Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx.
Proulx follows up her award-winning The Shipping News with another show stopper. At its heart is an accordion made by an Italian who immigrates to New Orleans with his young son in the 19th century. The man is soon killed by an anti-Italian mob, but the instrument passes from family to family, all immigrants, whether German, Mexican, Polish, or French Canadian, whose lives are heartrendingly detailed. Proulx is clear-eyed and merciless in her description of their battle to survive hardship, prejudice, disease, and the death of loved ones for the chance to fulfill the American dream.
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.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
In his native Brazil, novelist Coelho is outsold only by Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and he will undoubtedly establish himself here with the publication of this, his second novel, which has been a hit all over Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Coelho's story seems like something from the land of Scheherazade, told by one lover to the other in postcoital bliss, all with the outward simplicity yet deep resonance that is common to fables. "The boy's name was Santiago," it begins; Santiago is well educated and had intended to be a priest. But a desire for travel, to see every part of his native Spain, prompted him to become a shepherd instead. He's contented. But then twice he dreams about hidden treasure, and a seer tells him to follow the dream's instructions: go to Egypt to the pyramids, where he will find a treasure. After that, a wise man informs Santiago that "to realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation," and that life is full of omens one must read and follow. Santiago parts with his flock and sets off for Tangier en route to Egypt. In Tangier Santiago flourishes, and much time passes. But at last he joins a caravan heading eastward and meets a famous alchemist, who further points Santiago in the direction of his treasure. Santiago makes it to the pyramids and there learns where his fortune is actually to be found. Beneath this novel's compelling story and the shimmering elegance with which it's told, lies a bedrock of wisdom about following one's heart. Coelho teaches the lesson with originality and dignity and without excess emotion.
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.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.
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.
Astonishing Life of Octavian North, Traitor to the Nation, Vol.1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson.
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.
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 fianc?e 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.
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.
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 sophisiticated 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.
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.
Bridge Over the River Kwai 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.
City of Light by Lauren Belfer.
In 1901, Buffalo, New York, is thriving: a hydroelectric power station is under suspicious circumstances at the power station run by Margaret's widower, Tom, Louisa is forced to examine her own past and question not only her allegiances but also the choices she has made. Belfer poised to use the water of Niagara Falls to light the nation. Wealthy and powerful leaders accept the 36-year-old Louisa Barrett, headmistress of the Macaulay School for Girls, as an equal. But when men die examines an early skirmish between conserving and exploiting natural resources, the sexual double standard, and prejudice at the turn of the century.
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.
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.
Couples by John Updike.
The critical contention has been that John Updike is a major talent who has never written a major novel—all have turned in on a limited range of experience. Certainly here there is both a longer and larger view of life than he has achieved so far and Couples, over and above its superficial and prevalent concerns with coupling, is a commentary on America in the '60's, gravid with a sense of loss, of isolation, of devaluation. The vision of the young man who is always the romantic has expanded and indurated: and as a writer Updike deals less in consciously beautiful prose--imagination has to a degree yielded to the observable realities. The novel takes place in a New England town where the couples have formed "a magic circle of friends to keep the night out." Affluence, enlightenment, boredom, and an unspecified despair promotes the casual and condoned la ronde of erotic experience. Particularly for Piet Hanema who has lived "close to the skin" with the presence of death over one shoulder and a somewhat more distant Calvinistic faith over the other ever since his parents died. He is married to the more socially privileged and remote Angela; enjoys momentarily the effortless sexuality of Georgene; then moves on to Foxy Whitman whose marriage has already been emotionally annulled by the "weather proof rightness" of her acceptable but limited husband. "Nature dangles sex to keep us walking toward the cliff." Before he's through, Piet has been there....In what is probably as lyrically lubricious a book to appear in a liberated decade, Updike seems to be saying that in the desperate bind of l'homme moyen sensuel, the only immediate certainty is that of the flesh, even where it is still monitored by conscience and accompanied by an inevitable guilt and survival sadness. It should be read. It is relevant, identifiable and unconditionally involving.
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.
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.
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 Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman.
