Books To Go! – Fiction
A selection of outstanding fiction titles, old and new, with brief but helpful annotations, sponsored by the Farmington Friends of the Library.
To browse through our Books To Go Non-Fiction titles click here!
Affinity by Sarah Waters.
Greeted with enthusiastic praise, Sarah Waters's debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, was lauded as "amazing" and "delightful" (Salon.com), "buoyant and accomplished" (The New York Times Book Review), "glorious" (The Boston Globe), and "wonderful" (San Francisco Chronicle). Critics compared her to Jeannette Winterson, adding that "readers of all sexes and orientations should identify" with Waters's unforgettable nineteenth-century heroines. Now, Sarah Waters brilliantly returns with Affinity--a haunting ghost story and Guardian (London) bestseller that has left British reviewers "transfixed with horror and excitement" (Daily Mail, London).An upper-class woman recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior has begun visiting the women's ward of Millbank prison, London's grimmest jail, as part of her rehabilitative charity work. Amongst Millbank's murderers and common thieves, Margaret finds herself increasingly fascinated by one apparently innocent inmate, the enigmatic spiritualist Selina Dawes. Initially skeptical of Selina's gifts, Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of seances and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last persuaded to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina's freedom.A pulse-quickening read by a remarkably talented writer, Affinity is a sophisticated and spine-tingling historical mystery awash with the scenes, sights, and smells of nineteenth-century London.
All the Names by Jose Saramago.
This tale is a Kafkaesque journey into one man's obsession amid the arid, repetitive, and cumbersome bureaucratic environment in which he works. Senhor Joseis is employed in the Central Registry (containing vital records) of Lisbon. He comes upon an incomplete record of a woman and is caught up in the idea that she deserves to be known. He searches the archives and then takes to the streets to track the woman down. This haunting, strangely moving novel is uplifting despite the tragic nature of the woman's life: Saramago's true theme here is how compassion ultimately rules human behavior.
Angle of repose by Wallace Stegner.
Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the story of four generations in the life of an American family. A wheelchair-bound retired historian embarks on a monumental quest: to come to know his grandparents, now long dead. The unfolding drama of the story of the American West sets the tone for Stegner's masterpiece. Four generations in the life of an American family are chronicled as retired historian Lyman Ward, confined to a wheelchair, decides to write his grandparent's history. The Pulitzer Prize-winning classic has been selected by the board of the Modern Library as one of the best hundred novels of the 20th century.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.
In this deft first novel, a baseball prodigy comes to Westish College, a small school in upper Wisconsin. Henry Skrimshander is recruited by Mike Schwartz, who plays at Westish and recognizes Henry as one of the greatest shortstops ever. Henry's roommate, the pot-smoking, gay, African American Owen Dunne, also joins the team. College president Guert Affenlight develops a passionate crush on Owen, with whom he improbably begins a clandestine relationship. Unfortunately, as Henry closes in on a fielding milestone, he loses his confidence and falls apart. Guert's long-lost daughter, who has returned to Westish after the collapse of her marriage and hooked up with Mike, tries to help Henry find his throwing arm again. Meanwhile, the ongoing affair between Owen and Guert becomes increasingly difficult to hide as the book climaxes at the Division III national championship. VERDICT Succeeding on many levels, this highly enjoyable and intelligent novel offers several coming-of-age tales set against the background of an exciting and convincing baseball drama. Harbach paints a humorous and resonant portrait of a small college community while effectively portraying the Wisconsin landscape and a lake that provides an almost mystical source of solace and renewal.
Enzo narrates his life story, beginning with his impending death. Enzo's not afraid of dying, as he's seen a television documentary on the Mongolian belief that a good dog will reincarnate as a man. Yes, Enzo is a dog. And he belongs to Denny: husband, father, customer service technician. Denny's dream is to be a professional race-car driver, and Enzo recounts the triumphs and tragedies--medical, financial, and legal--they share in this quest, the dangers of the racetrack being the least of their obstacles. Enzo ultimately teaches Denny and the reader that persistence and joie de vivre will see them through to the checkered flag. Stein (Raven Stole the Moon) creates a patient, wise, and doggish narrator that is more than just fluff and collar. This should appeal to fans of both dogs and car racing.
As Hot As It Was You Ought to Thank Me by Nanci Kincaid.
Kincaid's fourth novel is a deliciously intimate portrayal of the sunstruck small town of Pinetta, Fla., as seen through the eyes of Berry, a 13-year-old trying to make sense of adult indiscretions and her own sexual awakening. Berry's father, Ford, is the town's self-righteous school principal; her mother, Ruth, has a crush on the preacher; her good-looking older brother, Sowell, has his "mind... on tits"; her younger brother, Wade is a specialist in "elaborate animal funerals." When Ford mysteriously disappears in the middle of a tornado with Rennie, the town's tragic teenage wannabe starlet, Berry and her family become the subject of much gossip and attention. In her father's absence, her mother shifts her attentions to a rich, hot-tempered neighbor, and Berry develops a crush on Raymond, a smooth-talking convict in town to help clean up after the storm. When Raymond saves Berry's life by coming between her and two rattlesnakes, it's she who fearlessly volunteers to suck the poison out of his leg. Hungry for affection, Berry ultimately gets what she's after, though when she's had it, she's not sure what to make of it. Narrated with childlike honesty and dead-on Southern flavor ("Used to be we would all get in the tub like a can of worms spilled into shallow ditch water"), this is a sticky, sultry gem.
In this fascinating and eye-opening Revolution-era novel, Octavian, a black youth raised in a Boston household of radical philosophers, is given an excellent classical education. He and his mother, an African princess, are kept isolated on the estate, and only as he grows older does he realize that while he is well dressed and well fed, he is indeed a captive being used by his guardians as part of an experiment to determine the intellectual acuity of Africans. As the fortunes of the Novanglian College of Lucidity change, so do the nature and conduct of their experiments. The boy's guardians host a pox party where everyone is inoculated with the disease in hopes that they will then be immune to its effects, but, instead, Octavian's mother dies. He runs away and ends up playing the fiddle and joining in the Patriots' cause. He's eventually captured and brought back to his household where he's bound and forced to wear an iron mask until one of his more sympathetic instructors engineers his escape. Readers will have to wait for the second volume to find out the protagonist's fate. The novel is written in 18th-century language from Octavian's point of view and in letters written by a soldier who befriends him. Despite the challenging style, this powerful novel will resonate with contemporary readers. The issues of slavery and human rights, racism, free will, the causes of war, and one person's struggle to define himself are just as relevant today. Anderson's use of factual information to convey the time and place is powerfully done.
Atonement by Ian McEwan.
Set during the seemingly idyllic summer of 1935 at the country estate of the Tallis family, the first section of this thought-provoking novel ambles through one scorchingly hot day that changes the lives of almost everyone present. The catalyst is overly imaginative 13-year-old Briony, who accuses Robbie, her sister's childhood friend and their housemaid's son, of raping her cousin Lola. The young man is sent to prison and Cecilia, heartbroken, abandons her family and becomes a nursing sister in London. In the second part, McEwan vividly describes another single day, this time Robbie's experiences during the ignominious British retreat to Dunkirk early in World War II. Finally, readers meet Briony again, now a nursing student. She is aware that she might have been wrong that day five years earlier and begins to seek atonement, having clearly ruined two lives. In a story within a story, McEwan brilliantly engages readers in a tour de force of what ifs and might have beens until they begin to wonder what actually happened.
The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.
Despite her own major achievements--she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States--Anne Morrow Lindbergh is viewed merely as Charles Lindbergh's wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life's infinite possibilities for change and happiness.
Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh.
Haigh's second novel, following the glowing Mrs. Kimble (2003), is set in Bakerton, a mining town in post-World World II Pennsylvania. Haigh's focus is the Novak family, particularly the five children being raised by their Italian mother after their Polish father drops dead. All five make attempts to escape Bakerton at one point or another; some are successful, others are not. George, a veteran of WW II, neglects his Bakerton fiance and marries a cold socialite. Dorothy goes to the nation's capital to work, but a nervous breakdown brings her home. Brilliant, cold Joyce thinks her future lies with the military, but she is sorely disappointed. Sandy is the golden son who escapes to dubious success. And Lucy is the youngest, who finds herself in college despite the nagging feeling that she never wanted to leave home in the first place. Haigh creates a real sense of a community and brings her mining town to life through a large cast of minor characters who pass in and out of the Novaks' lives. The mines that the town is built upon cannot be forgotten either, even as their time comes, disastrously, to pass. Baker Towers is a novel possessing a rare, quiet power to evoke a time long past and the character of the people who lived then.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.
Stories set in China during the Cultural Revolution usually follow a trail of human struggle and tragedy, but this little gem of a book spins magic thread out of broken dreams. This novel is the story of two whimsical young men ordered to the countryside for reeducation as a result of their parents political designation as class enemies. Assigned the revolting task of carrying buckets of excrement up a hillside for the peasant farmers, the boys design a venue of storytelling sessions and quickly earn the headman's leniency in return. When they meet the local tailor's beautiful daughter, the luminescent Little Seamstress, and discover a wealth of forbidden Western books, life on the hillside takes a brighter turn. This truly enchanting book is written with the rhythm of a fable. Dai Sijie is himself a survivor of that fateful time in China's history, yet he incorporates delightful humor into sketching his innovative cast of characters.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.
In 1962, Pasquale Tursi, inheritor-proprietor of the Hotel Adequate View in Porto Vergogna, Italy, a tiny coastal village visited only by tourists who overshoot the similarly named neighbor they intended to go to, is shocked when beautiful, sickly American starlet Dee Moray arrives, on purpose. The reason for her presence, the botched cover-up of a minor disaster that occurred, in all places, on the set of the epically doomed Cleopatra, becomes but the first of the novel's many disasters. The story moves to present-day Hollywood, home to a shark producer and his young assistant who's hungry for the magic of cinema's golden era but too smart to quit the reality-show revenue. To say Walter succeeds in stitching past to present, continent to continent, undercuts the book entirely; he rather reimagines history in a package so appealing we'd be idiots not to buy it. At one point, from their perch on a tiny paddleboat, a drunken Richard Burton turns to Pasquale to note, This is one strange goddamn movie. Walter tragicomically exposes the recesses between the desires and intentions of his protagonists and how close the two might be if it weren't for the rest of the world. A novel shot in sparkly Technicolor.
Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice is a classic mystery novel and the first in a series featuring an unlikely pair of detectives. Mary Russell—age 15, strong-willed, brilliant and in mourning for her entire family—literally stumbles over the world's greatest detective on the moors of Sussex. Thus dramatically begins an unlikely partnership between the very Victorian Sherlock Holmes and a girl at the dawn of a modern age.
Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian.
Bohjalian's novel is a focused look at how a family copes with a tragic accident and how their own deeply held beliefs and desires affect their relationships with each other. Every summer, Nan Seton has her daughter and son and their respective families up to her New Hampshire summer home. Her daughter, Catherine, is married to Spencer, an animal rights activist, and the two have a precocious 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte. Her son, John, has two children, quiet 10-year-old Willow and baby Patrick, with his wife, Sara. John also has a secret; he's taken up hunting. When Charlotte, under the influence of stolen beer and pot from a teenage party, finds John's gun, she fires it at what she thinks is a deer in the distance but is actually her father. Though Spencer lives, the damage caused by the gun leaves him crippled, and the company he works for, FERAL, wants to use his injury to rail against guns and hunters, which creates significant rifts in the extended family. Bohjalian's elegant, refined writing makes even the most ordinary details of family life fascinating, and his characters leap off the pages as very real, flawed, but completely sympathetic human beings. Bohjalian manages to examine some very weighty issues without ever coming off as preachy or pedantic. A triumph.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.
Opera and terrorism make strange bedfellows, yet in this novel they complement each other nicely. At a birthday party for Japanese industrialist Mr. Hosokawa somewhere in South America, famous American soprano Roxanne Coss is just finishing her recital in the Vice President's home when armed terrorists appear, intending to take the President hostage. However, he is not there, so instead they hold the international businesspeople and diplomats at the party, releasing all the women except Roxanne. Captors and their prisoners settle into a strange domesticity, with the opera diva captivating them all as she does her daily practicing. Soon romantic liaisons develop with the hopeless intensity found in many opera plots. Patchett balances terrorism, love, and music nicely here.
Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos.
Having met Cornelia Brown in de los Santos's well-reviewed debut,Love Walked In, we now follow her and her oncologist husband, Teo Sandoval, to suburban Philadelphia. Piper Truitt lives across the street with her husband and two young children. She considers herself the arbiter of style and local propriety. Add to the mix waitress Lake and her son, Dev, who is enrolled in a private academy far superior to his previous California public school. From the outset, Cornelia and Piper are traveling down different paths, while Cornelia and Lake seem to hit it off. Go figure? But there is more beneath the surface of these women and their motivations than the lovely locale can mask. Dev thinks he and his mother moved to the area because his long-lost (and unknown to him) father is there. But how do you go about locating someone who's been gone for 13 years? Then Piper becomes caregiver to her longtime friend Elizabeth, diagnosed with cancer, a role that seems more appealing to Piper than wife to Kyle. These family dynamics collide and reconfigure in a variety of ways that readers will find fascinating. De los Santos keeps us totally engaged with these fragile creatures, who get under our skin and, ultimately, into our hearts.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Maggach.
Now a major motion picture starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Billy Nighy, and Dev Patel When Ravi Kapoor, an overworked London doctor, reaches the breaking point with his difficult father-in-law, he asks his wife: "Can't we just send him away somewhere? Somewhere far, far away." His prayer is seemingly answered when Ravi's entrepreneurial cousin sets up a retirement home in India, hoping to re-create in Bangalore an elegant lost corner of England. Several retirees are enticed by the promise of indulgent living at a bargain price, but upon arriving, they are dismayed to find that restoration of the once sophisticated hotel has stalled, and that such amenities as water and electricity are . . . infrequent. But what their new life lacks in luxury, they come to find, it's plentiful in adventure, stunning beauty, and unexpected love.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
Written in a voice that is at once hopeful, cautious, naive, profoundly wise, and completely lost yet utterly knowing, Fountain's most recent work of fiction delivers a brilliant, powerful examination of how modern warfare affects soldiers back at home. Billy Lynn is 19 and already a war hero after footage of a fierce battle between his squad and Iraqi insurgents went viral. Briefly back from Iraq on a victory tour through the states, the young Silver Star winner lives an entire lifetime over the course of one day, Thanksgiving, while he and his more worldly Bravo Squad members are feted by a deliriously grateful and mostly misunderstanding public. Attending a Dallas Cowboys game, Billy Lynn and Bravo Squad must juggle the possibility of endless love with cheerleaders, Hollywood producers seeking to make a movie about them, football players morbidly curious about what it's like to kill another human being, and all the conflicting emotions, thoughts, and actions each of them experiences while back in the land of sports mania, mass consumerism, and coveted yet fleeting fame before they return to the war itself. Billy's journey carries the reader along with its richly detailed, pitch-perfect language and characterizations, leaving an indelible impression.
The Binding Chair: Or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison.
In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves a stunning story of women, travel, and flights of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the promises of the future.
The Birth House by Ami McKay.
When Dr. Gilbert Thomas, self-proclaimed expert in hygienic, pain-free childbirth, opens a practice in a Nova Scotia coastal village during the World War I years, it sets the stage for a classic conflict between long-held traditions and modern medicine. Seventeen-year-old Dora Rare, the only Rare daughter within five generations, improves her lot in life by becoming the apprentice of Marie Babineau, the independent but caring Acadian midwife who helped bring several generations of Scots Bay residents into the world. The women of the village (not to mention their husbands) grow bitterly divided when Dr. Thomas calls the health and safety of expectant mothers into question. His vengeful actions toward Dora herself--a young woman looking for guidance with her own love life--turn particularly personal as well. McKay has fashioned what she terms a literary scrapbook, reproducing and re-creating historical news clippings, advertisements, and letters within the text. This sensitively written novel of women's birthing rituals, strengths, and friendships will appeal to readers who enjoy gentle humor and plenty of homespun wisdom.
The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff.
Tarnoff's (A Counterfeiter's Paradise) glimmering prose lends grandeur to this account of four writers (Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith) who built "an extraordinary literary scene" in the frontier boom town of 1860s San Francisco. Twain gets the most page time, but is the least delicately handled; Tarnoff reserves his affection for the city itself and its "community of fellow misfits" who, drawing on the unique energy of young California and the language, humor, and mythology of the West, create a "native national literature, liberated from the cultural imperialism of the Old World." While the revolutionary claims are ambitious-Twain's jumping frog of Calaveras County is "the Fort Sumter of American letters," his The Innocents Abroad "a bullet in the heart of America's literary establishment"-Tarnoff thoughtfully situates the rise of "a unique American vernacular" in a confluence of economic, geographic, and historical forces. The impacts of the self-styled Bohemians emerge most clearly in the nostalgic reflections of the chief characters only after they have left San Francisco for parts abroad. Nevertheless, the lively historical detail and loving tone of the interwoven biographies make a highly readable story of this formative time in American letters, starring San Francisco as the city that lifted Twain "to literary greatness."
Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo.
Veteran novelist Merullo continues the spiritual odyssey he began in Golfing with God (2005). Otto Ringling, a successful New York editor and contented family man, has been in a slump ever since his parents were killed in an automobile accident. To settle the estate, he and his loopy sister, Cecilia, must drive to the family homestead in North Dakota. Then Cecilia tells him she’s giving her half of the farm to her guru, the maroon-robed Volya Rinpoche, and that she wants Otto to drive him there. A grumbling Otto reluctantly agrees, mapping out a route that will take them along some of the Midwest’s most charming backroads, and treating the rotund monk to a taste of American fun, including a tour of the Hershey chocolate factory and a round of miniature golf. Volya proves to be such a jovial and serene companion that Otto soon regains not only his peace of mind but also his joie de vivre. The skillful Merullo, using the lightest of touches, slowly turns this low-key comedy into a moving story of spiritual awakening.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey opens in the aftermath of an inexplicable tragedy--a tiny footbridge in Peru breaks, and five people hurtle to their deaths. For Brother Juniper, a humble monk who witnesses the catastrophe, the question in inescapable. Why those five? Suddenly, Brother Juniper is committed to discover what manner of lives they led--and whether it was divine intervention or a capricious fate that took their lives.
Charming Billy by Alice McDermott.
Though this novel opens just after his pathetic, drunken death, the eponymous Billy is the center of McDermott's tale of love and redemption among a complex group of Irish American Catholics in modern New York. Billy Lynch, a likable and popular romantic doomed by alcohol and a hopeless grand passion, is mourned intensely by no fewer than 47 close friends and relatives who gather together after his funeral. Their bittersweet recollections and revelations about him and his long-gone "Irish girl" are rendered in a series of vividly drawn episodes, as seen through the clear eyes and unsentimental imagination of one of the younger relations, herself deeply affected by the vicissitudes of Billy's life. McDermott has created here an accessible narrative distinguished by strong characterizations and a marked sense of place.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith.
In the workers' paradise of Stalin's Russia, crime cannot exist. Loyal, hardworking citizens will have all their needs met by the state, making crime unnecessary. The one exception is political crime, and MGB (State Security) officer Leo Demidov works long hours arresting people and delivering them to dreaded Lubyanka Prison. Deeply patriotic, but covetous of the perks of his position, Leo knows that many of the people he arrests are innocent, and he knows that he could suffer a similar fate. He does, almost, when office politics, MGB style, dictate his transfer to the lowly militia in a small city hundreds of miles east of Moscow. There he discovers that a serial killer is preying on children in cities along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Having lost almost everything, Leo seeks redemption by hunting the killer, but his effort makes him a high-profile enemy of the state (acknowledging that a serial killer could exist in the USSR is tantamount to treason). Child 44 powerfully personalizes the Orwellian horrors of life in Stalin's Russia. Almost every page echoes Hobbes' description of the life of man: nasty, brutish, and short. First-novelist Smith's pacing is relentless; readers wanting to put the book down for a brief rest may find themselves persevering regardless. Expect the same kind of critical acclaim for this compelling tale that greeted the publication of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park (1981) more than 25 years ago. Like most first novels, Smith's debut isn't perfect, but it's a very, very good read.
The City & the City by China Mieville.
Better known for New Weird fantasies (Perdido Street Station, etc.), bestseller Mieville offers an outstanding take on police procedurals with this barely speculative novel. Twin southern European cities Beszel and Ul Qoma coexist in the same physical location, separated by their citizens' determination to see only one city at a time. Inspector Tyador Borl of the Extreme Crime Squad roams through the intertwined but separate cultures as he investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, who believed that a third city, Orciny, hides in the blind spots between Beszel and Ul Qoma. As Mahalia's friends disappear and revolution brews, Tyador is forced to consider the idea that someone in unseen Orciny is manipulating the other cities. Through this exaggerated metaphor of segregation, Mieville skillfully examines the illusions people embrace to preserve their preferred social realities.
City of Refuge by Tom Piazza.
In the heat of late summer, two New Orleans families-one black and one white-confront a storm that will change the course of their lives. SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower, lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward, the community where he was born and raised. His sister, Lucy, is a soulful mess, and SJ has been trying to keep her son, Wesley, out of trouble. Across town, Craig Donaldson, a Midwestern transplant and the editor of the city's alternative paper, faces deepening cracks in his own family. New Orleans' music and culture have been Craig's passion, but his wife, Alice, has never felt comfortable in the city. The arrival of their two children has inflamed their arguments about the wisdom of raising a family there.When the news comes of a gathering hurricane-named Katrina-the two families make their own very different plans to weather the storm. The Donaldsons join the long evacuation convoy north, across Lake Pontchartrain and out of the city. SJ boards up his windows and brings Lucy to his house, where they wait it out together, while Wesley stays with a friend in another part of town. But the long night of wind and rain is only the beginning-and when the levees give way and the flood waters come, the fate of each family changes forever. The Williamses are scattered-first to the Convention Center and the sweltering Superdome, and then far beyond city and state lines, where they struggle to reconnect with one another. The Donaldsons, stranded and anxious themselves, find shelter first in Mississippi, then in Chicago, as Craig faces an impossible choice between the city he loves and the family he had hoped to raise there. Ranging from the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans to Texas, Missouri, Chicago, and beyond, City of Refuge is a modern masterpiece-a panoramic novel of family and community, trial and resilience, told with passion, wisdom, and a deep understanding of American life in our time.
As a native Haitian, Danticat (Brother, I'm Dying) is known for taking an innate cultural understanding and mixing it with a spare, striking writing style, always with marvelous results. The setting for her latest is Ville Rose, a small coastal town in Haiti, where baby Claire is born as her mother dies in childbirth. The novel begins on Claire's seventh birthday and then flows back in time, revisiting previous birthdays and their parallel events. In the village, life and death coexist in heartrending fashion, and the people live with the understanding that any one of them may be instantly and forever altered by natural forces, irrational acts, or simple circumstances. As Claire's father, a poor fisherman, makes a difficult decision, personal histories converge and the village comes together both to mourn a death and to save a life. Throughout, everything seems to be driven by the mystical power of the sea, for which Claire is named. VERDICT A new offering from National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Danticat is always cause for celebration. She has the ability to conjure up the rarified air of Haiti as she manages to pull tightly at one's heartstrings; this novel is no exception. Highly recommended.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of John Kennedy Toole's tragicomic tale, A Confederacy of Dunces. This 30-year-old medievalist lives at home with his mother in New Orleans, pens his magnum opus on Big Chief writing pads he keeps hidden under his bed, and relays to anyone who will listen the traumatic experience he once had on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bound for Baton Rouge. ("Speeding along in that bus was like hurtling into the abyss.") But Ignatius's quiet life of tyrannizing his mother and writing his endless comparative history screeches to a halt when he is almost arrested by the overeager Patrolman Mancuso—who mistakes him for a vagrant—and then involved in a car accident with his tipsy mother behind the wheel. One thing leads to another, and before he knows it, Ignatius is out pounding the pavement in search of a job. Over the next several hundred pages, our hero stumbles from one adventure to the next.
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss.
Set in a vividly realized eighteenth-century London, detective Benjamin Weaver, a Jew, former prizefighter, and a bit of a wise guy, an inspired creation, is such an outsider he can credibly go anywhere, from a seamy tavern to raucous Exchange Alley, the Wall Street of its day, to the snuff-and-wig set of a gentleman's club. Here Weaver takes a break from tracking down thieves (his bread and butter) to investigate the death of his father, a stock trader from whom he has long been estranged. As with all great mysteries, Weaver's search takes him deep into places both new, such as London's burgeoning financial markets, and personal, such as the Jewish community, which he long ago abandoned.
The Cookbook Collector: A Novel by Allegra Goodman.
Emily is the classy and astute CEO of a San Francisco digital start-up about to go public in late 1999. Her lover, Jonathan, is launching his own tech company in Cambridge, and questions of trust and ambition are complicating marriage plans. Jessamine, Emily's younger sister, is studying philosophy at Berkeley, volunteering with gutsy eco-activists determined to protect California's redwoods, and working in a rare and used bookstore owned by control freak George, an early Microsoft millionaire. Goodman captures the fizz and folly of the dot.com boom and bust with wit and perspicuity, and brilliantly contrasts the cerebral seductiveness of the cyber realm with such sensuous obsessions as George's gourmet cooking and Jess' consuming fascination with the collection of invaluable old cookbooks George acquires under peculiar circumstances. The cookbooks harbor clues to a romantic mystery Jess stubbornly investigates, while encounters with two ebullient Hasidic rabbis induce increasingly disenchanted Emily to search for the truth about her and Jess' late mother. From mysticism to algorithms, IPOs, and endangered trees and souls, Goodman spins a glimmering tale, spiked with hilarious banter, of ardent individualists, imperiled love, and incandescent interpretations of the mutability and timelessness of the human condition.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.
It's deceptively simple: two bright young couples meet during the Depression and form an instant and lifelong friendship. "How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?" Larry Morgan, a successful novelist and the narrator of the story, poses that question many years after he and his wife, Sally, have befriended the vibrant, wealthy, and often troubled Sid and Charity Lang. "Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish?" It's not here. What is here is just as fascinating, just as compelling, as touching, and as tragic.
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural "badlands" of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur offstage. Center stage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt's protégé, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she's outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world. In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one's expectations right to the very end.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.Click here for supplementary materials
The hero of Haddon's debut novel is 15-year-old Christopher Boone, an autistic math genius who has just discovered the dead body of his neighbor's poodle, Wellington. Wellington was killed with a garden fork, and Christopher decides that, like his idol Sherlock Holmes, he's going to find the killer. Wellington's owner, Mrs. Shears, refuses to speak to Christopher about the matter, and his father tells him to stop investigating. But there is another mystery involving Christopher's mother, who died two years ago. So why does Siobhan, Christopher's social worker, react with surprise when Christopher mentions her death? And why does Christopher's father hate Mrs. Shears' estranged husband? The mystery of Wellington's death begins to unveil the answers to questions in his own life, and Christopher, who is unable to grasp even the most basic emotions, struggles with the reality of a startling deception.
Cutting for Stone by A. Verghese.
Lauded for his sensitive memoir (My Own Country) about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences in a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations. Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout young nun, leaves the south Indian state of Kerala in 1947 for a missionary post in Yemen. During the arduous sea voyage, she saves the life of an English doctor bound for Ethiopia, Thomas Stone, who becomes a key player in her destiny when they meet up again at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa. Seven years later, Sister Praise dies birthing twin boys: Shiva and Marion, the latter narrating his own and his brother's long, dramatic, biblical story set against the backdrop of political turmoil in Ethiopia, the life of the hospital compound in which they grow up and the love story of their adopted parents, both doctors at Missing. The boys become doctors as well and Verghese's weaving of the practice of medicine into the narrative is fascinating even as the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel.
Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner.
Paris' Opera Ballet promises a new life for young Alexandrie, who welcomes the discipline of dance to escape rural poverty. Encouraged by her greedy, desperate mother, who knows the true tradition of the Opera Ballet, the naive little dancer marvels at Paris, endures humiliation by dance masters and established ballerinas, and finally grasps the cold facts about the well-dressed, entitled men who turn many a Paris dancer into a high-class whore in slippers. Alexandrie models for the successful, acerbic painter Degas, who describes his dancer-subjects as terrible pigs, to increase her desirability in the eyes of the predatory, married men frequenting the opera until the 1870 Franco-Prussian War temporarily shutters it. Ultimately, Alexandrie falls for the self-absorbed Degas. First-time novelist Wagner skillfully compresses the war into a series of brief letters in this engaging tale illuminating the dark side of French society, high and low. With appearances by Degas' peers C?zanne and Monet, this fascinating visit to a bygone world of art and sex, war and love will draw many.
Dante Club by Matthew Pearl.
In 1865 Boston, not many people spoke Italian. It was much more popular for people to study Latin and Greek; the classic works in these languages were common reading for students and academics. But the small circle of literati in Pearl's inventive novel is bent on translating and publishing Dante's Divine Comedy so that all Americans may learn of the writer's genius. As this group of scholars, poets, publishers and professors readies the manuscript, much more exciting doings are happening outside their circle. The Boston police are hot on the trail of a series of murders taking place around town. In one, a priest is buried alive, his feet set on fire; in another, a man's body is eaten by maggots. It doesn't take a rocket scientist-only a Dante expert-to realize these murders are based on Dante's Inferno and its account of Hell's punishments. Scholars become snoopers, and the Dante Club is soon on the scene, investigating the crimes and trying to find the killer.
The Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer.
Packer's first novel is a sensitive exploration of the line between selfishness and self-preservation. Carrie Bell is 23 and has lived in Madison, Wisconsin, all her life. She is engaged to her high-school sweetheart, Mike, and all seems well—to everyone but Carrie, who is falling out of love with Mike, with Madison, with everything. On Memorial Day she numbly watches Mike dive off of Clausen's Pier and break his neck in the too-shallow water, leaving him a quadriplegic. She is stricken with grief, guilt, indecision, and fear—she wants to be supportive and faithful, but she cannot make herself love him again. After a painful summer of hospital vigils, she flees to New York City and tries on a new life, a new relationship. She cannot escape what she's left behind, though, and must eventually face those who feel she has betrayed them. There are no easy answers for Carrie, but her struggle to do what's right and her revelations about the life she wants for herself will keep readers turning page after eloquently written page.
The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman.
Goodman's third novel mixes the same elements that made her The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water successful: academia, water, and suspense. Juno McKay is a glass artist, caught up with running a business and raising a teenaged daughter. A college reunion, which she reluctantly attends, brings up issues from the past and creates new problems when a close friend dies under mysterious circumstances. Did Christine kill herself, or was she the victim of foul play? Who would benefit from her death? Is Juno's ex-husband involved? Filled with descriptions of beautiful Hudson River scenery and references to mythology and art, this gripping novel will hold the reader's attention until the very last page.
Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray.
Ruth, with a teenage daughter, a son in college, and her mother living with the family, finds her life complicated by her husband's sudden unemployment and news that her long-divorced father has been injured and needs a place to recover. Once again Ray, author of Julie and Romeo (2000) and Step-Ball-Change (2002), presents a heroine beset with sufficient problems to make her run screaming off the pages, but one also gifted with enough common sense and gumption to solve the problems she can, and cope with the ones she can't. Ruth's first step in solving anything is to bake a cake, and oh what cakes she bakes (recipes are included). As might be expected, the hidden talents of each family member emerge, surprising unions are forged, and relative success is achieved. And, yes, cakes are prominent in the solution. While it might be said that this is a predictable and undemanding book, it is also comforting one, and perhaps signals a new genre that might be called "domestic fantasy."
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.
Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island's Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl's fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere. *pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo.
In a warmhearted novel of sweeping scope, Russo animates the dead-end small town of Empire Falls, Maine, long abandoned by the logging and textile industries that provided its citizens with their livelihood. Miles Roby surveys his hometown with bemused regret from the Empire Grill, owned by a local magnate but run by him ever since he was called home from college to take care of his ailing mother. His daily parade of customers provides him with ample evidence of both the restrictions and forced intimacy of small-town life and has left him with a deep appreciation for irony. Russo shows an unerring sense of the rhythms of small-town life, balancing his irreverent, mocking humor with unending empathy for his characters and their foibles.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Oskar Schell is not your average nine-year-old. A budding inventor, he spends his time imagining wonderful creations. He also collects random photographs for his scrapbook and sends letters to scientists. When his father dies in the World Trade Center collapse, Oskar shifts his boundless energy to a quest for answers. He finds a key hidden in his father's things that doesn't fit any lock in their New York City apartment; its container is labeled "Black." Using flawless kid logic, Oskar sets out to speak to everyone in New York City with the last name of Black. A retired journalist who keeps a card catalog with entries for everyone he's ever met is just one of the colorful characters the boy meets. As in Everything Is Illuminated (Houghton, 2002), Foer takes a dark subject and works in offbeat humor with puns and wordplay. But Extremely Loud pushes further with the inclusion of photographs, illustrations, and mild experiments in typography reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions (Dell, 1973). The humor works as a deceptive, glitzy cover for a fairly serious tale about loss and recovery. For balance, Foer includes the subplot of Oskar's grandfather, who survived the World War II bombing of Dresden. Although this story is not quite as evocative as Oskar's, it does carry forward and connect firmly to the rest of the novel. The two stories finally intersect in a powerful conclusion that will make even the most jaded hearts fall.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Internationally acclaimed with more than 5 million copies in print, Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury's classic novel of censorship and defiance, as resonant today as it was when it was first published. Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires. The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning ... along with the houses in which they were hidden. Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames... never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid. Then he met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think... and Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do!
