011, Tooly has washed up after a lifetime of wandering in a small Welsh village, where she uses the last of her money to buy a used bookstore. Twelve years earlier, in 1999, she’s a vagabond 20-year-old on the streets of New York City who talks her way into law student Duncan’s apartment by pretending it was her childhood home. Actually, her childhood was spent traveling around Asia with her father, Paul, until, in 1988, she’s scooped up in Bangkok by her feckless mother, Sarah, and falls in with a band of peripatetic misfits led by Venn, a coolly manipulative con man. The three storylines proceed along their separate time tracks to collectively explore how Tooly came to be the remote, hard-drinking young woman who seems to be marking time in Wales. We see that she’s been indelibly scarred by Venn: He imprinted her with his philosophy of relating to people only on the basis of how useful they can be to you; let her believe they had a special friendship as she followed him from country to country and scam to scam; then vanished just after she turned 21 in New York. The revelation of why he let her hang around for a decade forms the novel’s brutal climax, articulated by Venn with matter-of-fact cruelty after Tooly tracks him down. She does have gentler, more nurturing father figures: not just Paul, with whom she reconnects in a tender scene, but Humphrey, the elderly Russian émigré who tried to shelter her from Venn’s influence and softened her fall after he left—though she doesn’t realize this until years later. Still, the overwhelming emotions here are loss and regret, as Tooly realizes how she was alienated from her own best instincts by a charismatic sociopath.
Brilliantly structured, beautifully written and profoundly sad.
An elegantly written gothic epic that begins with children isolated in a lonely manor house; takes a spin through the velvet-draped salons of late-Victorian literary London; then settles in to the bloody business of an outbreak of evil magic.
The novel draws from several genres and benefits from innumerable literary influences. Indeed, its many elements are so familiar that one feels—not unpleasantly—as if one has read and loved it already, years ago, but can't remember exactly how it ends. The year is 1892, and James Norbury, a poet fresh from Oxford, has taken rooms with an intriguing young nobleman. Alas, the joys of youthful gay abandon don’t last long. James disappears, and his sister Charlotte takes it upon herself to come to London to find him. The ominous city that awaits her will please readers who love magical creatures of the elegant, bloodthirsty variety, and the vast cast of more or less creepy characters that populates the cobblestoned streets will satisfy admirers of ensemble novels. As in Dracula, an obvious influence, the supernatural mystery must be solved by a motley crew of avengers. And although the book is not as lushly described as The Night Circus, Owen’s soaring imagination and her light-handed take on magic save this story from being either obvious or boring. Eventually, Charlotte discovers that her brother’s disappearance can be traced to a secret organization of gentlemen—and no sparkling Beau Brummell or amiable Bertie Wooster is to be found among the terrifying and powerful inner circle of The Aegolius Club.
A book that seems to begin as a children’s story ends in blood-soaked mayhem; the journey from one genre to another is satisfying and surprisingly fresh considering that it's set in a familiar version of gothic London among equally familiar monsters.
Hilderbrand’s latest Nantucket heroine has a very particular kind of clairvoyance: She can always tell whether a couple is compatible or not.
Dabney Kimball Beech, 49, who heads up Nantucket’s Chamber of Commerce, is known for her headband, pearls, penny loafers and other preppy accoutrements, as well as her fabulous menus for tailgates and picnics. Then there's her track record of spotting perfect matches: If a couple is suited, she sees pink around them; if not, green. So far, her unerring intuition, augmented by artful introductions, has resulted in more than 40 long-term Nantucket marriages. As the wife of John Boxmiller Beech, aka Box, a Harvard economics professor who's frequently summoned to the Oval Office and whose benchmark textbook nets about $3 million a year, Dabney’s domestic life is serene—except that she's never gotten over her high school sweetheart, Clendenin "Clen" Hughes, a Pulitzer-winning journalist whose beat has been, until recently, Southeast Asia. Due to a childhood trauma involving a runaway mother, Dabney has been too phobic to leave Nantucket (except for four years at Harvard). Nearly three decades before, unable to follow in Clen’s globe-trotting footsteps, Dabney banished him from her life and from the life of their daughter, Agnes, who's never met her father, though she knows who he is.Now Clen is back on Nantucket—minus an arm. Agnes is engaged to the uber-rich, controlling and decidedly unclassy sports agent CJ. (This couple is definitely swathed in a green cloud.) Since Box is teaching in Cambridge during the week, the opportunity to resume an affair with Clen proves irresistible toDabney. The complications mount until, suddenly, Hilderbrand’s essentially sunny setup, bolstered by many summer parties and picnics (and lavishly described meals, particularly seafood), takes a sudden, somber turn. Hilderbrand has a way of transcending the formulaic and tapping directly into the emotional jugular. Class is often an undercurrent in her work, but in this comedy of manners–turned–cautionary tale, luck establishes its own dubious meritocracy.