Only two women and five children of more than 900 people survived the Roman siege of Masada in the year 73 C.E. after the suicide pact of the Jewish rebels there, according to the historian Josephus. In this well-researched novel, Hoffman (The Red Garden) vividly brings this tragedy to life, as four women who take care of the dovecote at the fortress tell their stories. Seeking refuge at Masada after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple are Yael, the daughter and sister of Sicarii, professional assassins, and Revka, who with her two mute grandsons has just witnessed the horrific murder of the boys' mother in the desert. Shirah and her warrior daughter Aziza come from Moab. Considered a healer and a witch, Shirah still worships the ancient goddess Ashtoreth. Hoffman finds poetry and beauty, dignity and honor, even in those perilous, blood-soaked times. VERDICT: This powerful and gripping novel about survival and endurance will stay with you for a long time.
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.
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.
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.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland.
As Keats describes the scenes and lives frozen in a moment of time on his Grecian urn, so Vreeland layers moments in the lives of eight people profoundly moved and changed by a Vermeer painting a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Vreeland opens with a man who suffers through his adoration of the painting because he inherited it from his Nazi father, who stole it from a deported Jewish family. She traces the work's provenance through the centuries: the farmer's wife, the Bohemian student, the loving husband with a secret and, finally, the Girl herself Vermeer's eldest daughter, who felt her "self" obliterated by the self immortalized in paint, but accepted that this was the nature of art.
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.
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
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.
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 Hours by Michael Cunningham.
The Hours is both homage to Virginia Woolf and very much its own creature. Even as Michael Cunningham brings his literary idol back to life, he intertwines her story with those of two more contemporary women. One gray suburban London morning in 1923, Woolf awakens from a dream that will soon lead to Mrs. Dalloway. In the present, on a beautiful June day in Greenwich Village, 52-year-old Clarissa Vaughan is planning a party for her oldest love, a poet dying of AIDS. And in Los Angeles in 1949, Laura Brown, pregnant and unsettled, does her best to prepare for her husband's birthday, but can't seem to stop reading Woolf. These women's lives are linked both by the 1925 novel and by the few precious moments of possibility each keeps returning to.
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.
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.
Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton.
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 Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor.
Using the 1889 flood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, as a backdrop, this historical fiction is about ambition, power, passion, and tragedy. Up in the hills, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club is built for the wealthy as a getaway. Below is bustling Johnstown, where the lives of the people mean nothing to the club members. Separating the two is a neglected earth dam thetownspeople joke about and the club members ignore.
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien.
John and Kathy Wade are a young, idealistic couple living the American Dream until John's bid for the U.S. Senate is trashed by media reports of his involvement in the infamous massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War. Still very much in love but without direction for the first time in their marriage, John and Kathy flee to a remote cabin. When Kathy disappears without a trace, a massive but fruitless search ensues. Did John murder her or did she simply flee? O'Brien develops several maddeningly plausible explanations, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions in this dark but wonderful novel that should gain him a host of new fans.
Independence Day by Richard Ford.
That the best-laid plans of mice and men soon go awry is a generalization made concrete in Ford's latest novel. The time is now the late 1980s, and Frank, divorced, is no longer sports writing but selling real estate. Within the time span of preparing and participating in a Fourth of July weekend, Frank tells us in excruciating detail about the Sisyphean boulders he has been forced to push uphill throughout his life: career, kids, ex-wife, current girlfriend, and the unpleasant people occupying his rental property. Frank's plan is to take his teenage son on the road over the Fourth to visit the sports halls of fame, but, more significantly, to try to get the troubled youth somewhat straightened out. Fate intervenes in the form of an accident to his son's eye; the boy, as it turns out, will recover, but this is hardly the outing Frank had planned. But, then, as pessimistic Frank says at an earlier point in the book, "In two hours I have been suspected of being a priest, a shithead, and, now, a homo. I am apparently not getting my message across."
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.
Fowler, a captivating and good-hearted satirist, exuberantly pays homage to and matches wits with Jane Austen by portraying six irresistible Californians who meet once a month to discuss Austen's six novels. Coyly shifting points of view, Fowler subtly uses her characters' responses to Austen as entree into their poignant and often hilarious life stories. The book club is Jocelyn's idea, a fifty something gal who seems to prefer the company of her show dogs to men. She has known Sylvia since grade school, and even used to date Sylvia's husband, who has abruptly moved out, inspiring their beautiful, accident-prone, lesbian artist daughter, Allegra, to move back in and join the book club along with her mother. Also on board are disheveled and loquacious Bernadette; Prudie, a high-school French teacher; and Grigg, the only man. Fowler shares Austen's fascination with the power of stories, and explores the same timeless aspects of human behavior that Austen so masterfully dramatizes, while capturing with anthropological acuity and electrifying humor the oddities of our harried world.