The False Friend by Myla Goldberg.
The term mean girls is elevated to a new level in Goldberg's moody novel. Is there anything uglier or more damaging than the well-honed bullying techniques of middle-school girls? There's always a natural leader, and newcomer Djuna Pearson wields the power. Choosing Celia as her acolyte, Djuna designates second-tier friends, and outsider Leanne gets the brunt of their cruel teasing. For 21 years Celia manages to lock away the memories of that time, fashioning an enviable life for herself in Chicago. One day she's overwhelmed with the need to confess the lie she once told about Djuna, a falsehood that shook the solid foundation of her small town. With a deep sense of unease, readers accompany Celia on her return to Jensenville, NY, where she hopes to make amends for a transgression only she seems to be aware of. Verdict The authenticity of the author's voice is evident when she describes the uncomfortable emotions and forgotten details that assault the adult Celia as she goes back to her childhood home. Different in theme from Goldberg's Bee Season and Wickett's Remedy, this is a layered, understated novel about the complex, ambiguous nature of memory and its effect on the dynamics of relationships.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey.
The talented Livesey updates Jane Eyre, changing the setting to Scotland and the Orkneys during the 1950s and '60s but taking care to home in on the elements of this classic story that so resonate with readers: a resourceful orphan makes her way in an uncaring world and not only endures but also triumphs. Despite readers' familiarity with the story line, they will be held rapt as Gemma Hardy, orphaned at age 10, is taken in by a loving uncle only to lose him, too. Her aunt so cruelly shuns her in the wake of her uncle's death that she looks forward to attending boarding school, but her status as a working girl means that she has little time for her schoolwork, often laboring to the point of exhaustion. Still, Gemma's high intelligence and fierce resolve see her through many difficult experiences until she lands a dream job as an au pair on the isolated yet beautiful Orkney Islands. There she meets the family that will change her life (minus the madwoman in the attic). A sure bet for both book clubs and Bronte fans.
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.
In 1913, a little girl arrives in Brisbane, Australia, and is taken in by a dockmaster and his wife. She doesn't know her name, and the only clue to her identity is a book of fairy tales tucked inside a white suitcase. When the girl, called Nell, grows up, she starts to piece together bits of her story, but just as she's on the verge of going to England to trace the mystery to its source, her grandaughter, Cassandra, is left in her care. When Nell dies, Cassandra finds herself the owner of a cottage in Cornwall, and makes the journey to England to finally solve the puzzle of Nell's origins. Shifting back and forth over a span of nearly 100 years, this is a sprawling, old-fashioned novel, as well-cushioned as a Victorian country house, replete with family secrets, stories-within-stories, even a maze and a Dickensian rag-and-bone shop. All the pieces don't quite mesh, but it's a satisfying read overall, just the thing for readers who like multigenerational sagas with a touch of mystery.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
The world's most famous monster comes to life in this 1818 novel, a tale that combines Gothic romance and science fiction to tell of a young doctor's attempts to breathe life into an artificial man. Despite the doctor's best intentions, the experiment goes horribly wrong.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.
This audacious, mesmerizing novel should carry a warning: ``Reader Beware.'' Those entering the world of carnival freaks described by narrator Olympia Binewski, a bald, humpbacked albino dwarf, will find no escape from a story at once engrossing and repellent, funny and terrifying, unreal and true to human nature. Dunn's vivid, energetic prose, her soaring imagination and assured narrative skill fuse to produce an unforgettable tale. The premise is bizarre. Art and Lily, owners of Binewski's Fabulon, a traveling carnival, decide to breed their own freak show by creating genetically altered children through the use of experimental drugs. ``What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?'' muses Lily. Eventually their family consists of Arty, aka Arturo the Aqua Boy, born with flippers instead of limbs, who performs swimming inside a tank and soon learns how to manipulate his audience; Electra and Iphigenia, Siamese twins and pianists; the narrator, Oly; and Fortunato, also called the Chick, who seems normal at birth, but whose telekinetic powers become apparent just as his brokenhearted parents are about to abandon him. More than anatomy has been altered. Arty is a monsterpower hungry, evil, malicious, consumed by ``dark, bitter meanness and . . . jagged rippling jealousy.'' Yet he has the capacity to inspire adoration, especially that of Oly, who is his willing slave, and who arranges to bear his child, Miranda, who appears ``norm,'' but has a tiny tail. A spellbinding orator, Arty uses his ability to establish a religious cult, in which he preaches redemption through the sacrifice of body partsdigits and limbs.``I want the losers who know they're losers. I want those who have a choice of tortures and pick me.'' This raw, shocking view of the human condition, a glimpse of the tormented people who live on the fringe, makes readers confront the dark, mad elements in every society. After a hiatus of almost two decades, the author of Attic and Truck has produced a novel that everyone will be talking about, a brilliant, suspenseful, heartbreaking tour de force.
The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken.
The year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod twenty-six-year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels like love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt—the "over tall" eleven-year-old boy who's the talk of the town—walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship, but nevertheless they soon find their lives entwined in ways that neither one could have predicted. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who's ever really understood her, and as he grows—six foot five at age twelve, then seven feet, then eight—so does her heart and their most singular romance. The Giant's House is an unforgettably tender and quirky novel about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle, and about the strength of choosing to love in a world that gives no promises, and no guarantees.
The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge.
In this posthumous novel, British author Bainbridge paints a hypothetical picture of what might have been happening in 1968 America amid the turmoil of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Through young English Rose and her unlikely companion, known to her as Washington Harold, the reader is taken on a cross-country trip in search of the elusive Dr. Wheeler, an acquaintance of both. Along the way, the pair always seem one step behind their mysterious quarry and meet a host of interesting characters who all have a link to this man. Rose wants to find Dr. Wheeler because he is the one stable and bright spot from her troubled childhood. Washington's reasons for finding Dr. Wheeler do not become clear until a surprise ending. All aspects of this novel come together in an exciting and curious encounter with presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. VERDICT Both vivid and dark, this page-turner is sure to be sought after by both historical fiction and mystery lovers.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.
A fictional account of how the Dutch artist Vermeer painted his masterpiece. In this splendid novel, the girl in the painting is Griet, the 16-year-old servant of the Vermeer household. The relationship between her and Vermeer is elusive. Is she more than a model? Is she merely an assistant? Is the artist's interest exaggerated in her eyes? The details found in this book bring 17th-century Holland to life. Everyday chores are described so completely that readers will feel Griet's raw, chapped hands and smell the blood-soaked sawdust of the butcher's stall. They will never view a Dutch painting again without remembering how bone, white lead, and other materials from the apothecary shop were ground, and then mixed with linseed oil to produce the rich colors.
The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.
Kiernan (Signing Their Lives Away) writes compellingly of the women who toiled in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Living and working with thousands of others in a secret city built almost overnight, those involved in the "Project" were unaware that they were contributing to the most revolutionary scientific discovery of the 20th century. Moving between the individual narratives of the women workers and the story of the development of atomic fusion, Kiernan emphasizes the secretive nature of the work yet gives readers a greater understanding of the larger historical context. The endnotes provide comprehensive information about primary sources consulted as well as oral interviews Kiernan undertook with surviving workers. However, no complete bibliography is included. VERDICT This work complements Russell Olwell's At Work in the Atomic City: A Labor and Social History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kiernan capably captures the spirit of women's wartime opportunities and their sacrifices in what is ultimately a captivating narrative. Recommended reading for popular history fans.
There's the evil you can see coming-and then there's Amy Elliott. Superficially, this privileged Gotham golden girl, inspiration for her psychologist-parents' bestselling series of children's books, couldn't be further from the disturbingly damaged women of Edgar-finalist Flynn's first two books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. But as Amy's husband, Nick Dunne, starts to realize after she disappears from their rented mansion in his Missouri hometown on their fifth anniversary-and he becomes the prime suspect in her presumed murder-underestimating Amy's sick genius and twisted gamesmanship could prove fatal. Then again, charmer Nick may not be quite the corn-fed innocent he initially appears. Flynn masterfully lets this tale of a marriage gone toxically wrong gradually emerge through alternating accounts by Nick and Amy, both unreliable narrators in their own ways. The reader comes to discover their layers of deceit through a process similar to that at work in the imploding relationship. Compulsively readable, creepily unforgettable, this is a must read for any fan of bad girls and good writing.
Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer.
Halloween morning 1966, Harry Levine arrives at his wholesale shoe warehouse to find an ethnic slur soaped on the front window. As he scavenges around the sprawling warehouse basement, looking for the supplies he needs to clean the window, he makes more unsettling discoveries: a stash of Black Power literature; marijuana; a new phone line running off his own; and a makeshift living room, arranged by Alvin, the teenaged tenant who lives with his father, Curtis, above the warehouse. Accustomed to sloughing off fears about Detroit's troubled inner-city neighborhood, Harry dismisses the soaped window as a Halloween prank and gradually dismantles ?Alvin's lounge? in a silent conversation with the teenaged tenant. Still, these events and discoveries draw him more deeply into the frustrations and fissures permeating his city in the months leading up to the Detroit riots.
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer.
The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume "Izzy Bickerstaff") writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet's name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book's epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories. The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incident—including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupation—and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed. But Juliet's quips are so clever, the Guernsey inhabitants so enchanting and the small acts of heroism so vivid and moving that one forgives the authors (Shaffer died earlier this year) for not being able to settle on a single person or plot. Juliet finds in the letters not just inspiration for her next work, but also for her life—as will readers.
One of Canada's outstanding authors (an old poem of hers reads, ``You fit into me/ like a hook into an eye/ a fish hook/ an open eye'') has written a novel to rival Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four. It is the US nearly a century from now, its government a repressive theocracy where women are nothing and everything. They are enslaved, so this is an important feminist novel; but they serve an elderly commander whose sole function is to mechanically impregnate them, like some slave insect that quickens a queen bee. The men are few, the women many. The narrator is one of these queen bees, Offred-she belongs to Fred-and she pieces her story together slowly and with such matter-of-fact and nightmarish credibility that an entire society is realized, a horror world so muffled and enclosed that when one of the women says an innocent and anachronistic 20th-century ``hello'' to another, a chill races down the reader's spine. Although its contents are sometimes sensationalist, it is a magnificently crafted and understated novel.
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss.
Martha Lessen is a young woman on the run, taking with her the three horses she loves. It is 1917. Looking for work in the dry-grass country of eastern Oregon, she touts herself as a breaker of horses. Most of the young men are overseas fighting, so Martha is hired on at the Bliss family ranch. Word spreads of her gentle horse-whispering ways. As she rides daily from ranch to ranch to work with various horses, she becomes a sort of one-woman Pony Express, carrying messages and food and learning to act quickly in cases of illness or injury. For the shy Martha, with a less than desirable childhood behind her, the acceptance she earns is transformative. Gloss's fourth novel is based on historical accounts of cowgirls in the American West. With obvious appeal for horse lovers, it has a homespun quality, and varies in action between a gentle canter and energetic gallop.
The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent.
A family's conflict becomes a battle for life and death in this gripping and original first novel based on family history from a descendant of a condemned Salem witch. After a bout of smallpox, 10-year-old Sarah Carrier resumes life with her mother on their family farm in Andover, Mass., dimly aware of a festering dispute between her mother, Martha, and her uncle about the plot of land where they live. The fight takes on a terrifying dimension when reports of supernatural activity in nearby Salem give way to mass hysteria, and Sarah's uncle is the first person to point the finger at Martha. Soon, neighbors struggling to eke out a living and a former indentured servant step forward to name Martha as the source of their woes. Sarah is forced to shoulder an even heavier burden as her mother and brothers are taken to prison to face a jury of young women who claim to have felt their bewitching presence. Sarah's front-row view of the trials and the mayhem that sweeps the close-knit community provides a fresh, bracing and unconventional take on a much-covered episode.
History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason.
In fictionalized early twentieth-century Amsterdam, Piet Barol, son of a middle-class paper-pusher, secures a job with the plush Vermeulen-Sickerts family as private tutor to a brilliant but cripplingly obsessive young boy. Progress with his pupil is slow, but hot baths, fine vestments inherited from the master of the house, and pointed attention from the master's wife soon have the handsome, charming, and absurdly lucky Piet employing the tastes instilled in him by his late, Parisian mother and assuming the high-society role he'd long planned for. Historical references abound hotel tycoon Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts is deep into building a tony New York property, his first American venture, when the U.S. market collapses and they are transporting and evocative. This bildungsroman is as smart as it is seductive, and seduction by finery, older women, successful men, and aged brandies in the novel is rampant. Readers will savor final scenes aboard the gilded ocean-liner Eugenie and welcome the undercurrent that perhaps Piet's good fortune isn't luck at all but a lesson that pleasure exists for those who seek it.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers.
*Starred Review* Alan Clay is in Saudi Arabia, hired by an American company to sell an IT system based on a revolutionary hologram that enables far-flung associates to instantly commune with the telepresence of their colleagues, to the nascent (in fact, barely begun) King Abdullah Economic City. As down and out as they come overleveraged, unable to pay his daughter's college tuition, and scarred by his long-over marriage Alan hopes all wrongs will be righted when his team lands the deal, and his fat commission will be enough to pay his many debts and start over. But days become weeks while the team waits in the ghostly desert for a meeting with the king, a moving target. Slowly revealing Alan's history as a salesman who encouraged his employers at Schwinn to manufacture overseas, and only too late realized his compliance in rendering his own irrelevance, Eggers effectively shows why Alan wanted to believe that this kind of thing, a city rising from dust, could happen. In a land of contradictions Alan repeatedly experiences exactly what guidebooks told him he wouldn't and in a time when we depend on the instant, laser-sharpness of computers to direct decisions, Alan's greatest glories are in the waiting and in the uncertainty of his own and humanity's gray spaces.
Homer and Langley: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow.
Doctorow, whose literary trophy shelf has got to be overflowing by now, delivers a small but sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers. When WWI hits and the Spanish flu pandemic kills Homer and Langley's parents, Langley, the elder, goes to war, with his Columbia education and his "godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war." Homer, alone and going blind, faces a world "considerably dimmed" though "more deliciously felt" by his other senses. When Langley returns, real darkness descends on the eccentric orphans: inside their shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion, Langley hoards newspaper clippings and starts innumerable science projects, each eventually abandoned, though he continues to imagine them in increasingly bizarre ways, which he then recites to Homer. Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow's achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It's a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: by Jamie Ford.
Ford vacillates between a front story dominated by nostalgia and a backstory dominated by fear. The front story struggles to support the weight of the backstory, and the complexity Ford brings to the latter is the strength of this debut novel, which considers a Chinese American man's relationship with a Japanese American woman in the 1940s and his son in the 1980s. Although Ford does not have anything especially novel to say about a familiar subject (the interplay between race and family), he writes earnestly and cares for his characters, who consistently defy stereotype. Ford posits great meaning in objects a button reading I am Chinese and a jazz record, in particular but the most striking moments come from the characters' readings of each other: Henry couldn't picture bathing with his parents the way some Japanese families did. He couldn't picture himself doing a lot of things with his parents. . . . He felt his stomach turn a little. His heart raced when he thought about Keiko, but his gut tightened just the same.
The Housekeeper and the Professor: by Yoko Ogawa.
Ogawa (The Diving Pool) weaves a poignant tale of beauty, heart and sorrow in her exquisite new novel. Narrated by the Housekeeper, the characters are known only as the Professor and Root, the Housekeepers 10-year-old son, nicknamed by the Professor because the shape of his hair and head remind the Professor of the square root symbol. A brilliant mathematician, the Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and his short-term memory only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his theorems and favorite baseball players, but the Housekeeper must reintroduce herself every morning, sometimes several times a day. The Professor, who adores Root, is able to connect with the child through baseball, and the Housekeeper learns how to work with him through the memory lapses until they can come together on common ground, at least for 80 minutes. In this gorgeous tale, Ogawa lifts the window shade to allow readers to observe the characters for a short while, then closes the shade. Snyder—who also translated Pool—brings a delicate and precise hand to the translation.
