When a mysterious novel appears on her bedside table, a successful documentary filmmaker finds herself face to face with a secret that threatens to unravel life as she knows it.
Catherine Ravenscroft has built a dream life, or close to it: the devoted husband, the house in London, the award-winning career as a documentary filmmaker. And though she’s never quite bonded with her 25-year-old son the way she’d hoped, he’s doing fine—there are worse things than being an electronics salesman. But when she stumbles across a sinister novel called The Perfect Stranger—no one’s quite sure how it came into the house—Catherine sees herself in its pages, living out scenes from her past she’d hoped to forget. It’s a threat—but from whom? And why now, 20 years after the fact? Meanwhile, Stephen Brigstocke, a retired teacher, widowed and in pain, is desperate to exact revenge on Catherine and make her pay for what happened all those years ago. The story is told in alternating chapters, Catherine's in the third-person and Stephen's in the first, as the two orbit each other, predator and prey, and the novel moves between the past and the present to paint a portrait of two troubled families with trauma bubbling under the surface. As their lives become increasingly entangled, Stephen’s obsession grows, Catherine’s world crumbles, and it becomes clear that—in true thriller form—everything may not be as it seems. But how much destruction must be wrought before the truth comes out? And when it does, will there be anything left to salvage? While the long buildup to the big reveal begins to drag, Knight’s elegant plot and compelling (if not unexpected) characters keep the heart of the novel beating even when the pacing falters. Atmospheric and twisting and ripe for TV adaptation, this debut novel never strays far from convention, but that doesn’t make it any less of a page-turner.
There are suggestions throughout this second installment of a planned trilogy that King’s motley, appealing trio of detectives from Mr. Mercedes (2014) have some bad juju in their collective future that may make the case here look like a relative afternoon at the mall.
As in Misery and The Shining, King swan dives into the looniness lurking at both ends of the writer-reader transaction. The loony in this particular joint is a pale, red-lipped sociopath named Morris Bellamy, who, in 1978, robs and murders his favorite novelist, John Rothstein, because he can't forgive him for making his lead character, Jimmy Gold, go into advertising in the last published installment of his epic trilogy. Yet along with the cash Bellamy collects during his crime are several notebooks comprising a rough draft for a fourth installment suggesting an outcome for Gold that Bellamy finds potentially more satisfying. Bellamy buries a trunk with the money and notebooks for safekeeping, but a 35-year prison hitch interrupts his plans. By the time Bellamy is paroled in 2014, Pete Saubers, a high school student who’s something of a Rothstein aficionado himself, has excavated the trunk, sent the money in anonymously labeled parcels to his financially strapped parents, and stashed the notebooks for a possible sale on the proverbial rainy day—whose somewhat premature arrival comes, alas, at roughly the same time Bellamy appears in the Sauberses' life. Fortunately, Pete’s back is covered by the odd-squad private detective team of portly, kindly ex-cop Bill Hodges, wisecracking digital whiz Jerome Robinson, and Hodges' phobic-savant researcher Holly Gibney, who first pooled their talents in Mr. Mercedes—a book whose central crime, the murder and maiming of innocents by a luxury car, looms over this sequel like a stubborn shadow. This being a King novel, the narrative hums and roars along like a high-performance vehicle, even though there are times when its readers may find themselves several tics ahead of the book’s plot developments. But such qualms are overcome by the plainspoken, deceptively simple King style, which has once again fashioned a rip-snorting entertainment; one that also works as a sneaky-smart satire of literary criticism and how even the most attentive readers can often miss the whole point behind making up characters and situations.
Reading a King novel as engrossing as this is a little like backing in a car with parking assist: after a while, you just take your hands off the wheel and the pages practically turn themselves.
The lives and loves of expatriates on Mallorca, shaped by a 60-year-old misunderstanding.