The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander.
Drawing on 30 years of research and archival source documents, first novelist Alexander transforms a now-familiar and bloody era of history—the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanov massacre—into a suspenseful and richly layered account of a family in deadly peril. The story is told from the viewpoint of a surviving witness, the kitchen boy who worked in the house where the Romanovs were imprisoned in 1918. Now an ailing grandfather, Misha records his experiences on tape so that his American granddaughter will know his real history. Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, are portrayed as loving but achingly flawed people whose poor judgments lead inexorably to the family's destruction. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, come off as comic book villains. Because the fate of two Romanov children, Alexei and Marie, is still not known (their bodies were missing from the family's gravesite when it was exhumed in 1991), Alexander's version of what might have befallen them packs a wallop that is surprising but consistent with his story.
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 Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Hosseini's beautifully written first novel presents a glimpse of life in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion and introduces richly drawn, memorable characters. Quiet, intellectual Amir craves the attention of his father, a wealthy Kabul businessman. Kind and self-confident Hassan is the son of Amir's father's servant. The motherless boys play together daily, and when Amir wins the annual kite contest, Hassan offers to track down the opponent's runaway kite as a prize. When he finds it, the neighborhood bullies trap and rape him, as Amir stands by too terrified to help. Their lives and their friendship are forever changed, and the memory of his cowardice haunts Amir as he grows into manhood. Hassan and his father return to the village of their ancestors, and later Amir and his father flee to Los Angeles to avoid political persecution. When Amir receives word of his former friend's death under the Taliban, he returns to Kabul to learn the fate of Hassan's son.
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 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 Lost and Forgotten Language of Shanghai Pi 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.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
While delivering a message to her father, Florentino Ariza spots the barely pubescent Fermina Daza and immediately falls in love. What follows is the story of a passion that extends over 50 years, as Fermina is courted solely by letter, decisively rejects her suitor when he first speaks, and then joins the urbane Dr. Juvenal Urbino, much above her station, in a marriage initially loveless but ultimately remarkable in its strength. Florentino remains faithful in his fashion; paralleling the tale of the marriage is that of his numerous liaisons, all ultimately without the depth of love he again declares at Urbino's death. In substance and style not as fantastical, as mythologizing, as the previous works, this is a compelling exploration of the myths we make of love.
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.
Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards.
Edwards's touching, wise novel opens in 1964, when the medical profession was substantially less enlightened about mental retardation than it is now. Because a blizzard prevents an obstetrician from reaching Norah Henry, Dr. David Henry, with the help of his office nurse Caroline Gill, must attend his own wife's delivery. Norah has fraternal twins: a healthy, normal boy, and a girl with Down's syndrome. In an effort to spare his wife the burden of a child doomed to a problem-ridden life and an early death, Henry tells her that their daughter died at birth and gives her to Caroline, instructing her to leave the newborn at a state home for the retarded. But Gill is appalled by conditions in the institution. A nurturer, she keeps the baby, moves away, and raises her progressively, fighting vigorously to give the child an opportunity for a full and happy life. The novel unflinchingly traces the impact of these two irrevocable decisions on both households.
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.
Moon Pearl by Ruthann Lum McCunn.
In China in the 1830s, three young girls pledge never to be wives or nuns, the conventional paths open to them, but to live independently. McCunn's colorful novel follows the adventures of Shadow, Rooster and Mei Ju, who meet in a traditional "girls' house," where female adolescents sleep and work together and are trained to become obedient wives. Shadow, the luckiest of the three, comes from a loving family. Under her mother's guidance, she learned to embroider, and her older brother secretly taught her to read, a skill forbidden to women. When Shadow then instructs her friends a sharp-tongued, rebellious Rooster, whose family is very poor, and Mei Ju, a timid girl with a talent for silk making changes their way of looking at the world. Together, the three vow to chart their own lives. Setting up house in the village rain shelter, they plait their hair rather than wear wifely buns and learn to bargain with wily peddlers. Though they are ostracized at first, various selfless acts and sacrifices finally win them grudging acceptance. Though it's recounted with the artful simplicity of a folktale, the novel is anchored in fact: women in 19th-century China's Pearl River district, dubbed "self-combers" for their work in the silk industry, did struggle to achieve independence, living together in "spinster houses".
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.
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.
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.