The How Do I Love Thee?: by Nancy Moser.
The year is 1845. Elizabeth Barrett is a published poet-and a virtual prisoner in her own home. Blind family loyalty ties her to a tyrannical father who forbids any of his children to marry. She has resigned herself to simply existing. That is, until the letter arrives “I love your verses with all my heart," writes Robert Browning, an admiring fellow poet. And as friendly correspondence gives way to something more, Elizabeth discovers that Robert's love is not for her words alone. Could it be that God might grant her more than mere existence? And can she risk defying her father in pursuit of true happiness? Nancy Moser has crafted a romantic, emotion-charged novel based on the true story of beloved poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
I Capture the Castle: by Dodie Smith.
A reprint of a 1948 novel on an eccentric and impoverished English family whose home is a ruined 14th century castle. The story is presented in the form of a diary by the family's teen daughter.
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman.
Be careful what you wish for. A woman who was touched by tragedy as a child now lives a quiet life, keeping other people at a cool distance. She even believes she wants it that way. Then one day she utters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks a strange and powerful new beginning." After the lightning strike, the chill in her spirit starts to have physical manifestations. She feels frozen from the inside out, and everything red looks as colorless as snow. Hearing of a fellow lightning-strike survivor—a man who was apparently dead for forty minutes, then simply got up and walked away—she goes in search of him. Perhaps Lazarus Jones, as he is known, can teach her to live without fear. He turns out to be her perfect opposite, a man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both hide their most dangerous secrets—what happened in the past that turned one to ice and the other to fire. And everyone in her fragile network of friends and family will be drawn into the conflagration of their joining.
Icebergs by Rebecca Johns.
In this work, whose title is a metaphor for the sinking effect war has on everyday life, we read about lives being changed by calamitous events and wrong choices. The victims of such change include a veteran who dies as a result of radiation contracted in World War II; his wife, who suffers from loneliness and worry while he's away; and their son, who chooses the Vietnam War over his childhood sweetheart and whose later marriage to another woman is ruined by the aftereffects of that war. Other victims are a mother who becomes neurotic after her husband's death in World War II and her daughter, who displays similar symptoms when her boyfriend enters the Vietnam War. Debut novelist Johns is ambitious enough to tell a story that spans several generations, revitalizing the wartime genre. Her meticulous presentation of details will make readers feel they are actually witnessing the events, although sometimes the narrative is hurried to the extent that this is lost.
Gabrielle Burton's Impatient with Desire is a beautifully written fictional account of the Donner party's epic journey of 1846. It is a journey whose tragic and gruesome finale is familiar to most Americans. Burton uses years of solid research and a disciplined imagination to fill in the less sensational but still moving details of the trip that began in Illinois and ended in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada. Burton gives us a flesh and blood Tamsen Donner, brave, independent, kind, and determined to make her way west both for the adventure of it all and for the advantages she was sure awaited her family in California. The party of George Donner, Tamsen, their five children, and eighty other pioneers traveled by wagon going west across miles of meadows, mountains, and deserts. Tamsen's journal entries and letters to her sister back east, imagined by Burton, describe the journey west in all its hardships and its pleasures. Although only two of Tamsen's letters while on the trail still exist and her journal was never recovered, Burton uses the facts she does have to evoke the heart and soul of Tamsen, and to record her motivations in beginning the trip, her delights in the journey, and her heroism in the snows of Truckee Meadows. Tamsen kept her five children alive and sane through a regimen of hygiene, chores, and meals (only at the very end was human meat prepared and then it was only for the youngest of the group). In addition to taking care of their bodily needs as best she could, Tamsen inspired them—and now, us—with her own unquenchable spirit, her awe and gratitude for the beauty she saw while crossing the country, and her firm sense of destiny as one who would settle the United States for future generations.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.
At the Caffe Greco in Rome, circa 1953, Atlanta financier Cyrus Ott makes an offer that can't be refused. He will establish an international English-language newspaper to be run in Italy by Betty, the woman he once loved, and her husband, Leo, a hack writer for a Chicago daily. Within the building's walls an entire history of the print news business plays out over a 50-year span as writers, editors, and accountants grow in professional stature, squander their reputations, and fade into obsolescence. A former editor for the Paris branch of the International Herald Tribune, Rachman makes outstanding use of his credentials to place readers in the center of a newsroom so palpable one can hear the typewriters clacking and feel the uncomfortable undercurrent of professional jealousy among the writers jockeying for position. Navigating the minefields of relationships, parenthood, loneliness, and failure, each realistically imperfect character, developed through intimate, candid detail, becomes a story unto himself (or herself). VERDICT With its evocative Italian setting and its timely handling of an industry in flux, this polished, sophisticated debut can be relished in one sitting or read piecemeal as a satisfying series of vignettes linked by historical references to the Ott family empire.
In One Person by John Irving.
Much of Irving's thirteenth novel is piquantly charming, crisply funny, and let-your-guard-down madcap in the classic mode of a Frank Capra or Billy Wilder film. This shrewdly frolicsome ambience is tied to the amateur theatrical productions that provide the primary source of entertainment in mid-twentieth-century First Sister, Vermont, a no-place-to-hide yet nonetheless secretive small town sporting a private boy's prep school. Here lives young, fatherless Billy, whose lumberman-by-day, actor-by-night Grandpa Harry plays women's roles with baffling authenticity. By the time Billy turns 13, he realizes that something sets him apart beyond his speech impediment and determination to become a writer, namely his crushes on the wrong people, including his future stepfather, teacher and Shakespeare scholar Richard, and Miss Frost, the tall, strong librarian who eventually proves to be the key to the truth about Billy's bisexuality and his biological father. Storytelling wizard that he is, Irving revitalizes his signature motifs (New England life, wrestling, praising great writers, forbidden sex) while animating a glorious cast of misfit characters within a complicated plot. A mesmerizing, gracefully maturing narrator, Billy navigates fraught relationships with men and women and witnesses the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Ever the fearless writer of conscience calling on readers to be open-minded, Irving performs a sweetly audacious, at times elegiac, celebration of human sexuality.
The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinore Lipman.
It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel; they didn't want Jews; we were Jews...It's the early 1960s and Natalie Marx is stunned when her mother inquires about vacation accommodations in Vermont and receives a response that says, "The Inn at Lake Devine is a family-owned resort, which has been in continuous operation since 1922. Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles." So begins Natalie's fixation with the Inn and the family who owns it. And when Natalie finagles an invitation to join a friend on vacation there, she sets herself upon a path that will inextricably link her adult life into this peculiar family and their once-restricted hotel. The Inn at Lake Devine will enchant readers with the beguiling voice, elegant charm, and deft storytelling that have been hallmarks of Elinor Lipman's previous novels and have made her beloved by her fans. Her characters sparkle on the page and delight us with their wit and grace--even when anti-Semitism rears its head in Vermont and the tables are turned in the Catskills.
The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer.
Meltzer's (The Book of Lies; The Book of Fate) latest thriller takes the reader on an intriguing tour inside the National Archives. In order to impress a visiting friend from his high school days, archivist Beecher White decides to show her the secret vault where the President reviews classified documents. There they discover a 200-year-old artifact that catapults them into a dangerous game involving the institution of the presidency itself. Verdict At times the story line threatens to veer way over the top, but Meltzer deftly reins it in before it becomes too complicated and silly. With the vividly drawn characters, page-turning historical tidbits, and plot twists, this will be another best seller for Meltzer. Guaranteed to spark conversation, this novel would make a perfect book club title.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.
Grissom's unsentimental debut twists the conventions of the antebellum novel just enough to give readers an involving new perspective on what would otherwise be fairly stock material. Lavinia, an orphaned seven-year-old white indentured servant, arrives in 1791 to work in the kitchen house at Tall Oaks, a Tidewater, Va., tobacco plantation owned by Capt. James Pyke. Belle, the captain's illegitimate half-white daughter who runs the kitchen house, shares narration duties, and the two distinctly different voices chronicle a troublesome 20 years: Lavinia becomes close to the slaves working the kitchen house, but she can't fully fit in because of her race. At 17, she marries Marshall, the captain's brutish son turned inept plantation master, and as Lavinia ingratiates herself into the family and the big house, racial tensions boil over into lynching, rape, arson, and murder. The plantation's social order's emphasis on violence, love, power, and corruption provides a trove of tension and grit, while the many nefarious doings will keep readers hooked to the twisted, yet hopeful, conclusion.
The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran.
The unlikely yet enduring love between Jacobean poet John Donne and Ann More inspires British writer Haran (Having It All) for her first historical novel. More was a teenager when she met Donne, already an established poet and libertine. The Catholic Donne was an undesirable suitor, and Ann, the well-educated daughter of Surrey nobility, was expected to follow her sisters into an arranged marriage. Little is known about More, which allows for flights of imagination woven into the historical record: inopportune encounters across London, secret letters, a dangerous solo moonlit ride on horseback. Donne's poetry appears throughout the narrative, but there is nothing metaphysical about the couple's passion. Ann risks scandal, poverty and her father's wrath to be with Donne. Haran shows the challenges of being a woman at the turn of the 17th century, doing a creditable job of bringing history to life by creating a portrait of the renowned poet and a matching fictional portrait of the woman whom, according to history and literature, he deeply loved.
The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell.
Martin is a quiet bachelor with a comfortable life, free of worry and distractions. When he unexpectedly comes into a small fortune, he decides to use his newfound wealth to help out those in need. Finn also leads a quiet life, and comes into a little money of his own. Normally, their paths would never have crossed. But Martin's ideas about who should benefit from his charitable impulses yield some unexpected results, and soon the good intentions of the one become fatally entangled with the mercenary nature of the other. In The Lake of Darkness, Ruth Rendell takes the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished to a startling, haunting conclusion.
The Last Frontier by Howard Fast.
The Last Frontier was Howard Fast's first bestseller, and rightfully belongs on any short-list of best books. In some of the most beautiful and moving language used by any American writer, Fast tells the story of how 300 Cheyenne Indians -- starving on their Oklahoma reservation -- packed up in 1878 and started a 1,000-mile trek back to the happy hunting grounds of their beloved Wyoming. Hounded by the U.S. cavalry, outnumbered and outgunned, they fought their way north inch by bloody inch. Although "novelized," the characters and events Fast portrays are real. He reportedly conducted extensive research before the writing process began, and then crafted one of the most heart wrenching stories to come out of the American West.
The Leftovers by Tom Perotta.
October 14 looked like any other day in the leafy New England enclave of Mapleton-until it didn't. Eighty-seven townspeople and millions more around the world simply disappeared. Cars careened with no one behind the wheel, school kids were without teachers, food went uneaten on dinner tables, and lovers found themselves abandoned. The Rapture? No one knows. What we do know is that the psychological trauma for those left behind is overwhelming, and who better than Perrotta, known for his ability to zero in on the vicissitudes of middle-class America (Little Children; The Abstinence Teacher) to grapple with the impact? Three years after "The Sudden Departure," Kevin Garvey's wife has joined a cult, son Tom has ditched college to follow guru Holy Wayne, and lovely daughter Jill has shaved her head and taken up with stoners. Nora Durst's life is in a holding pattern as she awaits the return of her husband and child, while Reverend Jamison, enraged at being passed over, publishes a newsletter exposing the failings of the missing. -VERDICT Perrotta has taken a subject that could easily slip into slapstick and imbued it with gravitas. Like Richard Russo, he softens the sting of satire with deep compassion for his characters in all their confusion, guilt, grief, and humanity.
The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadorrian.
Ella and John Robina, eightysomethings, take off in their Leisure Seeker RV against the will of their son, daughter, and doctors. Destination Disneyland, via Route 66. Ella has refused further treatment for cancer, and John's Alzheimer's is four years advanced. So they leave the Detroit suburbs and head west. Ella navigates and narrates their trip and their lives while John, who veers from sentience to senility and rage to tenderness, drives. Crumbling, kitschy Route 66 triggers Ella's thoughts. This is a purely character-driven novel, and Ella is a remarkable creation: she's honest, tough, strong, funny, usually in pain, cranky, and frightened. Her narration is matter-of-fact, but laced with snarky one-liners. Having braved Chicago's chaotic Dan Ryan Expressway, she comforts readers: Between the two of us, we are one whole person. John is a distressingly realistic portrait of a person with Alzheimer's; Ella never knows when he'll have a moment of lucidity or fly into a dangerous rage. Her middle-aged children's panicked demands that the couple return home will resonate with any adult who has feared for a parent's well-being. The Leisure Seeker is pretty much like life itself: joyous, painful, funny, moving, tragic, mysterious, and not to be missed.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.
In a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie mystery series, Atkinson delivers a wildly inventive novel about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and doomed to die and be reborn over and over again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same loving family, sometimes with the knowledge that allows her to escape past poor decisions, sometimes not. As Atkinson subtly delineates all the pathways a life or a country might take, she also delivers a harrowing set piece on the Blitz as Ursula, working as a warden on a rescue team, encounters horrifying tableaux encompassing mangled bodies and whole families covered in ash, preserved just like the victims of Pompeii. Alternately mournful and celebratory, deeply empathic and scathingly funny, Atkinson shows what it is like to face the horrors of war and yet still find the determination to go on, with her wholly British characters often reducing the Third Reich to a fuss. From her deeply human characters to her comical dialogue to her meticulous plotting, Atkinson is working at the very top of her game. An audacious, thought-provoking novel from one of our most talented writers.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Pi Patel, a young man from India, tells how he was shipwrecked and stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days. This outlandish story is only the core of a deceptively complex three-part novel about, ultimately, memory as a narrative and about how we choose truths. Unlike other authors who use shifting chronologies and unreliable narrators, Martel frequently achieves something deeper than technical gimmickry. Pi, regardless of what actually happened to him, earns our trust as a narrator and a character, and makes good, in his way, on the promise in the last sentence of part one—that is, just before the tiger saga—"This story has a happy ending." If Martel's strange, touching novel seems a fable without quite a moral, or a parable without quite a metaphor, it still succeeds on its own terms.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan.
A young woman's first-person story of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds reveals truths about human nature and, particularly, about herself. Married just four weeks earlier, Grace and Henry Winter cut short their visit to London in 1914 after Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. Wealthy Henry is able to book their passage back to New York on the Empress Alexandra and then to wangle space on a lifeboat for Grace as the ship is sinking. Grace's survival is never in question in the opening pages, she's one of three women from her lifeboat being tried for murder but her story is no less harrowing for that, since she reveals more of herself throughout her ordeal. Early on, ship's crewman Mr. Hardie is a hero on the boat, providing invaluable if harsh leadership, whether deeming that some must be sacrificed for the sake of all or strictly doling out limited rations. But things change as conditions worsen. This is an accomplished first novel, noteworthy for its moral complexity and the sheer power of its story.
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.
*Starred Review* Stedman's haunting tale opens in 1918 with the return of Tom Sherbourne to his home in Australia after serving four years in the Great War. He applies for a job as a lighthouse keeper and is assigned to the light on Janus Rock, a remote island off the southwest coast where he hopes to erase his horrific memories of war. Several years later, Tom brings to the island his bride, Isabel, a free-spirited young woman who is determined to adapt to Tom's solitary life with their only contact with the mainland a quarterly visit from the supply boat. Four years later, after Isabel has suffered two miscarriages and a very recent stillbirth, an event occurs that forever changes them. A dinghy washes up on the beach carrying a dead man and a newborn baby girl, giving Isabel hope that she may become, at last, a mother. The choice they make as a couple comes to haunt them, their unexpected happiness replaced by guilt and mistrust. Stedman draws the reader into her emotionally complex story right from the beginning, with lush descriptions of this savage and beautiful landscape, and vivid characters with whom we can readily empathize. Hers is a stunning and memorable debut.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave.
Little Bee, smart and stoic, knows two people in England, Andrew and Sarah, journalists she chanced upon on a Nigerian beach after fleeing a massacre in her village, one grisly outbreak in an off-the-radar oil war. After sneaking into England and escaping a rural immigration removal center, she arrives at Andrew and Sarah's London suburb home only to find that the violence that haunts her has also poisoned them. In an unnerving blend of dread, wit, and beauty, Cleave slowly and arrestingly excavates the full extent of the horror that binds Little Bee and Sarah together. A columnist for the Guardian, Cleave earned fame and notoriety when his first book, Incendiary, a tale about a terrorist attack on London, was published on the very day London was bombed in July 2005. His second ensnaring, eviscerating novel charms the reader with ravishing descriptions, sly humor, and the poignant improvisations of Sarah's Batman-costumed young son, then launches devastating attacks in the form of Little Bee's elegantly phrased insights into the massive failure of compassion in the world of refugees. Cleave is a nerves-of-steel storyteller of stealthy power, and this is a novel as resplendent and menacing as life itself.