Nichols' novel opens in 2005 with a chance meeting between Lulu Davenport and Gerald Rutledge on a cliff-top road near The Rocks, Lulu's seaside hotel. Though they live in the same small town on an island, the couple has managed to avoid each other since their very brief marriage in the 1940s, and this encounter immediately becomes a confrontation. In its course, the pair of 80-somethings accidentally tumble to their deaths. The remaining sections of the novel—set in 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951, and 1948—trace backward through the ripple effects of their falling-out to the incident that started it all, sweeping into the vortex their children by other spouses, and the generation after that as well. As intoxicating as a long afternoon sitting at the bar at The Rocks, the book features complications that include a book deal, a real estate swindle, a shipwreck, a drug bust, and many sexual affairs, including a couple of statutory rapes. All of it is absolutely riveting, leaving the reader desperate to depart immediately for swoony Mallorca, depicted from the time no one knew where it was (one would-be visitor goes to Monaco by mistake) to its present-day popularity. Nichols' expertise on everything from the Odyssey to olive oil to classic movies enriches the story, as does his profound understanding of his screwed-up cast of characters. "They were self-employed professionals, artists, writers, nonviolent sweet-natured criminals, mysteriously self-supporting or genteelly impoverished,....occasionally sleeping with one another in a manner that disturbed no one. In unspoken ways, they recognized one another, and everything they did made perfect sense to them, though they often arrived on the island as pariahs of the outside world, but were soothed and taken in by their steady, tolerant, and nonjudgmental friends and lovers on Mallorca."
A literary island vacation with a worldly, wonderfully salacious storyteller.
Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker’s ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that’s also serious fun.
At just over 300 pounds, Plum Kettle is waiting for her real life to start: she’ll be a writer. She’ll be loved. She’ll be thin. In the meantime, she spends her days ghostwriting advice to distraught teenage girls on behalf of a popular teen magazine (“Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help”), meticulously counting calories (“turkey lasagna (230)”), and fantasizing about life after weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious young woman in Technicolor tights starts following her, Plum finds herself drawn into an underground feminist community of radical women who refuse to bow to oppressive societal standards. Under the tutelage of Verena Baptist, anti-diet crusader and heiress to the Baptist diet fortune (a diet with which Plum is intimately familiar), Plum undertakes a far more daring—and more dangerous—five-step plan: to live as her true self now. Meanwhile, a violent guerrilla group, known only as “Jennifer,” has emerged, committing acts of vigilante justice against misogynists. As her surgery date nears and Jennifer’s acts grow increasingly drastic, Plum finds she’s at the center of what can only be described as a literal feminist conspiracy—and she’s transforming into a version of herself she never knew existed. But while it would be easy for the book to devolve into a tired parable about the virtues of loving yourself just the way you are, Walker’s sharp eye and dry humor push it away from empty platitudes and toward deeper and more challenging turf. Ultimately, for all the unsettling pleasure of Walker’s splashier scenarios—and there are many—it’s Plum’s achingly real inner life that gives the novel its arresting emotional weight.
Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.
Taylor (Rules for Saying Goodbye, 2007) evokes the rich textures and rhythms of California’s Central Valley in this lush novel of inheritance, family, and betrayal.
Ingrid, who believes “all existential problems are solved when you’re driving somewhere,” narrates her return to her family’s 20,000-acre farm in Fresno after her latest breakup. She’s spent the decade since college in New York, London, and Los Angeles in a series of failed relationships and needs somewhere to begin again. Her father, Ned, who inherited his first hundred acres, has spent a lifetime buying and cultivating the best soil. Now he presides over Palamede Farms with “something beyond affection for the grapes…something much closer to love.” But “no farmer ever wants another to do well,” and love may not be enough to keep the farm going. Ned’s daughters, Ingrid and her sister, Annie, a Los Angeles voice-over actress, help each other through heartaches while also discovering what very different adults they are. The sisters share a complicated relationship with their fiercely protective mother, who is hostile to almost everyone outside their family. One of the few outsiders she trusts is her husband’s best friend, Felix, a successful vineyard owner who also makes wine by buying grapes from other farmers. When Ned’s long-standing cough worsens, Ingrid settles in to help run the farm, tangling with Felix to make good on his promise to buy Palamede’s harvest. The picking season’s vivid drama is rendered through descriptions of the changing grapes as Ingrid waits for Felix to pick them before they lose their value; one day, they are “plummy and tart, but too taut yet.” Meanwhile, Ingrid reunites with her estranged best friend, Bootsie, and George Sweet, the man many thought she would marry if her mother had approved.
