Crack open one of these top fiction picks for spring, also perfect for longer, lazier days ahead.
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The beginning of a new historical-fantasy trilogy, set in the same Mongol Khanate–style universe as the short novel Bone and Jewel Creatures (2010). Along the Celadon Highway, the empire of the Great Khagan is embroiled in civil war. A grandson, Temur, supported his defeated elder brother in terrible battles against his usurping uncle Qori Buqa. In the country of the Eternal Sky, a moon sails in the heavens for each of Mongke Khagan's sons and grandsons. Once there were over a hundred, now less than a third remain, Temur's Iron Moon among them…This lean, sinewy, visceral narrative, set forth in extraordinarily vivid prose full of telling detail, conveys a remarkable sense of time and place, where the characters belong to the landscape and whose personalities derive naturally from it. Though the book is not self-contained, Bear provides this opener with enough of a resolution to satisfy while whetting the appetite for more. Gripping, perfectly balanced and highly recommended.
In the third of the Schmidt novels, what had been described as a comedy of manners turns tragic and redemptive. Updike had Rabbit, Roth has Zuckerman, Richard Ford has Bascombe and Begley has Schmidt. While all serve a similar purpose, to illuminate American life and culture through the passages of one man’s maturation, the return of “Schmidtie” represents a significant advance from preceding volumes (Schmidt Delivered, 2000, etc.). An even longer interval has passed in Schmidt’s life than between books, since the protagonist readers knew in his early 60s is now 78 (it’s hard to imagine Jack Nicholson continuing in this role). Now deep into his second career, as a retired lawyer turned foundation head, he is much more concerned with topical events—wars and terrorism and politics (he loves Obama). And he has found new love with a woman who is more age appropriate, merely 15 years his junior (in contrast with the promiscuous waitress, younger than his daughter, who continues to play a key role in his life). Artistically and thematically, this is the most ambitious novel in the Schmidt cycle, also the longest, and it requires familiarity with the earlier volumes to appreciate its richness…The good news is that Schmidt still feels he has 10 years to live, which likely means at least one more novel.
Proving that his wildly inventive debut Breathers (2009) was no flash-in-the-pan, satirical storyteller Browne (Fated, 2010, etc.) hits the funny bone hard with another supernaturally themed comedy. Following on the heels of zombie boyfriend Andy Warner and Fated’s beleaguered bureaucrat Fabio, this time Browne introduces P.I. Nick Monday. He’s a slave to routine who eats Lucky Charms every morning, has a thing for cute barista girls and spends his days in his shabby little office off Union Square. Except—there’s always an exception to reality in Browne’s twisted little fantasies—Nick is also one of the few hundred people in America who are able to poach luck, and then sell it on the black market…Like his previous works, Browne’s latest is smartly constructed fiction with a likable hero and a peculiar sense of humor that sets it apart from the crowd. Unpredictable plots and dapper dialogue tie the whole pretty package together. A funky little action comedy that whips enough social satire and ethical dilemmas on readers to enlighten while it entertains. Read an excerpt of Lucky Bastard here.
This is Ford’s first novel since concluding the Frank Bascombe trilogy, which began with The Sportswriter (1986), peaked with the prize-winning Independence Day (1995) and concluded with The Lay of the Land (2006). That series was for Ford what the Rabbit novels were for Updike, making this ambitious return to long-form fiction seem like something of a fresh start, but also a thematic culmination. Despite its title, the novel is as essentially all-American as Independence Day. Typically for Ford, the focus is as much on the perspective (and limitations) of its protagonist as it is on the issues that the narrative addresses. The first-person narrator is Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old living in Montana with his twin sister when their parents—perhaps inexplicably, perhaps inevitably—commit an ill-conceived bank robbery. Before becoming wards of the state, the more willful sister runs away with her boyfriend, while Dell is taken across the border to Canada, where he will establish a new life for himself after crossing another border, from innocent bystander to reluctant complicity. The first half of the novel takes place in Montana and the second in Canada, but the entire narrative is Dell’s reflection, 50 years later, on the eve of his retirement as a teacher. As he ruminates on character and destiny, and ponders “how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil,” he also mediates between his innocence as an uncommonly naïve teenager and whatever wisdom he has gleaned through decades of experience.
Billy Dean (aka Billy Abbott) has a difficult time holding it together in one person, for his bisexuality pulls him in (obviously) two different directions. Billy comes of age in what is frequently, and erroneously, billed as a halcyon and more innocent age, the 1950s. The object of his first love—or at least his first “sexual awakening”— is Miss Frost, the librarian at the municipal library in the small town of First Sister, Vt. While Miss Frost’s small breasts and large hands might have been a tip-off—and the fact that in a previous life she had been known as Al Frost—Billy doesn’t quite get it until several years later, when the librarian seduces him. At almost the same time he becomes aware of Miss Frost as an erotic object, he develops an adolescent attraction to Jacques Kittredge, athlete and general Golden Boy at the academy they attend. And Billy also starts to have conflicted feelings toward Elaine, daughter of a voice teacher attached to the academy…All of these sexual attractions and compulsions play out against the background of Billy’s unconventional family (his grandfather was known for his convincing portrayals of Shakespeare heroines—and he began to dress these parts offstage as well) and local productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen.