The Lost and Forgotten Language of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu.
A massive explosion in a Shanghai hotel leaves 32-year-old businessman Li Jing unable to utter a single word in Chinese. Instead, he is only able to speak in halting English, which he learned as a child and which he last spoke at the age of 10. His family pays to bring in American neurologist Rosalyn Neal. Li Jing's beautiful wife, Meiling, is left to try to run his financial consulting firm and to allay the anxiety of their young son. Because Li Jing and Rosalyn Neal, who has recently divorced, are both isolated by their inability to communicate in Chinese, they soon form a bond born of mutual fear and vulnerability. And Meiling, who always took her husband's adoration for granted, is dealt another blow by the easy camaraderie of doctor and patient, which stands in such stark contrast to the married couple's strained attempts to connect. Set in a dense, dizzyingly urban Shanghai, Xu's elegant first novel affectingly addresses the way identity and language intertwine and the emotional anguish of estrangement.
Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
A strangely absorbing and fascinating story of a lost Englishman, Hugh Conway, of the Consular Service in India. It is a story within a story—an adventure in time and space, in the course of which Conway and three fellow travelers are captured for the purposes of further experimentation in certain theories of longevity practised successfully in a remote lamasery of the Tibetan mountains.
The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris.
"They said it was bad for everyone, but nobody else the boy knew had to live in the woods." Thus begins the harrowing story of 12-year-old Thomas and eight-year-old Margaret in Morris's powerful sixth novel. Reduced to living in a tent in Vermont during the Depression, the children and their father, Henry Talcott, a butcher who must travel daily seeking work, are barely surviving their abandonment by the children's reluctant mother. The shattered family aches with the desire to bring home beautiful, troubled Irene while Henry crumbles into a "whipped man... worn down and grim," and Thomas takes on the role of caretaker. Henry's longtime friend Gladys shows the family rare kindness, but a longstanding animosity between her crotchety father and Henry makes it impossible for the Talcotts to accept her charity. In typical Morris fashion, the author paints a brutal landscape and authentic characters with delicacy and precision: from the chaotic household of Irene's alcoholic sister to the creepy relationship between a sick boy and his doting mother, who wants to adopt Thomas and Margaret. Never one to shy away from the messy and bleak, Morris unflinchingly illuminates the bitter existence of neglected children and their inspiring resilience, once again proving herself a storyteller of great compassion, insight and depth.
The Lottery by Patricia Wood.
By choosing to tell the story of Perry L. Crandall, a 31-year-old man with an IQ of 76, from Perry's viewpoint and in his own voice, debut author Wood has set herself quite a challenge. Although getting used to Perry's narrative takes a bit of time, the technique ultimately succeeds. Perry's life in a small coastal town is radically changed by two events early in the novel: the death of his caretaker grandmother and his winning $12 million in the Washington State Lottery. Soon, Perry's relatives—who'd only just cheated him out of the inheritance he was due on his grandmother's death—are holding out their hands for money. Wood keeps the reader guessing as to how the story will end, and the resolution is satisfying. She meets her goal of portraying a mentally challenged person as a fully realized, functioning human being. Perry's worldview is so charming and fair that by the end, you might think he's the smartest character in the whole book.
Love by Toni Morrison.
The first page of Toni Morrison's novel Love is a soft introduction to a narrator who pulls you in with her version of a tale of the ocean-side community of Up Beach, a once popular ocean resort. Morrison introduces an enclave of people who react to one man—Bill Cosey—and to each other as they tell of his affect on generations of characters living in the seaside community. One clear truth here, told time and again, is how folks love and hate each other and the myriad ways it's manifested; these versions of humanity are seen in almost every line. Monsters and ghosts creep into young girls' dreams and around corners and then return to staid ladies' lives as they age and remember friendships and cold battles. Readers will experience in this smooth, sharp-eyed gem another instance of the Toni Morrison craftsmanship: she enters your mind, hangs a tale or two there, and leaves just as quietly as she came.
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.
In 1904, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house for Edwin and Mamah Borthwick Cheney, respectable members of Oak Park, IL, society. Five years later, after a clandestine affair, Frank and Mamah scandalized that society by leaving their families to live together in Europe. Stunned by the furor, Mamah wanted to stay there, particularly after she met women's rights advocate Ellen Key, who rejected conventional ideas of marriage and divorce. Eventually, Frank convinced her to return to Wisconsin, where he was building Taliesin as a home and retreat. Horan's extensive research provides substantial underpinnings for this engrossing novel, and the focus on Mamah lets readers see her attraction to the creative, flamboyant architect but also her recognition of his arrogance. Mamah's own drive to achieve something important is tinged with guilt over abandoning her children. Tentative steps toward reconciliation end in a shocking, violent conclusion that would seem melodramatic if it weren't based on true events. The plot, characters, and ideas meld into a novel that will be a treat for fans of historical fiction but should not be pigeonholed in a genre section.
The Lucky Gourd Shop by Joanna Catherine Scott.
When the adoptive mother of three Korean children writes away to discover their past, she has no way of knowing that the real truth of how they became orphans is too complex and too full of hardship to ever come to light. It is the birth mother whose story is told in this moving novel. Mi Sook is abandoned once by her parents outside the gourd shop and then several more times by a succession of the shop's owners who never bring her to their homes. Instead, she is raised, in a fashion, in the shop. As a result, she forms few meaningful attachments as she grows. She picks poorly (a husband)—he has a terrible secret past that stays buried until his death. When Mi Sook is finally told her husband's secret life, it sets in motion a series of events that doom her and her children to very different fates.
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean.
Her granddaughter's wedding should be a time of happiness for Marina Buriakov. But the Russian emigre's descent into Alzheimer's has her and her family experiencing more anxiety than joy. As the details of her present-day life slip mysteriously away, Marina's recollections of her early years as a docent at the State Hermitage Museum become increasingly vivid. When Leningrad came under siege at the beginning of World War II, museum workers—whose families were provided shelter in the building's basement—stowed away countless treasures, leaving the painting's frames in place as a hopeful symbol of their ultimate return. Amid the chaos, Marina found solace in the creation of a memory palace, in which she envisioned the brushstroke of every painting and each statue's line and curve. Gracefully shifting between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Pacific Northwest, first-time novelist Dean renders a poignant tale about the power of memory. Dean eloquently describes the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphael, but she is at her best illuminating aging Marina's precarious state of mind: It is like disappearing for a few moments at a time, like a switch being turned off, she writes. A short while later, the switch mysteriously flips again.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman.
This literary fantasy, drawing heavily from the fantasy canon but unique in its reworking of it, can be seen as a sort of darker, modern-day response to the magic-in-the-real-world of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004). When Quentin, a brooding and insecure teenager gifted with sleight of hand, is invited to enroll in a university for young spellcasters, he is thrilled beyond words. He grew up fervently rereading a series of fantasy books in which a group of children pass from this world to the magical realm of Fillory (read: Narnia), but it turns out the pursuit of magic is just about as boring as studying anything else. At school and in New York City after graduation, Quentin's life seesaws between the mind-numbingly dull application of rote spellcasting and the typical twentysomething pursuit of booze, sex, and repeat. Until, that is, he and his friends figure out that Fillory is real. Grossman sometimes gets bogged down in the minutiae of explaining how practicing magic is tedious, which itself gets awfully tedious. But when the friends endeavor to go on a heroic quest, the matter-of-fact fashion in which their fantastical adventure transforms into a nightmare is as absurdly sobering for the reader as it is for Quentin. Deep fantasy fans can't afford to miss the darkly comic and unforgettably queasy experience of reading this book and be glad for reality.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel by Helen Simonson.
Change is threatening the little world of Edgecombe St. Mary. Lord Dagenham is about to sell off part of his ancestral estate to developers, and Pakistanis have taken over the village shop. Major Ernest Pettigrew is definitely old school, but he has been lonely since his wife died, and though he is is prey to various unattached ladies it is with shopkeeper Mrs. Ali that he forms a bond, nourished by their mutual interest in literature. Meanwhile, his ambitious son Roger comes to town with a sleek American girlfriend and starts renovating a nearby cottage. And the village ladies are busy hatching plans for the annual Golf Club dance, for which this year's theme is An Evening at the Mughal Court. There is a great deal going on in these pages sharply observed domestic comedy, late-life romance, culture clash, a dash of P. G. Wodehouse, and a pinch of religious fundamentalism. First novelist Simonson handles it all with great aplomb, and her Major, with his keen sense of both honor and absurdity, is the perfect lens through which to view contemporary England.
The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston.
The Mark of the Angel, tells the story of Saffie, a young German girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in 1957 Paris. Her employer, a brilliant young flautist named Raphael, falls hard for her, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he finds her "impassive" and "impenetrable." Hard-eyed Saffie seems to sleepwalk through life, and as if in a dream, she and Raphael marry and have a son, Emil. When Raphael sends her off to have his flute repaired one day, he little suspects what he's setting in motion. In András, the instrument maker, Saffie finds a damaged twin. Both are victims of the horrible experiment of Hitler's war: German Saffie has endured not only rape and torture but also the knowledge of her own family's Nazi sympathies. Hungarian Jew András has lost his family and his country. And they covertly embark on a five-year affair, during which their love comes to be sorely tested by the Algerian war for independence from France.
The Martian by Andy Weir.
A dust storm strands astronaut Mark Watney on Mars and forces his landing crew to abandon the mission and return to Earth in Weir's excellent first novel, a SF thriller. Watney, injured by flying debris and presumed dead, is alone on Mars with no communication and limited supplies. He is, however, the mission engineer, the fix-it guy, and with intelligence and grit he goes to work to stay alive. There are setbacks and triumphs galore as we follow Watney's sojourn on Mars via his journal entries. Meanwhile, a desperate NASA team concocts a rescue plan on Earth. Watney's solutions to food and life support problems are plausible, and Weir laces the technical details with enough keen wit to satisfy hard science fiction fan and general reader alike. Deftly avoiding the problem of the Robinson Crusoe tale that bogs down in repetitious behavior, Weir uses Watney's proactive nature and determination to survive to keep the story escalating to a riveting conclusion.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
The Martian Chronicles, widely considered to be sf legend Bradbury's masterpiece, is less science fiction than social commentary on the America of the years immediately following World War II. These stories of Earth's colonization of Mars, including the accidental wiping out of most Martians and a nuclear war back home, are really about what concerned many Americans at the time they were written: the threat of annihilation, conformity, racism, censorship, the promise and fear of technology, and the stability of the family. Bradbury is essentially asking an audience nostalgic for a simpler time to examine the nature of civilization. While his characters and plots seem a bit dated, his themes still resonate.
Middle Age: A Romance by Joyce Carol Oates.
Oates returns to some familiar themes—death, identity, deception—in this story set in the financially affluent, yet emotionally bankrupt town of Salthill-on-Hudson, a fictional Manhattan suburb. When tony Salthill's resident philosopher-sculptor-recluse, Adam Berendt, dies trying to save a child from drowning, his death both unites and divides his closest friends, people who, it turns out, knew him not at all and know themselves even less. And just who was Adam Berendt? An enigma wrapped in a riddle, he's a rich man who lived like a pauper, a sexual magnet who rejected all advances. Adam's identity, like those of his friends, is ambiguous. In eulogizing Adam, what they don't know, they make up; and these imagined lives, Adam's as well as their own, seem more satisfying than the lives they really lead. Oates's characters are people in transition, as, in fact, middle age itself is transitory: not quite young, not yet old. People we meet as married couples separate or divorce. Single women and men eventually find mates. Many start out in one place and end up in another. Few caught in the throes of middle age would categorize it as "romantic," yet what makes Oates' characters romantic is how well they fare on their journeys of personal reinvention and whether they, and the reader, enjoy the trip. These are people who Oates knows well but doesn't much like, and she brings the full weight of her caustic wit and irony to bear on a subject that intimidates and enervates but, ultimately, liberates.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
In his second novel, the author of The Virgin Suicides (1993) once again proves himself to be a wildly imaginative writer, this time penning a coming-of-age tale, ranging from the 1920s in Asia Minor to the present in Berlin, about a hermaphrodite. Perhaps what is most surprising about Eugenides' offbeat but engrossing book is how he establishes, seemingly effortlessly, the credibility of his narrator: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan." So starts Cal's remarkably detailed odyssey, which began when his grandparents, who were siblings, married and vowed to keep the true nature of their relationship a secret; however, their deception comes back to haunt them in the form of their grandchild. With a sure yet light-handed touch, Eugenides skillfully bends our notions of gender as we realize, along with Cal, that although he has been raised as a girl, he is more comfortable as a boy. Although at times the novel reads like a medical text, it is also likely to hold readers in thrall with its affecting characterization of a brave and lonely soul and its vivid depiction of exactly what it means to be both male and female.
Mistress of the Art of Death by Araina Franklin.
It is 1171 in Cambridge, England, and Henry II is beside himself. Four children have been found murdered and mutilated, and the townsfolk of Cambridge are blaming the Jews, who have taken shelter in the castle. King Henry is less concerned about the murderer than the tax revenue he is losing while the Jewish community languishes in the fortress. He appeals to the king of Sicily to send him a master of the art of death—one who can look at the deceased and determine how he or she died. Adelia, a mistress of this art, arrives with a group of returning pilgrims. Along with a eunuch escort named Mansur and Simon of Naples, a Jew with an affinity for detection, she must piece together the mystery of these hideous crimes before the monster kills again. In her second historical novel (after City of Shadows), Franklin (the pen name of British writer Diana Norman) presents a fascinating character in Adelia, who is odd for her era and profession yet familiar in her flaws and complexity. This novel will surely please mystery fans as well as lovers of historical fiction.
Moghul Buffet by Cheryl Benard.
Both a wickedly funny cross-cultural comedy of errors and an edgy murder mystery, Benard's lively debut begins with the disappearance of timid, pudgy U.S. businessman Micky Malone in Peshawar, an ultraconservative, crime-ridden Pakistani backwater on the Afghan border. As other corpses pile, dogged but inept Detective Iqbal stumbles from suspect to suspect. Bernard choreographs a series of comic misunderstandings, training withering irony on a range of characters. Benard nimbly swings from farce to social satire, describing with devastating wit and fiery feminist passion Pakistani sexism, censorship, corruption and human rights abuses.
Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore.
When Rebecca, the narrator of most of Dunmore's fine, almost unbearably sad eighth novel shares a flat with Joe in London, she begins to enjoy the pleasures of friendship and family for the first time in her life: she was abandoned as a baby and adopted by a couple remarkably unsuitable for parenting. Joe, a historian interested in Stalin, introduces her to simple pleasures and shows her that loneliness need not be permanent. And it's through Joe that she meets Adam, a neonatologist who becomes her husband and the father of their daughter, Ruby ("For the first time, I was tied to someone by blood"). Given the book's title, Ruby's death is no surprise (though it's still heartbreaking without being melodramatic), and Dunmore plumbs the consequences of loss: How does one mourn, and then accept, the unacceptable? Numbed by Ruby's death, Rebecca drifts away from Adam, finding diversion in a job as an assistant to an hotelier, Mr. Damiano; Adam buries himself in his work with premature babies. Ambitiously, Dunmore complements this tragic narrative with two other stories, one autobiographical, told by Mr. Damiano, about growing up in a circus where his parents were trapeze artists, and one told by Joe, a work of fiction set during WWI about a man and a woman who could be his and Rebecca's ancestors. Rebecca's own story isn't told linearly, so these narrative asides aren't as distracting as they sound. And they are critical to the author's main theme: that narrative is a key to understanding and to acceptance. This is that rare novel, an intensely emotional, fiercely intelligent story, fiction with the power to offer redemption.
Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown.