A profound novel about forces that can nurture or break the strongest connections.
Sixteen-year-old Dionne Braithwaite and her 10-year-old sister, Phaedra, are sent to the tiny town of St. John, Barbados, to stay with their grandmother while their mother, Avril, recovers from a long depression.
Avril, a nurse, has been overwhelmed with sadness after witnessing the deaths of her patients to AIDS following the sudden disappearance of her abusive husband, Errol. With Avril unable to take care of her family, it was Dionne who took on the responsibility of caring for her mother and her little sister. But in her grandmother’s house in Barbados, Dionne doesn't need to take care of anyone but herself—and she finds it unnerving. Phaedra, however, fits right in—to her, Barbados feels like the home Brooklyn never was—and she gleefully absorbs the stories of her mother’s people. The mystery of what happened to Avril to weight her life with such sadness fuels the book, becoming the driving force behind Dionne’s desire to discover the pieces of Avril left behind in her old Barbados bedroom. But as Avril delays returning to take the girls back to Brooklyn, Dionne begins to act out and make unwise relationship decisions, leading her grandmother to believe she's on her way to becoming the kind of "easy" girl who lets herself be used by men. What Dionne’s grandmother doesn’t realize is that the one thing Dionne had learned from watching Avril was “that if you wanted to keep a man, he should love you at least a little bit more than you loved him”—one of many moments of awareness that permeate this delightful debut novel.
An engrossing and poignant coming-of-age story populated with engaging, well-drawn characters.
Having become a famous author by publishing his wife's brilliant crime novels with his name on the cover, Henry Hayden creates his own devious fictions to avoid detection in a series of mysterious deaths.
Psychologically damaged since childhood—when his father, who abused him for bed-wetting, tripped down the basement stairs and died on the same day his mother disappeared—Hayden is a drifter with no human connections. Waking up hung over after sleeping with a stranger, Martha, he discovers a manuscript under her bed and is so impressed that he sends it off to publishers as his own. Martha, an oddball who writes books in the middle of the night and tosses the perfectly composed manuscripts in the cellar, is fine with that. After Hayden marries her, the first novel becomes a huge bestseller. Living large with a sports car and fancy clothes, he has an affair with his editor, Betty, who becomes pregnant with his child. It's only a matter of time, or so it seems, before he's exposed for the fake he is. But he remains master of his made-up world, even with the police breathing down his neck after first Martha and then Betty disappear and even with a stalker who knows everything about his past seeking vengeance. A cross between James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith, with a wide streak of sardonic humor, this is one wicked tale. You keep waiting for the author to slip, plot-wise, but, as with his protagonist, you wait in vain.
German screenwriter Arango's first novel is superior pulp, with schemers all around and plenty to say about fame, identity, and mortality.
A full-throttle dive into the psyche and romantic attachments of Beryl Markham—whose 1936 solo flight across the Atlantic in a two-seater prop plane (carrying emergency fuel in the extra seat) transfixed the world.