On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon by Kaye Gibbons.
An elderly lady sits in her parlor, contemplating the events that shaped her life. Born in the 1830s, Emma Garnet Tate Lowell is the eldest daughter of a poor but aristocratic Southern belle and a rich, opinionated, abusive father. The Tate household is held together by Clarisse, a free black woman, who knew Mr. Tate "when." Tate attempts to control and dominate his wife and children with brute force and harsh words. However, Emma's mother and older brother conspire to nurture Emma's native curiosity and love of learning, until fate brings a Northerner, Quincey Lowell, fresh out of medical school, to Emma's doorstep. At age 17, she marries him and takes Clarisse with her. A new household; three children with a liberal, generous, loving husband; the Civil War; death; and good deeds and bad all pass through her thoughts in a death bed recollection/confession of a life abundantly lived.
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
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.
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.
A Passionate Man by Joanna Trollope.
Archie Logan had it all. His wife still drew his attention the way she did the day they met. His children were well behaved, and much loved. He enjoyed his work, and his comfortable, if not spectacular, home. But now, his beloved father—for decades a lonely widower—has begun keeping company with a most unusual woman. And everyone seems to adore her...except Archie, whose feelings on the subject force him to confront issues that shed new light on his "perfect" life.
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.
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.
PlainSong by Kent Haruf.
Two bachelor farmer brothers, a pregnant high school girl, two young brothers, and two devoted high school teachers: this is the interesting group of people, some related by blood but most not, featured in the award-winning Haruf's touching novel. Set in the plains of Colorado, east of Denver, the novel comprises several story lines that flow into one. Tom Guthrie, a high school history teacher, is having problems with his wife and with an unruly student at school, problems that affect his young sons, Ike and Bob, as well. Meanwhile, the pregnant Victoria Roubideaux has been abandoned by her family. With the assistance of another teacher, Maggie Jones, she finds refuge with the McPheron brothers, who seem to know more about cows than people. Lyrical and well crafted, the tight narrative about how families can be made between folks who are not necessarily blood relatives makes for enjoyable reading.
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.
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.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.
Kingsolver's lyrical prose and superb storytelling are perfectly matched by her gentle narration with its core strength and emotional fluency. She tells the story of three worlds within a small Appalachian community: that of Deanna Wolfe, a Park Service employee who lives alone on the mountain; of Lusa Landowski, who came from the city to live on a farm out of love and must now come to understand her relationship to the land and the family that has tended it for generations; and of two neighbors, one feuding and one a free spirit, who forge a path toward learning about each other. These stories, separate and yet interwoven by the community in which all—even the reclusive Deanna—live, also have at their center the interconnectedness of the human world and the natural one.
Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith.
A lot has happened to Arkady Renko and to his country since he found three bodies frozen in the middle of Gorky Park more than 11 years ago. There was exile in Siberia, then working on a fishing boat in the Arctic (Polar Star), and now, just prior to the 1991 attempted coup, he finds himself reestablished as an investigator with the Moscow police and struggling to contain a flourishing underworld in the newly democratic Soviet Union. It's not long before Arkady runs afoul of his superiors, who may be democratized but are still bureaucrats at heart. A seemingly straightforward murder investigation leads Arkady first to corruption in high places, then to official censure, and finally to Munich, where he is reunited with Irina, the lover who got him in all that trouble back in the early 1980s. Just as cynical as ever but even more world weary, Arkady lands in an all-too-familiar position—caught in the middle, this time between continuing his investigation into what now appears to be an art-smuggling racket and winning Irina back from her current lover, Max, who happens to be the brains behind the smuggling scheme. To some extent, Smith is merely replaying Gorky Park here—same tune, different lyrics—but, even so, it remains an alluring melody. Daily life in ever-changing Russia is once again masterfully evoked, and, after three novels, the character of Arkady has achieved an almost archetypal resonance: a hybrid of Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dostoevsky's Underground Man, this chain-smoking insomniac with a taste for misery, a perverse love of deprivation, a desperate need to undermine authority, and an unflagging belief in the resuscitative power of love calls out to that beaten down, trod-upon side of ourselves, but also to our not-yet-stifled romantic souls. Misery and romance--an irresistible combination.
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's Macondo—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.
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.
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.
Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian.