The line between historical and fictional is murky in this nineteenth-century tale of love among the Transcendentalists. Lydia is a strong, independent woman in her thirties, sworn to remain single. Then she meets the brilliant Ralph Waldo Emerson and is swept off her feet by his promises of a new kind of egalitarian marriage. Once married though, Lydia discovers her husband's secret obsession with his dead wife. Lonely and disillusioned, Lydia falls in love with her husband's dashing young protégé, the manly and odd Henry David Thoreau. As a romance novel, this is an excellent, engaging story. Readers will feel sympathy and affection for all of the characters. However, since this is a first-person narrative, the lack of a historical note explaining what in the novel is fact, what is conjecture, and what is fiction dulls the overall impression. Still, a good book-club or beach read, for it is a substantive page-turner.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
*Starred Review* When I think of the farm, I think of mud, says Laura, the main character in this sophisticated, complex first novel. Jordan sets her narrative in the rural Mississippi Delta in the immediate post-World War II period. Thematically, the novel charts the evolution of a wifely role the evolution of Laura's new life when she marries at a relatively late age and moves from her comfortable existence in Memphis (her father was a professor and she an English teacher in a private school) to a rough Delta farm when her new husband decides to forgo his engineering profession to live out his dream of cultivating the soil. The narrative is told in alternating first-person accounts (each voice rendered distinctive and authentic to the character), as Laura, her plain and steady husband, her dashing brother-in-law, and other individuals now significant in Laura's new life (one of whom is the returned GI-son of their black tenant farmer) tell their sides of the devolving events in Laura and her husband's move to this remote and rigid environment. In addition to the material deprivation Laura must endure, racism in the area is full-blown and horrible, most apparent in the face of her father-in-law, who has come to live with Laura and her husband. When her brother-in-law returns from his postwar wanderings about Europe, at first he brings a bright, new light to shine on Laura. She falls in love with him, but, ultimately, the light illuminates only ugliness.
My Antonia by Willa Cather.
No romantic novel ever written in America . . . is one half as beautiful as "My Antonia," H. L. Mencken. Widely recognized as Willa Cather's greatest novel, My Antonia is a soulful and rich portrait of a pioneer woman's simple yet heroic life. The spirited daughter of Bohemian immigrants, Antonia must adapt to a hard existence on the desolate prairies of the Midwest. Enduring childhood poverty, teenage seduction, and family tragedy, she eventually becomes a wife and mother on a Nebraska farm. A fictional record of how women helped forge the communities that formed a nation, My Antonia is also a hauntingly eloquent celebration of the strength, courage, and spirit of America's early pioneers.
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult.
Imagine that you were conceived to be the donor of bone marrow and platelets for your older sister, who has a rare form of cancer. Imagine what it would be like to grow up in a family where everyone is constantly aware of one child's deadly illness, so that all decisions must be filtered through what will work for her treatment or her most recent medical emergency. How can a 12-year-old decide against donating a kidney to her older sister? By having this story narrated by each character in turn, Picoult shows readers the dilemmas facing everyone involved: from Anna, the child who sues her parents for medical emancipation; to Sara, the mother who loves all three of her children but must devote continual attention to the daughter with cancer; and to Jesse, the son who has abandoned hope of ever being noticed by his parents. Picoult's timely and compelling novel will appeal to anyone who has thought about the morality of medical decision making and any parent who must balance the needs of different children.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.
The Namesake follows the Ganguli family through its journey from Calcutta to Cambridge to the Boston suburbs. Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli arrive in America at the end of the 1960s, shortly after their arranged marriage in Calcutta, in order for Ashoke to finish his engineering degree at MIT. Ashoke is forward-thinking, ready to enter into American culture if not fully at least with an open mind. His young bride is far less malleable. Isolated, desperately missing her large family back in India, she will never be at peace with this new world.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth were once classmates at Hailsham, a private school in the English countryside with a most unusual student body: human clones created solely to serve as organ donors. You were brought into this world for a purpose, advised Miss Lucy, one of Hailsham's guardians, and your futures, all of them, have been decided. The tightly knit trio experienced love, loss, and betrayal as they pondered their destinies (to become carers for other donors and, eventually, donors themselves). The novel is narrated by Kathy, now 31 and a carer, who recalls how Hailsham students were told and not told about their precarious circumstances. (Why were their writings and paintings so important? And who was the mysterious Madame who carted their creations away?) Ishiguro's provocative subject matter and taut, potent prose have earned him multiple literary decorations, including the French government's Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and an Order of the British Empire for service to literature. (His Booker Prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, was adapted into a critically acclaimed film). In this luminous offering, he nimbly navigates the landscape of emotion--the inevitable link between present and past and the fine line between compassion and cruelty, pleasure and pain.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.
This first novel in Alexander McCall Smith's widely acclaimed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to "help people with problems in their lives." Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witch doctors.
Old School by Tobias Wolff.
The protagonist of Tobias Wolff's shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself. The agency of revelation is the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy.
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood.
Best-selling novelist Hood (The Red Thread, 2010) has fashioned a diptych of two seemingly unconnected women. Claire, an unhappy suburban housewife and mother inspired by John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign and Jackie's glamour, has a brief, ultimately tragic affair. Lovely and romantic Vivien, an English teacher in San Francisco, falls in love with a married man who disappears in the Great Earthquake of 1906. Bereft, she becomes the most sympathetic and poetic of obituary writers. Vivien is hypnotic; her vocation provides moving testimony to the healing power of language, and her wrenching story offers fascinating glimpses into the prejudices and traumas of her time. Claire's predicament anticipates the first stirrings of the second wave of feminism, but it's a tired tale flattened by melodrama, and readers will discern the connection between the women long before its disclosure. Still, Hood's language is fine and supple, the settings are lusciously rendered, the melancholy air is seductive, her use of quotes about bereavement from Emily Post's 1922 Etiquette is bittersweet, and her intricate inquiry into grief, guilt, and love is haunting.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
BIn Gaiman's first novel for adults since Anansi Boys (2005), the never-named fiftyish narrator is back in his childhood homeland, rural Sussex, England, where he's just delivered the eulogy at a funeral. With an hour or so to kill afterward, he drives about aimlessly, he thinks until he's at the crucible of his consciousness: a farmhouse with a duck pond. There, when he was seven, lived the Hempstocks, a crone, a housewife, and an 11-year-old girl, who said they were grandmother, mother, and daughter. Now, he finds the crone and, eventually, the housewife the same ones, unchanged while the girl is still gone, just as she was at the end of the childhood adventure he recalls in a reverie that lasts all afternoon. He remembers how he became the vector for a malign force attempting to invade and waste our world. The three Hempstocks are guardians, from time almost immemorial, situated to block such forces and, should that fail, fight them. Gaiman mines mythological typology the three-fold goddess, the water of life (the pond, actually an ocean) and his own childhood milieu to build the cosmology and the theater of a story he tells more gracefully than any he's told since Stardust (1999). And don't worry about that for adults designation: it's a matter of tone. This lovely yarn is good for anyone who can read it.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
Starred Review* Hell. We're always alone. Born alone. Die alone, says Olive Kitteridge, redoubtable seventh-grade math teacher in Crosby, Maine. Anyone who gets in Olive's way had better watch out, for she crashes unapologetically through life like an emotional storm trooper. She forces her husband, Henry, the town pharmacist, into tactical retreat; and she drives her beloved son, Christopher, across the country and into therapy. But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this novel in stories. Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope. People are sustained by the rhythms of ordinary life and the natural wonders of coastal Maine, and even Olive is sometimes caught off guard by life's baffling beauty.
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell.
*Starred Review* Margo Crane, 16, is called Sprite, River Nymph, a throwback, and a river princess. Beautiful, strong, and quiet, she is a hunter and a sharpshooter. Abandoned by her self-indulgent mother, she turns to her extended family across the Stark River in rural Michigan, but her uncle Cal is rapaciously lustful, and things turn violent. Margo steals Cal's fancy rifle, grabs her sacred text, a kid's book about her idol, Annie Oakley, and takes off in her grandfather's teak boat. And so begins a dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey, a female Huckleberry Finn, a wild-child-to-caring-woman story as intricately meshed with the natural life of the river as a myth. Margo first appeared in Campbell's debut book, Women and Other Animals (1999), and Campbell, a National Book Award finalist for American Salvage (2009), knows her protagonist so well that she conveys all that Margo does, thinks, and feels with transfixing, sensuous precision, from the jolt of a gun to the muscle burn of rowing a boat against the current to the weight of a man. From killing and skinning game to falling in with outlaws and finding refuge with kind if irascible strangers, Margo's earthy education and the profound complexities of her timeless dilemmas are exquisitely rendered and mesmerizingly suspenseful. A glorious novel, destined to entrance and provoke.
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson.
This self-published debut novel, with more than 100,000 copies sold, has now been picked up by a major publisher, and it's not hard to see why. The story follows two boys, Jewish Ben Solomon and German Otto Piatek, who were raised together in the small Polish town of Zamosc during the 1930s. Once the Nazis invade, however, Otto takes a position in the German army, where, the Solomon family hopes, he will prove to be an asset to his Jewish friends and neighbors. But Piatek betrays them in the most heinous fashion. Some 60 years later, 83-year-old Ben Solomon attempts to kill a well-known Chicago philanthropist, claiming that he is, in fact, Otto. He pours his story out to lawyer Catherine Lockhart, convincing her to sue in civil court for reparations. Balson does a number of things superbly: he crafts a highly readable plotline and makes great use of the Chicago backdrop. But he also stumbles: Catherine seems overly naive about the Holocaust, and Ben's quest for revenge has fantastical overtones. Still, many will enjoy this gripping novel for its narrative drive and its emotional storytelling.
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni.
After the glorious complexity of The Palace of Illusions (2008), Divakaruni, who also writes for young readers, presents a wise and beautifully refined drama. When an earthquake hits, nine men and women of diverse ages and backgrounds are trapped in an Indian consulate. Cameron, an African American Vietnam vet, takes charge, striving to keep them safe. College student Uma, who brought along The Canterbury Tales to read while waiting for clerk Malathi and her boss Mangalam to process her papers, suggests that they each tell an important story from their lives. Their tales of heartbreak and revelation are nuanced and riveting as Divakaruni takes fresh measure of the transcendent power of stories and the pilgrimage tradition. True, the nine, including an older couple, a young Muslim man, and a Chinese Indian grandmother and her granddaughter, are captives of a disaster, but they are also pilgrims of the spirit, seeking one amazing thing affirming that life, for all its pain, is miraculous. A storyteller of exquisite lyricism and compassion, Divakaruni weaves a suspenseful, astute, and unforgettable survivors' tale.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Tells the story of the Buendia family, set against the background of the evolution and eventual decadence of a small South American town.
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus.
An American western with a most unusual twist, this is an imaginative fictional account of the participation of May Dodd and others in the controversial "Brides for Indians" program, a clandestine U.S. government-sponsored program intended to instruct "savages" in the ways of civilization and to assimilate the Indians into white culture through the offspring of these unions. May's personal journals, loaded with humor and intelligent reflection, describe the adventures of some very colorful white brides (including one black one), their marriages to Cheyenne warriors, and the natural abundance of life on the prairie before the final press of the white man's civilization.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.
Three years after his wife's accidental death, Trond Sander, 67, settles into an isolated cabin near Norway's southeastern border with Sweden. It's where he last saw his father at the end of summer 1948. Then 15 and full grown, Trond helped harvest the timber too early, perhaps, but necessarily, it came to seem later. He also suddenly lost his local best friend, Jon, when, after an early morning spent stealing horses that is, taking an equine joyride Jon inadvertently allowed a gun accident that killed one of his 10-year-old twin brothers and guiltily ran away to sea. When that summer was over, Trond went back to Oslo, but his father stayed with Jon's mother, his lover since they met in the Resistance during World War II. Segueing with aplomb between his present and past, Trond's own narration is literarily distinguished, arguably to a fault; would a businessman, even one who loves Dickens, write this well? The novel's incidents and lush but precise descriptions of forest and river, rain and snow, sunlight and night skies are on a par with those of Cather, Steinbeck, Berry, and Hemingway, and its emotional force and flavor are equivalent to what those authors can deliver, too.
The Outside Boy : A Novel by Jeanine Cummins.
Christy, nearly 12, is an Irish Traveller, a Pavee, a child of motion who, with his family, journeys restlessly from town to town, never staying in any place long enough to call it home. But when his beloved Grandda dies, family secrets begin to spill out, and things begin to change, perhaps irrevocably. Set in Ireland in 1959, Cummins' first novel (she#039;s also the author of the memoir A Rip in Heaven, 2004) is a deeply moving and elegiac look at a vanishing culture. Told in Christy's vernacular but often poetic first-person voice, The Outside Boy is gorgeously written and an implicit celebration of Irish storytelling. And it offers a convincing and evocative look at a way of life little known or understood by the many foreign to it. Though Cummins' treatment of the Pavee may sometimes seem idealized, she is quick to acknowledge their occasional petty thefts and tradition of mooching. Her overriding, beautifully realized theme is larger than that, however: it is the universal desire to find a place where one belongs and people whether one's own family or as-yet-unknown others whose presence provides essential comfort, contentment, and completion.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.
To the list of great American child narrators that includes Huck Finn and Scout Finch, let us now add Reuben "Rube" Land, the asthmatic 11-year-old boy at the center of Leif Enger's remarkable first novel, Peace Like a River. Rube recalls the events of his childhood, in small-town Minnesota circa 1962, in a voice that perfectly captures the poetic, verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains. "Here's what I saw," Rube warns his readers. "Here's how it went. Make of it what you will." And Rube sees plenty.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.
With an ingenuity equal to that standing behind her Pultizer Prize-winning March (2005), which was a fictional imagining of the life of the father character in Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women, Brooks now fictionalizes the history of an actual book, the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, an extremely precious illuminated manuscript originally from medievel Spain. In 1996, as Brooks has it, as a ceasefire is effected to quell the bloody violence in Bosnia, Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is called to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. The condition of the manscript, including a stain on a page and certain items clinging to it (among them an insect wing that falls from the binding when Hanna conducts her preliminary review of repair needs), leads her on a search for answers to where the Haggadah has been all its life. This, of course, leads Brooks on a marvelously evocative journey backward in time, to periods of major religious strife and persecution, from the 1940 German occupation of Yugoslavia, to 1894 Vienna, to 1609 Venice, to 1492 Barcelona, and, finally, 1480 Seville. Like a flower growing through a crack in a slab of concrete, the exquisitely beautiful Sarajevo Haggadah remained an artistic treasure throughout the centuries despite always seeming to be caught between opposing sides in skirmishes of greed, intolerance, and bloodlust.
The Persia Café by Melany Neilson.
The subject matter of this debut novel is reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying. A town in Mississippi is rocked to its core in 1961 when a young black man is found murdered, washed up on the river's shore. Fannie Leary, the white owner of the town's only cafe, discovers the body, but when she brings the sheriff back to the scene, it has disappeared. Fannie struggles to reconcile the expectation that she keep silent with what she feels she owes to Mattie, her black cook and cousin of the murdered boy. The story comes out, the FBI comes to investigate, and the white community whose balance she has disrupted shuns Fannie. This is a powerful story of the toll of racism, of the relationships between people of different races, and of events from our past that come back to haunt us.
Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult.
Moving seamlessly from psychological drama to courtroom suspense,Plain Truth is a fascinating portrait of Amish life rarely witnessed by those outside the faith. When a young Amish teen hides a pregnancy, gives birth in secret and then flatly denies it all when the baby's body is found, urban defense attorney Ellie Hathaway decided to defend her. But she finds herself caught in a clash of cultures with a people whose channels of justice are markedly different from her own...and discovers a place where circumstances are not always what they seem.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
The first novel in five years from the ever-popular Kingsolver (Pigs in Heaven, 1993, etc.) is a large-scale saga of an American family's enlightening and disillusioning African adventure. It begins with a stunningly written backward look: Orleanna Price's embittered memory of the uncompromising zeal that impelled her husband, Baptist missionary Nathan Price, to take her and their four daughters to the (then) Belgian Congo in 1959, and remain there despite dangerous evidence of the country's instability under Patrice Lumumba's ill-starred independence movement, Belgian and American interference and condescension, and Joseph Mobutu's murderous military dictatorship. The bulk of the story, which is set in the superbly realized native village of Kilanga, is narrated in turn by the four Price girls: Leah, the ``smart'' twin, whose worshipful respect for her father will undergo a rigorous trial by fire; her retarded'' counterpart Adah, disabled and mute (though in the depths of her mind articulate and playfully intelligent); eldest sister Rachel, a self-important whiner given to hilarious malapropisms (``feminine tuition''; ``I prefer to remain anomalous''); and youngest sister Ruth May, whose childish fantasies of union with the surrounding, smothering landscape are cruelly fulfilled. Kingsolver skillfully orchestrates her characters varied responses to Africa into a consistently absorbing narrative that reaches climax after climax and that, even after you're sure it must be nearing its end, continues for a wrenching hundred pages or more, spelling out in unforgettable dramatic and lyric terms the fates of the surviving Prices. Little recent fiction has so successfully fused the personal with the political. Better even than Robert Stone in his otherwise brilliant Damascus Gate, Kingsolver convinces us that her characters are, first and foremost, breathing, fallible human beings and only secondarily conduits for her book's vigorously expressed and argued social and political ideas. A triumph.
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.