A biracial couple faces both personal and political issues in South Africa after the Struggle. In many ways Steve and Jabulile seem to have bridged the difficult gap from pre- to post-Apartheid life. They move to a suburb, have two children—a girl, Sindi, and a boy, Gary Elias—and seem to be living the new dream. Steve, a chemical engineer, finds a teaching position at a local university, and Jabu moves from her position as a teacher at a Catholic school to the study of law. Her native language is isiZulu, and Steve decides he wants to learn the language when Sindi is young so he can be drawn even closer to his daughter. But ripples begin to develop in their seemingly placid life, for politics in the era after Mandela is scarcely Edenic…With the growing unrest becoming an almost daily part of their lives, Steve begins to look at the prospect of their emigrating to Australia—though he neglects to tell Jabu that he’s even considering this possibility. Against this political and personal turmoil, Jabu has centering conversations with her father, a minister with a long memory of time and history. Gordimer writes movingly and piercingly about the struggles after the Struggle.
At the outset, this might seem like minor Morrison (A Mercy, 2008, etc.), not only because its length is borderline novella, but because the setup seems generic. A black soldier returns from the Korean War, where he faces a rocky re-entry, succumbing to alcoholism and suffering from what would subsequently be termed PTSD. Yet perhaps, as someone tells him, his major problem is the culture to which he returns: “An integrated army is integrated misery. You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” Ultimately, the latest from the Nobel Prize–winning novelist has something more subtle and shattering to offer than such social polemics. As the novel progresses, it becomes less specifically about the troubled soldier and as much about the sister he left behind in Georgia, who was married and deserted young, and who has fallen into the employ of a doctor whose mysterious experiments threaten her life. And, even more crucially, it’s about the relationship between the brother and his younger sister, which changes significantly after his return home, as both of them undergo significant transformations…A novel that illuminates truths that its characters may not be capable of articulating.
Some say he was born to be a spy. Others don’t say anything at all about him, because the fact is Milo Weaver—maximally understated, eminently ignorable—is cellophane. Those who know spy-craft best see virtue in this of course, and he’s recruited for the Tourists, an elite, extremely secret branch of the CIA. In time, Milo becomes remarkable, a great American spy. And then the unthinkable happens. Before one can say clandestine, the Tourists are converted to history—33 of them, virtually the entire department, wiped out at the command of the wicked and wily Xin Zhu, a spymaster highly placed in the Guoanbu, the intelligence arm of the People’s Republic of China. Milo survives, but is suddenly jobless. In from the cold by accident as it were, he finds himself basking in familial warmth: beautiful, loving wife, adorable six year old daughter. As seldom before, in a way he never expected to be, Milo’s content. Not so for Alan Drummond, his boss. Rabid for vengeance, Drummond wants the aid and all-out support of his ace agent and will do anything to get it…Thickets of tricky conspiracies, swamps full of secret agendas: Reader, you’re in le Carré-land, guided there unerringly by one of the best of the newer crop.
A novel as contemporary as international terrorism and the war in Iraq and as timeless as mortality, from one of Britain’s literary masters. “The past is past, and the dead are the dead,” was the belief of the strong-willed Ellie, whose husband, Jack, a stolid former farmer, is the protagonist of Swift’s ninth and most powerful novel…Jack and Ellie have grown up together in the British farm country, and their marriage is practically inevitable once both are on their own. Jack’s mother died when he was a boy; Ellie’s left home for another man. Jack’s brother, Tom, eight years younger but in many ways more worldly and self-assertive, forsakes the farm life to join the army as soon as he can. The fathers of Jack and Ellie both die; Tom remains out of contact for more than a decade. At Ellie’s insistence, they sell their property in order to run a seaside vacation park she has inherited. Every winter the childless couple takes a Caribbean vacation. When Tom dies in Iraq, Jack must deal with the arrangements. He cancels the annual vacation and his marriage all but unravels…Swift somehow cuts to the essence of both a family’s legacy and the modern malaise through the reticent Jack, who comes to terms with the realization that “all the things that had once been dead and buried had come back again.” Read our interview with Swift about his new novel here.
As a young man, Ellis Hock loved teaching in Malawi for the Peace Corps, happiest years of his life. (Theroux did a hitch there; see his early novel Jungle Lovers.) Then he had to return to suburban Boston to run the men’s-clothing store he’d inherited. Thirty-five years later, the store and his marriage having failed, he returns to Malawi for a nostalgia-induced vacation. He’s warned on arrival that people are hungry and only want money, but he heads into the bush with a bagful of it, another mzungu (white man) who knows best. Malabo, the remote riverbank village where he’s remembered as the mzungu who helped build the school and clinic, gives him a warm welcome, but Hock’s disillusion sets in fast. The school is a ruin; the visiting doctor is a quack; AIDS is rampant; requests for money are constant. The villagers keep him under surveillance at the direction of the headman Manyenga, who is all smiles and lies. One bright spot is his reunion with Gala, the woman he loved, and the presence of her 16-year-old granddaughter Zizi, who waits on Hock and is fiercely loyal to him…The suspense is enriched by Theroux’s loving attention to local customs and his subversive insights…Theroux has recaptured the sweep and density of his 1981 masterpiece The Mosquito Coast. That’s some achievement. Read our interview with Theroux on his last book of essays The Tao of Travel here.
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