A pop culture–infused novel that thoughtfully and nonjudgmentally considers the dark side of nerddom.

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WOLF IN WHITE VAN

A man badly disfigured in a gun accident ponders gaming, heavy metal, family, love and the crazed emotions that tend to surround our obsessions.

As the singer-songwriter of the band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle specializes in impressionistic, highly literate lyrics delivered in a stark, declamatory voice. Much the same is true of Sean Phillips, the narrator of Darnielle’s second novel, who has been largely housebound since his accident at 17 and is prone to imaginative flights of fancy. (Similarly, Darnielle's first novel was a consideration of the Black Sabbath album “Master of Reality” as told by an institutionalized teenage boy.) We know early on that Sean makes a modest income as the inventor of Trace Italian, a role-playing game conducted through the mail about a post-apocalyptic America; and we know that he was implicated in the death of a woman who obsessively played the game with her boyfriend. The novel shifts back and forth in time as Sean recalls a geeky boyhood of Conan the Barbarian novels, metal albums, and other swords-and-sorcery fare; its tension comes from Darnielle’s careful and strategic withholding of the details behind the woman’s death and Sean’s disfigurement. In the meantime, the mazelike paths of Trace Italian serve as a metaphor for the difficulty (if not impossibility) of finding closure, and they also reveal Sean’s ingenuity and wit. The book’s title refers to a diabolical subliminal message on a metal record, a topic Sean is particularly interested in. (The novel seems partly inspired by a teenager’s failed suicide attempt in 1985 that led to reconstructive facial surgeries and a lawsuit against the band Judas Priest.) Sean is a consistently generous and sympathetic hero, and if the novel’s closing pages substitute ambiguity for plainspokenness, they highlight the book's theme of finding things worth living for within physical and psychological despair.

A pop culture–infused novel that thoughtfully and nonjudgmentally considers the dark side of nerddom.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-29208-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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