How can one capture the spirit of this wondrous book in so few words? Richard is an ordinary individual of limited means and low expectations. The self-deprecatory manner in which he describes himself and his life is sympathetic and often hilarious. He owns a secondhand store in Detroit and revels in the junk he sells and with which he adorns his apartment. Although his mother and sister disapprove, he has found his niche and takes comfort in the myriad estate sales and Salvation Armies he frequents. When his mother dies, Richard and his sister empty the family home, which gives Richard insight into his late father. Simultaneously, he falls in love with Theresa, a junk goddess who comes to the relationship with a passion for her work—and for Richard's. The book contains marvelous observations about secondhand items and life in general.
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 Snowfly: A Novel by Joseph Heywood.
Upon picking up this book, the reader's first reaction might be to toss it aside. A novel about trout fishing? But wait! The Snowfly is as much about fishing as Moby Dick is about whaling. In other words, it is a framework upon which to build an exciting story. The hero, Bowie Rhodes, is a fisherman whose job as a reporter brings him to such locales as Moscow, Vietnam, Canada, and northern Michigan in the course of the book. Running parallel is the plot of the snowfly, which hatches every seven to ten years, never in the same river twice. It attracts huge trout that risk exposure to rise for the hatch. No one has ever seen the snowfly; it exists only in myth--and in a lost manuscript. Heywood (The Berkut) neatly ties together Rhodes's job as a UPI reporter and his search for this manuscript—a search that turns out to be more than he bargained for.
The Space Between Us by Thrity UmrigarSera Dubash .
The Space Between Us by Thrity UmrigarSera 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.
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.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
Afghan-American novelist Hosseini follows up his bestselling The Kite Runner with another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil. The story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women. Mariam is the scorned illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, forced at age 15 into marrying the 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Eighteen later, Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other options, after her parents are killed by rocket fire, are prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies in an asymmetrical battle with Rasheed, whose violent misogyny—"There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten"—is endorsed by custom and law. Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status. His tale is a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters.
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.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely—to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive. Betty Smith's poignant, honest novel created a big stir when it was first published over 50 years ago. Her frank writing about life's squalor was alarming to some of the more genteel society, but the book's humor and pathos ensured its place in the realm of classics—and in the hearts of readers, young and old.
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 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.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
Life is good for Jacob Jankowski. He's about to graduate from veterinary school and about to bed the girl of his dreams. Then his parents are killed in a car crash, leaving him in the middle of the Great Depression with no home, no family, and no career. Almost by accident, Jacob joins the circus. There he falls in love with the beautiful performer Marlena, who is married to the circus psychotic animal trainer. He also meets the other love of his life, Rosie the elephant. This lushly romantic novel travels back in forth in time between Jacob's present day in a nursing home and his adventures in the surprisingly harsh world of 1930s circuses. The ending of both stories is a little too cheerful to be believed, but just like a circus, the magic of the story and the writing convince you to suspend your disbelief. The book is partially based on real circus stories and illustrated with historical circus photographs.
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 Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.
Published the year before Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, The Winter of Our Discontent has often been undeservedly scorned by critics as his most lackluster effort. Set in the summer in a fictional New England town, this timeless story tells the tale of Ethan Allen Hawley, descendant of a well-to-do family, who now finds himself working as a shop clerk in the very store he once owned. Father, husband, and man of impeccable integrity, Hawley struggles to maintain his pride while providing for his family's needs. A critique of the temptation, greed, corruption, and relaxed morality that has come to mark too much of modern American life, Winter pits the quest for wealth and status against the virtues of a meritorious life. Steinbeck's novel, acute in its characterizations of the human condition, is an unforgettable testament to the conflicting dualities that shape us all. As he declared in his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet, "Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope."
World War Z by Max Brooks.
Brooks, the author of the determinedly straight-faced parody The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), returns in all seriousness to the zombie theme for his second outing, a future history in the style of Theodore Judson's Fitzpatrick's War. Brooks tells the story of the world's desperate battle against the zombie threat with a series of first-person accounts "as told to the author" by various characters around the world. A Chinese doctor encounters one of the earliest zombie cases at a time when the Chinese government is ruthlessly suppressing any information about the outbreak that will soon spread across the globe. The tale then follows the outbreak via testimony of smugglers, intelligence officials, military personnel and many others who struggle to defeat the zombie menace. Despite its implausible premise and choppy delivery, the novel is surprisingly hard to put down. The subtle, and not so subtle, jabs at various contemporary politicians and policies are an added bonus.
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.