As conceived in this second historical by novelist McLain (The Paris Wife, 2011, etc.), Markham—nee Beryl Clutterbuck—is the neglected daughter of an impecunious racehorse trainer who fails to make a go at farming in British East Africa and a feckless, squeamish mother who bolts back to England with their older son. Set on her own two feet early, she is barely schooled but precociously brave and wired for physical challenges—a trait honed by her childhood companion Kibii (a lifelong friend and son of a local chief). In the Mau forest—“before Kenya was Kenya”—she finds a “heaven fitted exactly to me.” Keeping poised around large mammals (a leopard and a lion also figure significantly) is in her blood and later gains her credibility at the racecourse in Nairobi, where she becomes the youngest trainer ever licensed. Statuesque, blonde, and carrying an air of self-sufficiency—she marries, disastrously, at 16 but is granted a separation to train Lord Delamere’s bloodstock—Beryl turns heads among the cheerfully doped and dissolute Muthaiga Club set (“I don’t know what it is about Africa, but champagne is absolutely compulsory here”), charms not one but two heirs to the British crown at Baroness Karen Blixen’s soiree, and sets her cap on Blixen’s lover, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’ll have him, too, and much enjoyment derives from guessing how that script, and other intrigues, will play out in McLain’s retelling. Fittingly, McLain has Markham tell her story from an altitude of 1,800 feet: “I’m meant to do this,” she begins, “stitch my name on the sky.” Popularly regarded as “a kind of Circe” (to quote Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman), the young woman McLain explores owns her mistakes (at least privately) and is more boxed in by class, gender assumptions, and self-doubt than her reputation as aviatrix, big game hunter, and femme fatale suggests.
Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as “a high-grade bitch” but proclaimed her 1942 memoir West with the Night “bloody wonderful.” Readers might even say the same of McLain’s sparkling prose and sympathetic reimagining.
A young girl navigates a tumultuous childhood to become one of the top chefs in the country in this delicious debut from Stradal.
Eva Thorvald is just a baby when her mother leaves and her father dies. But despite never really knowing her chef father and sommelier mother, Eva finds out that cooking is in her blood. In elementary school, she grows hot peppers in her closet. In high school, she gets an internship at the nicest restaurant in town. Eventually, she grows into one of the most respected, most adventurous chefs in the country, running an ultrahip pop-up supper club with a yearslong waiting list. Although Eva’s tale is interesting enough on its own, the true excitement comes from Stradal’s decision to tell it in interconnected stories from different points of view. The reader sees Eva through the eyes of her father, her boyfriend, a rival, a cousin, and more. Piecing together Eva’s life from these patchwork stories fleshes out her world and makes the ending feel especially rewarding. Delightful details, like a fiercely competitive county-fair bake-off with a category just for bars, inject the book with some Midwestern realness.
Food and family intertwine in this promising debut that features triumph, heartbreak, and even recipes.
Another sensitive fictional portrait of a complicated marriage from the author of Tigers in Red Weather (2012).
This time Klaussmann has real-life models: Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose 1920s golden years on the French Riviera inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Her novel begins with Gerald’s loveless childhood in 1890s Manhattan; a harrowing chapter about the loss of his adored dog lays the groundwork for his bond with Sara, first seen as a bored post-debutante in pre–World War I London. Their early love is touchingly depicted as shared desire for a life “entirely of our own creation,” which is what they achieve at the eponymous Cap d’Antibes villa. Klaussmann makes good use of several fine biographies of the Murphys (cited in an author’s note) to capture the magic of a privileged, bohemian existence dedicated to the pleasures of fine food and drink, friendship, and self-expression through the elegant, idiosyncratic clothes they wear and their beautiful home furnishings. She also draws on nonfictional references to Gerald’s ambiguous sexuality to imagine a passionate affair with pilot Owen Chambers, an invented character. Down-to-earth Owen offers a reality check on the nonstop house parties with famous friends (Scott and Zelda, Ernest, Cole, and many more of the usual Lost Generation suspects): “The spectacle and the costumes…the endless conversations about ideas, and the misunderstandings. Could you live without that?” Owen asks. Probably not; Gerald remains devoted to Sara (who knows more than she will admit about him and Owen) and the world they’ve fashioned. Their son Patrick’s struggle with tuberculosis brings an end to the halcyon days at Villa America. A welter of letters chronicling the Murphys’ ordeal slightly blurs the novel’s focus in later chapters but also testifies to the profound, enduring affection they prompted in all who knew them. A closing vignette poignantly revisits the couple in the heyday of their campaign to make life as beautiful as their dreams.