To open Blake's novel of World War II and the convergence of three strong women is to enter a slipstream, so powerful are its velocity, characters, and drama. How can you resist Frankie Bard, an American journalist of gumption and vision who is bravely reporting on the Blitz from London? Her distinctive voice and audacious candor are heard on radios everywhere on the home front, including Cape Cod, where Iris James, in love for the first time at 40, keeps things shipshape at a small-town post office. The third in Blake's triumvirate of impressive women, Emma, the waiflike wife of the town's doctor, is not as obvious a candidate for heroism until a tragedy induces her husband to join the war effort. As Frankie risks her life to record the stories of imperiled Jews, Iris and Emma struggle to maintain order as America goes reluctantly to war. Blake raises unsettling questions about the randomness of violence and death, and the simultaneity of experience--how can people frolic on a beach while others are being murdered? Matching harrowing action with reflection, romance with pathos, Blake's emotional saga of conscience and genocide is poised to become a best-seller of the highest echelon.
Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas.
The idea of selling prayers conjures images of pre-Reformation Catholicism or, at the very least, stops you in your tracks to think a bit. When Nit Spindle, a newcomer to Middle Swan, Colorado, spots Hennie Comfort's sign, Prayers for Sale, she stops to buy a prayer and gains a friend. At 86, Hennie has a passel of stories to tell (one is how she got her name) and finds in Nit an eager listener and kindred spirit. In the telling of Hennie's life her two marriages, her brush with evil, her dead babies and in the gradual elicitation of Nit's lonely ponderings, the reader is treated to an oral history of a mountain town and the women who run it while the men are chasing their dreams of gold. Hennie considers passing along her stories and her knowledge of mountain life to Nit a fit pastime, in preparation for her departure from town. Like the lives narrated, this novel, by the author of Tallgrass (2007), runs the gamut of heartache, hardship, and happiness as Dallas skillfully weaves past into present and surprises everyone at the end.
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow.
Chicago defense attorney Turow, formerly a U.S. prosecutor, capitalizes on his intimate knowledge of the courtroom in an impressive first novel that matches Anatomy of a Murder in its intensity and verisimilitude. With the calculating genius of a good lawyer (and writer), Turow, author of the nonfiction One L, draws the reader into a grittily realistic portrait of big city political corruption that climaxes with a dramatic murder trial in which every dark twist of legal statute and human nature is convincingly revealed. The novel's present tense puts the reader firmly in the mind of narrator Rusty Sabich, a married prosecuting attorney whose affair with a colleague comes back to haunt him after she is brutally raped and murdered. Sabich's professional and personal lives begin to mingle painfully when he becomes the accused. His is a gripping and provocative dilemma: `"Sitting in court, I actually forget who is on trial at certain moments. . . . And once we get back to the office, I can be a lawyer again, attacking the books, making notes and memos." Turow's ability to forge the reader's identification with the protagonist, his insightful characterizations of Sabich's legal colleagues and the overwhelming sense he conveys of being present in the courtroom are his most brilliant and satisfying contributions to what may become a literary crime classic.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
No novel in English has given more pleasure than Pride and Prejudice . Because it is one of the great works in our literature, critics in every generation reexamine and reinterpret it. But the rest of us simply fall in love with it--and with its wonderfully charming and intelligent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. And everyone is held fast not only by the novel's romantic suspense but also by the fascinations of the world we visit. The life of the English country gentry at the turn of the nineteenth century is made as real to us as our own, not only by the author's wit and feeling but by her subtle observation of the way people behave in society and how we are true or treacherous to each other and to ourselves. "Jane Austen remains the most misunderstood of great English writers . . . Austen's is an extended, exploratory, dangerously subversive art, and is neither harmlessly decorative nor picturesquely provincial . . . [Irony] is the secret of the perfect self-sufficiency of Pride and Prejudice."
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives--presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
The River Midnight by Lillian Nattel.
Like the mythical Polish shtetl of Blaszka in which it is set, The River Midnight is boisterous, tangled with secrets, and startlingly generous. Told more as nine interwoven stories, Lillian Nattel's debut novel portrays Jewish village life in the 19th century as both dense and wondrous, something akin to Gabriel García Márquez'sMacondo—with similar touches of magic realism. The novel uses a roughly nine-month period in 1894 as its framework, each chapter recounting many of the same events through the eyes of successive characters. Along the way we encounter the pettiness, charity, gossip, and customs that sustain the village, making its cramped life both full and frustrating.
Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue.
Five-year-old Jack and his Ma enjoy their long days together, playing games, watching TV, and reading favorite stories. Through Jack's narration, it slowly becomes apparent that their pleasant days are shrouded by a horrifying secret. Seven years ago, his 19-year-old Ma was abducted and has since been held captive-in one small room. To her abductor she is nothing more than a sex slave, with Jack as a result, yet she finds the courage to raise her child with constant love under these most abhorrent circumstances. He is a bright child-bright enough, in fact, to help his mother successfully carry out a plan of escape. Once they get to the outside world, the sense of relief is short lived, as Jack is suddenly faced with an entirely new worldview (with things he never imagined, like other people, buildings, and even family) while his mother attempts to deal with her own psychological trauma. Verdict Gripping, riveting, and close to the bone, this story grabs you and doesn't let go. Donoghue (The Sealed Letter) skillfully builds a suspenseful narrative evoking fear and hate and hope-but most of all, the triumph of a mother's ferocious love. Highly recommended for readers of popular fiction.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich.
In her intensely involving fourteenth novel, Erdrich writes with brio in the voice of a man reliving the fateful summer of his thirteenth year. The son of a tribal judge, Bazil, and a tribal enrollment specialist, Geraldine, Joe Coutts is an attentively loved and lucky boy until his mother is brutally beaten and raped. Erdrich's profound intimacy with her characters electrifies this stunning and devastating tale of hate crimes and vengeance, her latest immersion in the Ojibwe and white community she has been writing about for more than two decades. As Joe and his father try to help Geraldine heal and figure out who attacked her and why, Erdrich dissects the harsh realities of an imperiled yet vital culture and unjust laws reaching back to a tragedy in her earlier novel The Plague of Doves (2008). But it is Joe's awakening to the complexities and traumas of adult life that makes this such a beautifully warm and wise novel.Through Joe's hilarious and unnerving encounters with his ex-stripper aunt, bawdy grandmothers, and a marine turned Catholic priest; Joe's dangerous escapades with his loyal friends; and the spellbinding stories told by his grandfather, Mooshum, a favorite recurring character, Erdrich covers a vast spectrum of history, cruel loss, and bracing realizations. A preeminent tale in an essential American saga.
"*Starred Review* The question of what makes a family is central to this luminous novel, Patchett's first since her award-winning Bel Canto (2001). Boston lawyer and ex-politician Bernard Doyle has nurtured his three sons Sullivan, 33, and African American Tip, 21, and Teddy, 20, brothers adopted 20 years earlier since the death of his beloved wife, Bernadette, some 15 years ago. Then, one snowy evening, Tip, inattentive and annoyed at his father, is pushed out of the way of an oncoming vehicle by a woman, herself hit and badly injured, who turns out to be the boys' birth mother and who's been watching the boys for years, along with her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya. The drama of a single day is given an unreal quality by the snow that curtails normal activity, as these vividly portrayed characters struggle with their circumstances: Sullivan, the prodigal whose mistake his father lied about; smart Tip; sweet Teddy; speedy runner Kenya; and her mother, Tennessee, whose dreamlike sequence in her hospital room reveals another twist in the family muddle. In extraordinarily fluid prose, Patchett unfolds this story to its epilogue like final chapter as she illuminates issues of race, religion, duty, and desire.
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye.
This finely crafted first novel takes place in the wooded areas around a small lake north of Duluth and in the tempestuous waters of Lake Superior. The history of the family at the center of the novel, the Torrs, encompasses both areas and is a prolonged story of resentment and recrimination. When his estranged father asks him for help, Noah Torr travels to the lakeside cabin to find his father dying and determined to reconcile some of the bitterness from the past. This is primarily a study of the lives and relations of the two men and on the calamitous effect that the sinking of the ore ship Ragnarok had on them. The suspense of the tight plot originates less in external action than in the two men's increasing focus on the disaster in Lake Superior. The third-person narration skillfully interweaves tales of the past with the reality of the present.
Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian.
Between April 1915 and April 1916, one and one-half million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Bohjalian uses this as the backdrop for his new novel. Elizabeth Endicott accompanies her father to Aleppo, Syria, to bring aid to the Armenian deportees. While there, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer working for the Germans and searching for his wife and child, though certain they are already dead. In spite of the loss and horror around them, they fall desperately in love. The story is told through the eyes of Laura Petrosian, Elizabeth and Armen's great-granddaughter. After seeing an exhibit of photographs of the Armenian victims, she discovers letters and photos and begins to piece her great-grandparents' story together. Soon the slaughter you know next to nothing about takes over her life, and she makes profound discoveries about her ancestors and herself. This is a powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling.
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.
In the summer of 1942, the French police arrested thousands of Jewish families and held them outside of Paris before shipping them off to Auschwitz. On the 60th anniversary of the roundups, an expatriate American journalist covering the atrocities discovers a personal connection—her apartment was formerly occupied by one such family. She resolves to find out what happened to Sarah, the 10-year-old daughter, who was the only family member to survive. The story is heart-wrenching, and Polly Stone gives an excellent performance, keeping a low-key tone through descriptions of horror that would elicit excessive dramatics from a less talented performer. Her characters are easy to differentiate, and her French accent is convincing. De Rosnay's novel is captivating, and the powerful narration gives it even greater impact.
The Saturday Wife by Naomi Ragen.
Delilah Goldgrab just wanted to be part of the in-crowd. Being blond, attractive, and saddled with the name of a biblical temptress did not make things easy at her Orthodox Jewish girls school. In college, she dreamed of meeting an exciting man who would provide the lifestyle to which she aspired, but that was not to be. In desperation, she marries Chaim, a sincere rabbinical student who is content to take over his grandfather's congregation in a crumbling Bronx neighborhood. The materialistic Delilah pushes Chaim to take a position in a wealthy Connecticut congregation, but once they arrive, she finds herself in way over her head. Trying to please the demanding, hypocritical members of the congregation is difficult. The adventures of Delilah and Chaim provide a cautionary tale about the difficulties faced by those attempting to maintain traditional values while struggling with the temptations of the outside world. Ragen tells this story with insight and humor, vividly illustrating the consequences of lashon hara (gossip). This is Jewish chick lit with a message.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville.
Grenville, author of the Orange Award winner The Idea of Perfection (2002), tells a story rooted in her family's Australian past. In the early 1800s, William Thornhill is sentenced to death for stealing a shipload of expensive woods. Offered an alternative, he chooses transportation to New South Wales, Australia. Six sections describe Thornhill's progress from convict laborer to landowner, conveying the broader history of Australian colonization through the experience of one convict family. Grenville embodies in her characters the cruelties elicited by the clash of British and native Australian cultures and the savagery with which these differences played out. Plotting and characterization are so skillful that the book's tragic climax seems inevitable. Grenville writes lyrically, especially in her description of the Australian landscape, while her gift for the telling phrase—one that conveys a paragraph of description in a few words—enlivens an essentially dark narrative.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.
See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or "old sames") Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters' foot binding ("Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace"), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province ("My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart, / An invisible rebellion that no man can see"). As both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle, this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group favorite as well.
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar.
Sera Dubash is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife in modern-day Bombay. Bhima is her domestic servant. Though they inhabit dramatically different worlds, the two women have much in common. Both married men they alternately love and loathe: Sera's moody husband frequently beats her, and Bhima's betrothed falls into an alcohol-drenched depression after losing his job. Sera's civil treatment of her servant—she overlooks Bhima's frequent tardiness and treats her like an equal—dismays her neighbors and friends. She also offers to fund the college education of Bhima's granddaughter, Maya, whom Bhima adopted when the girl's mother died of AIDS. The bond between the two women deepens when Sera (whose own daughter is happily wed and expecting her first child) arranges an abortion for unmarried Maya. Veteran journalist and Case Western Reserve professor Umrigar ( Bombay Time, 2001) renders a collection of compelling and complex characters, from kind, conflicted Sera to fiercely devoted Bhima (the latter is based on the novelist's own childhood housekeeper). Sadness suffuses this eloquent tale, whose heart-stopping plot twists reveal the ferocity of fate. As Bhima sits at her dying daughter's side, a fellow hospital visitor speaks the simple, brutal truth: Here, we have all hit the jackpot for grief.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
Marina Singh gave up a career as a doctor after botching an emergency delivery as an intern, opting instead for the more orderly world of research for a pharmaceutical company. When office colleague Anders Eckman, sent to the Amazon to check on the work of a field team, is reported dead, Marina is asked by her company's CEO to complete Anders' task and to locate his body. What Marina finds in the sweltering, insect-infested jungles of the Amazon shakes her to her core. For the team is headed by esteemed scientist Annick Swenson, the woman who oversaw Marina's residency and who is now intent on keeping the team's progress on a miracle drug completely under wraps. Marina's jungle odyssey includes exotic encounters with cannibals and snakes, a knotty ethical dilemma about the basic tenets of scientific research, and joyous interactions with the exuberant people of the Lakashi tribe, who live on the compound. In fluid and remarkably atmospheric prose, Patchett captures not only the sights and sounds of the chaotic jungle environment but also the struggle and sacrifice of dedicated scientists.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Onstage at a Toronto theater, an aging movie star drops dead while performing the title role in King Lear. As the other cast members share a drink at the lobby bar before heading into the snowy night, none can know what horrors await them: "Of all of them at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city." The Shakespearean tragedy unfolds into a real-life calamity just before the entire world is overtaken by a catastrophic flu pandemic that will kill off the vast majority of the population. The narrative is organized around several figures present at the theater that night, and the tale travels back and forth in time, from the years before the pandemic through the following 20 years in a world without government, electricity, telecommunications, modern medicine, or transportation. In this lawless and dangerous new reality, a band of actors and musicians performs Shakespeare for the small communities that have come into existence in the otherwise abandoned landscape. In this unforgettable, haunting, and almost hallucinatory portrait of life at the edge, those who remain struggle to retain their basic humanity and make connections with the vanished world through art, memory, and remnants of popular culture.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dickens's great historical novel, set against the violent upheaval of the French Revolution. The most famous and perhaps the most popular of his works, it compresses an event of immense complexity to the scale of a family history, with a cast of characters that includes a bloodthirsty ogress and an antihero as believably flawed as any in modern fiction. Though the least typical of the author's novels, A Tale of Two Cities still underscores many of his enduring themes--imprisonment, injustice, and social anarchy, resurrection and the renunciation that fosters renewal.
Tamar by Mal Peet.
It was her taciturn but beloved grandfather, William Hyde, who gave Tamar her strange name. But in 1995, when she was 15, he committed suicide, leaving her to wonder if she knew him at all. Later, when she opens the box of War II memorabilia that he left her, she's struck by the need to find out what it means, who he really was, and where she fits in. Tension mounts incrementally in an intricate wrapping of wartime drama and secrecy, in which Tamar finds her namesake and herself. Forming the backbone of the novel are intense, sometimes brutal events in a small Dutch town in Nazi-occupied Holland and the relationship between the girl's namesake, a member of the Dutch Resistance; Dart, a code operator assigned to help him; and Marijke, the love of his life. Peet's plot is tightly constructed, and striking, descriptive language, full of metaphor, grounds the story. Most of the characters are adults here, and to some readers, the Dutch history, though deftly woven through the story, will seem remote. But Peet's sturdy, emotionally resonant characterizations and dramatic backdrop will pull readers forward, as will the secret that gradually unravels. Despite foreshadowing, the outcome is still a stunner.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney.
The frigid isolation of European immigrants living on the 19th-century Canadian frontier is the setting for British author Penney's haunting debut. Seventeen-year-old Francis Ross disappears the same day his mother discovers the scalped body of his friend, fur trader Laurent Jammet, in a neighboring cabin. The murder brings newcomers to the small settlement, from inexperienced Hudson Bay Company representative Donald Moody to elderly eccentric Thomas Sturrock, who arrives searching for a mysterious archeological fragment once in Jammet's possession. Other than Francis, no real suspects emerge until half-Indian trapper William Parker is caught searching the dead man's house. Parker escapes and joins with Francis's mother to track Francis north, a journey that produces a deep if unlikely bond between them. Only when the pair reaches a distant Scandinavian settlement do both characters and reader begin to understand Francis, who arrived there days before them. Penney's absorbing, quietly convincing narrative illuminates the characters, each a kind of outcast, through whose complex viewpoints this dense, many-layered story is told.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.