Jacob’s darkly comic debut—about a photographer’s visit to her parents’ New Mexico home during a family crisis—is grounded in the specifics of the middle-class Indian immigrant experience while uncovering the universality of family dysfunction and endurance.
Amina Eapen was born in New Mexico, but her older brother, Akhil, was born in India before the family moved to America. Amina and Akhil chafed against their parents’ evident unhappiness—their mother, Kamala, clung to impossible dreams of returning to India; their father, Thomas, disappeared into his medical practice—while also enjoying the extended Christian Indian community to which the Eapens have always belonged. Now in her mid-30s and unmarried, Amina is working as a wedding photographer in Seattle, having dropped her career in photojournalism after a picture she took of a suicide went viral. Then Kamala, who has become a Baptist, manipulates Amina into a visit by claiming Thomas is acting strangely. Amina arrives in New Mexico reluctant but soon realizes that something may actually be wrong with her father; not only is he talking to dead relatives on the front porch, but he's exhibiting odd behavior at work. By the time Thomas is diagnosed with a physical disease, Amina is feeling a bit haunted by the past herself—she can't escape from memories of growing up with the gifted but troubled Akhil, whose death as a high school senior was a blow from which no one in the family has recovered. Amina also finds a lover she avoids introducing to her parents for good reason: He's the brother of Akhil’s high school sweetheart, and he isn't Indian. Amina’s romance, as well as mouthwatering descriptions of Kamala’s cooking, leavens but does not diminish the Eapens’ family tragedy.
Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but both write with naked honesty about the uneasy generational divide among Indians in America and about family in all its permutations.
Tom Clancy meets Robin Cook in a thriller that should find a place in many beach bags this summer.
Debut novelist Hayes brings well-refined storytelling chops to the enterprise: He’s written numerous screenplays, including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Indeed, while reading this novel, one gets the sense it was written to turn into a screenplay or perhaps began life that way, what with its shifting points of view and a narrator who may or may not be reliable. Whatever the case, Hayes gets us into the thick of things right away: Pilgrim, a federal agent, is a brilliant student of the human psyche who just happens to have awesome killing skills that he’s practiced on several continents; in Moscow, for instance, he recounts, “even though I was young and inexperienced I killed my boss like a professional.” Don’t give him a bad performance review, then. He finds plenty of scope for his talents when put up against a former mujahedeen ominously code-named The Saracen, who’s resolved to wreak all kinds of havoc on the West for its offenses against Islam. He’s a bad, bad man—the fact that he wasn’t killed in the war along with a million other Afghans, Hayes writes, “would make most people question if not God’s existence at least His common sense.” Hayes is a master of the extremely gruesome scene—the opening involves an acid bath, and later we get popped eyeballs, beheadings and all kinds of grisliness. The story does go on a hundred pages too long and gets sidelined here and there, but it has considerable strengths, and the author gets points for avoiding at least some clichés and putting a few Arabs into key good-guy (or good-girl) positions.
Two psychos enter, and one psycho leaves. Good entertainment for readers with a penchant for mayhem, piles of bodies and a lethal biochemical agent or two.
Another tense drama of pre–World War II Europe from a master of the period.
December 1937. Attorney Cristián Ferrar is a Spaniard working in Paris and New York. Civil war rages in his native country, and he fears deeply that Francisco Franco’s fascists—the Nationalists—will win. On the other side are the Republicans, who are communists and other loyalists supported by Stalin’s Soviet Union. It is in many ways a proxy war between Hitler and Stalin and a precursor to world war. Spies are everywhere, perhaps even in the hero’s bed. “For the secret services of Germany, Italy and the USSR, the civil war was a spymaster’s dream,” Furst writes. He portrays Europe with masterful foreboding, a mood that paints the continent in shades of gray. On both sides, people disappear at the slightest suspicion of treason. Ferrar wants to help the Republicans before all is lost, but how? Messerschmidts supplied by Hitler continually divebomb and slaughter the Republican troops. Almost no country wants to help them—not the United States, not Britain, not France. Italy, of course, is under fascist control. What about the Soviet Union? Can Ferrar and his friend de Lyon buy anti-aircraft munitions from the Soviets? No, not officially. Stalin knows he will eventually need them. But perhaps with the right connections, Ferrar can relieve an Odessa warehouse of the needed materiel and sail it successfully to Valencia. It is an act of bravery and desperation that even with the best outcome won’t tip the balance, but Ferrar doesn’t know that. As usual, Furst manages to hold the reader’s rapt attention without blood-and-guts action.
Furst owns the dark blanket that covers Europe between the two world wars. His latest is a satisfying, thought-provoking read.