Beautifully written and surprisingly fresh given the well-worn subject matter.
A missing person mystery is delicately entwined with a heartbreaking story of migration and loss.
The Vietnam of the past and the Las Vegas of the present are vividly evoked in this debut novel in which hard-boiled noir is seamlessly blended with reminiscences of exile. A two-fisted policeman from Oakland, California, finds both his life and sense of certainty upended by Suzy, the Vietnamese wife who abandoned him with thwarted desires and unanswered questions. It turns out he’s not the only ex-husband looking for her. She’s now fled from a short-tempered smuggler named Sonny, who’s also a refugee from the fall of Saigon and leans on the reluctant cop hard enough to make him search her last-known whereabouts, Vegas. What the cop finds, to his surprise, is Suzy’s estranged daughter, Mai, a professional poker player who’s something of a tough-talking, hard-boiled case herself; though he also recognizes in Mai more than just a strong physical resemblance to Suzy: “I could see her mother’s stubbornness….All the loneliness that comes with refusing anything sensible the world gives you.” The author intersperses the mercurial tale of the search with long, detailed letters written to Mai by Suzy recounting the wrenching, often perilous passage from Vietnam in the mid-1970s to a Malaysian refugee camp. It is in this testimony that Tran’s writing achieves a fluidity and grace that make you share his enigmatic antiheroine’s aching loss and sense of dislocation. (One of the most resonant of these memories involves using pork fat to help gas up a boat used for escaping Vietnam and how it makes the hungry passengers remember restaurants and kitchens of their past lives.) He's on less solid footing bringing the policeman’s first-person narrative to life but nonetheless skillfully identifies the roots of whatever is stalking Mai, Suzy, and others with recriminations and regrets; much like the Vietnam War itself, which created such torment and whose sorrowful legacy resounds generations later.
Right off the bat, Tran displays the most admirable and worthwhile gift a serious thriller writer can have: compassion toward even the most disreputable of his characters.
What happens when a book lover gets caught up in the tech world?
Alice Pearse is happy with her life as the part-time books editor at You, a glossy women’s magazine, which allows her to commute into Manhattan three days a week wearing semifashionable clothes and still have time to hang out with her kids, go to spin class, and grab coffee with friends. But when her husband, Nicholas, finds out he hasn’t made partner at his law firm—and cements his decision to leave by throwing a laptop across the conference room—she impetuously tells him she’ll get a full-time job. Luckily, she soon hears from Genevieve Andrews, a woman she follows on Twitter, who offers her a position at Scroll, a sort-of Amazon/Starbucks mashup that wants to revolutionize the world of bookselling. Egan’s voice is knowing and funny, and she has a great eye for the minutiae of the modern working mother’s life. Alice picks Legos off the floor, orders her kids’ class pictures, and calls in a renewal of her dog’s Prozac prescription: “His birthday? Honestly, I have no idea….He’s not my son! He’s my dog!” The scenes at the tech company aren’t as sharply satirical as Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but it’s fun to see Alice try to get a handle on the lingo—learning to schedule a 1-to-1 instead of a meeting, for instance—and keep up with the company’s shifting priorities. The book is brimming with relationships and subplots: Alice’s father is dying of cancer but finds time to nag her about her social media profile (“Why no cover photo on your [Facebook] timeline?”); her best friend, an independent bookstore owner, is struggling with her business; Nicholas is drinking too much while trying to get his solo practice off the ground. Egan, herself the books editor at Glamour, packs an incredible amount of humor, observation, and insight into her buoyant debut novel, a sort-of The Way We Live Now for 21st-century moms who grew up loving the bookish heroines of Anne of Green Gables and Betsy-Tacy.
Women may not be able to have it all, but this novel can.