Starred Review* Anyone who has ever logged time in a gray cubicle with cloth walls that wouldn't hold tacks will be astounded at the accuracy of this first-novel portrait of the workplace demimonde. Set in an unnamed advertising firm in Chicago, it grabs readers on the very first page like an executive assistant who can't wait to share the latest HR rumors. The firm is laying off employees, and as the quirky staff-cum-family alternately turns to and turns on one another, the reader plays eavesdropper to the unnamed narrator (who speaks in the first-person plural). He (or she) documents Benny's wild adventures with an inherited totem pole; the full catalog of Marcia's relentlessly eighties hairdos; Jim's lame but earnest ad pitches; Joe's inflexible professionalism; office leader Lynn's breast cancer; and the riotous yet painful mental breakdowns of not one but three pink-slipped workers. At their final gathering, the coworkers discover that their intimacy is a function only of proximity; no number of e-mails, lunches, or phone calls can substitute for the binding power of office walls. While the prose veers off into amusing tangents, like an associate trying to waste as much of an unproductive afternoon as possible, the author always returns to the story at hand. It's a 375-page, 3-martini-lunch of a novel, and you'll have it read by quitting time.
Three Junes by Julia Glass.
This strong and memorable debut novel draws the reader deeply into the lives of several central characters during three separate Junes spanning ten years. At the story's onset, Scotsman Paul McLeod, the father of three grown sons, is newly widowed and on a group tour of the Greek islands as he reminisces about how he met and married his deceased wife and created their family. Next, we see the world through the eyes of Paul's eldest son, Fenno, a gay man transplanted to New York City and owner of a small bookstore, who learns lessons about love and loss that allow him to grow in unexpected ways. And finally there is Fern, an artist and book designer whom Paul met on his trip to Greece several years earlier. She is now a young widow, pregnant and also living in New York City, who must make sense of her own past and present to be able to move forward in her life. In this novel, expectations and revelations collide in startling ways.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
On the surface, Henry and Clare Detamble are a normal couple living in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Henry works at the Newberry Library and Clare creates abstract paper art, but the cruel reality is that Henry is a prisoner of time. It sweeps him back and forth at its leisure, from the present to the past, with no regard for where he is or what he is doing. It drops him naked and vulnerable into another decade, wearing an age-appropriate face. In fact, it's not unusual for Henry to run into the other Henry and help him out of a jam. Sound unusual? Imagine Clare Detamble's astonishment at seeing Henry dropped stark naked into her parents' meadow when she was only six. Though, of course, until she came of age, Henry was always the perfect gentleman and gave young Clare nothing but his friendship as he dropped in and out of her life. It's no wonder that the film rights to this hip and urban love story have been acquired.
Tinkers by Paul Harding.
*Starred Review* A tinker is a mender, and in Harding's spellbinding debut, he imagines the old, mendable horse-and-carriage world. The objects of the past were more readily repaired than our electronics, but the living world was a mystery, as it still is, as it always will be. And so in this rhapsodic novel of impending death, Harding considers humankind's contrary desires to conquer the imps of disorder and to be one with life, fully meshed within the great glimmering web. In the present, George lies on his death bed in the Massachusetts house he built himself, surrounded by family and the antique clocks he restores. George loves the precision of fine timepieces, but now he is at the mercy of chaotic forces and seems to be channeling his late father, Howard, a tinker and a mystic whose epileptic seizures strike like lightning. Howard, in turn, remembers his strange and gentle minister father. Each man is extraordinarily porous to nature and prone to becoming unhitched from everyday human existence and entering a state of ecstasy, even transcendence. Writing with breathtaking lyricism and tenderness, Harding has created a rare and beautiful novel of spiritual inheritance and acute psychological and metaphysical suspense.
The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle.
Boyle avoids any potential pitfall of his prior achievement by veering in another direction and seriously examining social and political issues in this timely novel. He establishes an obvious dichotomy by interweaving the scrapping, makeshift, in-the-present lives of illegal aliens Candido and America Rincon with the politically correct, suburban, plan-for-the-future existence of wealthy Americans Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher. The Rincons' lives, though full of fear and hardship, contain far more passion and endurance than the Mossbachers' mundane and materialistic lifestyles. An initial, pivotal car accident briefly unites, and ultimately separates, Delaney and Candido, provoking question after question concerning immigration, unemployment, discrimination, and social responsibility. Surprisingly, Boyle manages to address these issues in a nonjudgmental fashion, depicting the vast inequity in these parallel existences. This highly engaging story subtly plays on our consciences, forcing us to form, confirm, or dispute social, political, and moral viewpoints. This is a profound and tragic tale, one that exposes not only a failed American Dream, but a failing America.
Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene.
Greene's fine sense of humor is displayed in this warm and far-reaching comic novel, Travels with My Aunt, a bestseller when it appeared originally. At his mother's funeral, Henry Pulling, a stuffy, retired bank manager with an interest in dahlias, meets his Aunt Augusta. The indomitable Aunt Augusta pulls Henry along on a whirlwind adventure traveling with an old lover, Wordsworth; Curran, the founder of a doggies' church; O'Toole, the C.I.A. man obsessed by statistics and his counter-culture daughter; and old Mr. Visconti, who has been wanted by Interpol for twenty years. Henry describes their activities with shock and bewilderment, and finally with the tenderness, of a fellow traveler going their way.
Triangle by Katherine Weber.
Although the first pages of this novel might lead readers to believe they're embarking on a piece of historical fiction about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, it soon becomes clear that Weber has something else in mind. The initial chapter consists of the transcribed recollection of Esther Gottesfeld, a fire survivor. But Esther's granddaughter, Rebecca, is really at the center of the story. A genetics counselor, Rebecca is involved in a comfortable relationship with George Botkin, a composer famous for creating works based on patterns in nature. Her grandmother's death 90 years after the fire leaves Rebecca with the key to a safe-deposit box and the desire to probe into some long-held secrets. Esther's memories of that terrible day in 1911, when she lost a sister, are woven throughout the novel like a piece of music accompanying Rebecca's own life, with variations on themes of love, loss, sacrifice, survival, and identity. An elegant novel of ideas, then, rather than a re-creation of a historical event.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.
This was not the life smart and lovely Hattie expected to live after fleeing Jim Crow Georgia in 1923 and settling in Philadelphia. Two years later, married (at 16) to an irresponsible man, she is poor, cold, hungry, and desperate as her twin babies sicken with pneumonia. Writing with stunning authority, clarity, and courage, debut novelist Mathis pivots forward in time, spotlighting intensely dramatic episodes in the lives of Hattie's nine subsequent children (and one grandchild to make the twelve tribes ), galvanizing crises that expose the crushed dreams and anguished legacy of the Great Migration. While Hattie grows more stoic with each birth and each betrayal, her children struggle with her survival strategies, which they perceive as her coldness and anger. Hattie's daughters are epically depressed. Two sons end up in the South, shocked by its backward country ways : Floyd, a jazz musician painfully conflicted over his attraction to men, and badly scarred Six, who discovers a gift for preaching. Late in life, Hattie thinks, Here we are sixty years out of Georgia, . . . and there's still the same wounding and the same pain. Mathis writes with blazing insight into the complexities of sexuality, marriage, family relationships, backbone, fraudulence, and racism in a molten novel of lives racked with suffering yet suffused with beauty.
*Starred Review* Spontaneity has never been Harold Fry's strong suit, especially once he retired. Just ask his long-suffering wife, Maureen. So imagine her surprise when Harold abruptly decides to walk 500 miles to the north of England in a naive attempt to save a dying woman, a colleague he once knew briefly but to whom he hadn't spoken in 20 years. It's the proverbial case of a man going out to mail a letter and never coming home. Clad only in his everyday garb, lacking a cell phone, backpack, or reliable sense of direction, Fry puts one poorly shod foot in front of the other and trudges through villages and hamlets, often relying on the kindness of strangers to keep his momentum going. To the object of his inspiration, the fading Queenie Hennessy, he writes pithy postcards, bravely exhorting her not to die. Solitary walks are perfect for imagining how one might set the world to rights, and Harold does just that, although not always with uplifting results, as he ruminates on missed opportunities and failed relationships. Accomplished BBC playwright Joyce's debut novel is a gentle and genteel charmer, brimming with British quirkiness yet quietly haunting in its poignant and wise examination of love and devotion. Sure to become a book-club favorite
The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier.
Meet Ella Turner and Isabelle du Moulin—two women born centuries apart, yet bound by a fateful family legacy. When Ella and her husband move to a small town in France, Ella hopes to brush up on her French, qualify to practice as a midwife, and start a family of her own. Village life turns out to be less idyllic than she expected, however, and a peculiar dream of the color blue propels her on a quest to uncover her family's French ancestry. As the novel unfolds—alternating between Ella's story and that of Isabelle du Moulin four hundred years earlier—a common thread emerges that unexpectedly links the two women.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.
The Lisbon girls, all five of whom committed suicide in the early 1970s, haunt the memories of boys next door in a wealthy Detroit suburb. A nameless narrator, one of the boys, 20 years later collects and weaves together the impressions that friends, neighbors, and parents had of the dead girls. Except for school and group outings to two ill-fated parties, the girls' lives played out confined to their dwelling, a cloistered existence protected by a mother vigilant for their virtue and by a meek father cowed by his feminized surroundings. Did those surroundings spur Cecilia to throw herself from a window, sending the house into a degenerating gloom that bottomed out with the final exits of the final four? One of the boys, a Twelve Stepper now who made it with the bad girl of the bunch, can't settle his addled mind on a theory, but the rest remember the time, place, and sightings of the pretty Lisbons with the magnified focus of their very furtiveness.
We have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Since the mysterious death of four family members, the superstitious Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, her ailing uncle Julian, and agoraphobic sister Constance have lived in a bizarre but contented state of isolation. But when cousin Charles arrives in search of the Blackwood fortune, a terrible family secret is revealed.
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.
You don't have to have a sister or be a fan of the Bard to love Brown's bright, literate debut, but it wouldn't hurt. Sisters Rose (Rosalind; As You Like It), Bean (Bianca; The Taming of the Shrew), and Cordy (Cordelia; King Lear)--the book-loving, Shakespeare-quoting, and wonderfully screwed-up spawn of Bard scholar Dr. James Andreas--end up under one roof again in Barnwell, Ohio, the college town where they were raised, to help their breast cancera stricken mom. The real reasons they've trudged home, however, are far less straightforward: vagabond and youngest sib Cordy is pregnant with nowhere to go; man-eater Bean ran into big trouble in New York for embezzlement, and eldest sister Rose can't venture beyond the "mental circle with Barnwell at the center of it." For these pains-in-the-soul, the sisters have to learn to trust love--of themselves, of each other--to find their way home again. The supporting cast--removed, erudite dad; ailing mom; a crew of locals; Rose's long-suffering fiancé--is a punchy delight, but the stage clearly belongs to the sisters; Macbeth's witches would be proud of the toil and trouble they stir up.
When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep by Sylvia Sellers-Garcia.
In her debut novel, Sellers-Garcia draws from her own experience as a transnational whose cultural identity springs from both the United States and Central America. This beautiful and only partly fictional account features Nitido Aman, an American born in Guatemala. His parents were always kind, but it was clear that discussions about the past were forbidden. A twist of fate leads Nitido to a remote village in Guatemala's highlands, where he is mistaken for a visiting priest. Having lived through years of horrific guerilla warfare, the villagers each have a cache of unspoken terror. Familiar with his parents' conspiracy of silence, Nitido is not confounded by what he encounters among the villagers of Rio Roto; their silence staves off what they cannot bear. Sellers-Garcia succeeds in evoking the scent of the mud and the sound of the sugar cane swaying in the wind. Likewise, she reveals the details of the past ever so slowly, so that we gradually come to understand the paralyzing fear the people had to endure. Unsettling, evocative, and fascinating, this is a well-drawn portrait of a time and place very, very different from our own.
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Born in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, Banks was orphaned at the age of nine after the separate disappearances of his parents. Now, more than twenty years later, he is a celebrated figure in London society; yet the investigative expertise that has garnered him fame has done little to illuminate the circumstances of his parents' alleged kidnappings. Banks travels to the seething, labyrinthine city of his memory in hopes of solving the mystery of his own, painful past, only to find that war is ravaging Shanghai beyond recognition-and that his own recollections are proving as difficult to trust as the people around him.
Whistling Season by Ivan Doig.
Doig's latest foray through Montana history begins in the late 1950s, with Superintendent of Public Instruction Paul Milliron on the verge of announcing the closure of the state's one-room schools, seen as hopelessly out of date in the age of Sputnik. But quickly the narrative takes us back to Paul's pivotal seventh-grade year, 1910, when he was a student in one of those one-room schools, and two landmark events took place: the Milliron family acquired a housekeeper, and Halley's comet came to Montana. Throughout his long career, Doig has been at his best when chronicling the passing of a season in the lives of a Montana family, usually farmers at around the turn of the century. It's no surprise, then, that this is his best novel since the marvelous English Creek (1985). As in all of his books, he digs the details of his historical moments from the dirt in which they thrived. We see Paul, his father, and his two younger brothers struggling to make a life on their dryland farm in the wake of their mother's death, and we feel their shock when they lay eyes on their new housekeeper, a recent widow who looks nothing like the great-bosomed creature shrouded in gray they had come to expect. The saga of how this stranger from Minneapolis and her brother (soon to become the new teacher) change lives in unexpected ways has all the charm of old-school storytelling, from Dickens to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Doig's antique narrative voice, which sometimes jars, feels right at home here, coming from the mouth of the young Paul, who is eagerly learning Latin as he tries to make sense of his ever-enlarging world. An entrancing new chapter in the literature of the West.
White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway.
American teenagers Frankie and Kate are living in Hong Kong with their mother and nanny. It is 1967, and their photographer father is on assignment in Vietnam. Although he visits every six weeks, he is so caught up in the war that he pays little attention to his family. His wife, similarly distracted, spends her days painting landscapes of the lush environment. Not surprisingly, the girls crave parental attention and scheme to get it, their efforts taking them to places and introducing them to people both dangerous and tempting. Their intense bond, which draws them together while pitting them against each other, is brilliantly wrought, as is the era's political upheaval, which comes into sharp focus as the pair struggles to delineate friend from foe. As Frankie and Kate proceed to unravel life's rhythm and mysteries, Hong Kong itself becomes a third character. Greenway, an American reared in Asia and the Middle East, has created a compelling, heartbreaking, and original first novel.
The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass.
Glass' fourth novel is a capacious family drama with as many brimming rooms and secret nooks and crannies as the historic Massachusetts home of Percy Darling, an acerbic patriarch, penitential widower, and former librarian at Harvard's Widener Library. Percy's coveted property includes a large pond and a spacious old barn, once his late wife's dance studio, now an upscale preschool. A mischievous and erudite curmudgeon, Percy only agrees to this intrusion in the hope that his floundering daughter, Clover, will finally secure a job that makes her happy. Not that she'll ever catch up to her sister, a legendary oncologist. Masterfully omniscient and spellbinding, National Book Award winner Glass creates glimmering descriptions, escalating conflicts, and intriguing characters, such as Percy's oldest grandson, Robert, a premed student at Harvard, and his eco warrior roommate, Arturo; Sarah, a stained-glass artist and uninsured adoptive single mother; Ira, a preschool teacher who lost a previous position when parents objected to his being gay; and Celestino, an illegal Guatemalan immigrant with high ideals and ambitions. Elaborately plotted and luxuriously paced, Glass' inquisitive, compassionate, funny, and suspenseful saga addresses significant and thorny social issues with emotional veracity, artistic nuance, and a profound perception of the grand interconnectivity of life.
The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar.
*Starred Review* In late-1970s Bombay, four college women share a bond of friendship and dreams of a better India and a better world. For four years, Laleh, Kavita, Nishta, and Armaiti enjoy the pleasure of one another's company, whether chatting over masala chai or carrying a picket sign in a campus protest. They exchange intimate details about their lives and the men they love, except for Kavita, who secretly pines more for Armaiti than for members of the opposite sex. After graduation, the four drift apart. Laleh marries a rich Indian businessman. Kavita becomes a successful architect and falls in love with a German colleague. Nishta takes up with a Muslim man, whose views become progressively more extreme. Only Armaiti leaves India, attending graduate school at Harvard, then remaining in the States. Thirty years later, news that Armaiti is dying of cancer brings the quartet together again. As they prepare for their reunion, each revisits past hardships and joys, reconciling present lives with the world they once knew. In her fifth novel, Umrigar (The Weight of Heaven, 2009) renders a vivid portrait of modern-day India as she meditates upon the power of friendship, loyalty, and love. Like her previous works, The World We Found is eloquent and evocative, bitter and sweet.