Here’s a look at some good reading opportunities on the doorstep or soon to appear in bookshops. (How quaint and nostalgic to write that.) Below you’ll find crime, family and spy stories. An unusual standout: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is a delve into Saxon England, featuring a pilgrimage, other worldly creatures and a nod to King Arthur.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire MitchellA Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
This novel received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews about three sisters living in the family apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They’ve inherited bad luck, passed down through generations, and to end it, they’re ending their lives together. Sounds dark? From everything I’ve read, it’s dark comedy, and quite funny. This literary narrative is their 400-page suicide note, “a mesmerizing account of their lives that stretches back decades to their great-grandfather, a brilliant scientist whose professional triumph became the sinister legacy that defines them.” (via the publisher’s website)

"All the Old Knives" by Olen SteinhauerAll the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
This is potentially one of those stay-up-all-night spy novels from a master writer of the genre. It’s received high advance praise from the forecasting trade journals, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly plus others. The plot centers on two spies (one retired) and former lovers who worked together in Vienna when a tragic airline hijacking occurred. It resulted in the deaths of all on board, including the hijackers. The two ex-lovers come together for dinner, and what really happened that time five years ago unfolds. Promises to be a suspenseful page-turner.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
From the publisher’s website: “The Romans have long since departed and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But, at least, the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased. Axl and Beatrice, a couple of elderly Britons, decide that now is the time, finally, for them to set off across this troubled land of mist and rain to find the son they have not seen for years, the son they can scarcely remember.” Some starred forecasting reviews were given for this new novel, being released this coming week, by the author of Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day. Other worldly creatures and a hovering sense of magic abound. Publisher’s Weekly writes: The Buried Giant is a slow, patient novel, decidedly unshowy but deliberate and precise—easy to read but difficult to forget.” But reviews have been mixed. Note that Library Journal came in with a negative, saying:  “…this quasifantasy falls short as the medium to deliver the author’s lofty message.” So, too, did The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani.

A Dangerous Placy by Jacqueline WinspearA Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear
Jacqueline Winspear fans can look forward to a new adventure of Maisie Dobbs who, in this 11th installment of the series, investigates the murder of Sebastian Babayoff of a Sephardic Jewish community in Gibraltar. It is 1937, the Spanish Civil War has begun. Dobbs still suffers under the weight of personal tragedies. From the author’s website:  “As she follows the evidence deep into a web of geopolitical intrigue, Maisie discovers that working again after such a long hiatus tempers her feelings of despair. It is only after she has unraveled the truth about Babayoff’s murder that Maisie feels able to return to England. What she chooses to do instead will astonish readers.” Starred by the American Library Association’s Booklist that claims it’s “another winner from Winspear.”

The Animals by Christian KieferThe Animals by Christian Kiefer
Kirkus Reviews calls Kiefer a “master wordsmith” writing “dense and beautiful language,” while Publisher’s Weekly calls the prose “poetic” and the book a “compelling, thoughtful novel.” It promises to be an intriguing literary thriller about a man with a dark past who manages a sanctuary for wounded animals in a remote area of Idaho.  He dates the local veterinarian and lives a quiet life until a childhood friend from that dark past shows up. Kirkus writes: “Eloquent and shattering, this novel explores, in gritty detail, how penance sometimes does not lead to redemption…”

The Children's Crusade by Ann PackerThe Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
A large, family saga (close to 500 pages) about the Blair family during the 1950’s and ‘60s on property the father, a physician, buys just south of San Francisco. Wife Penny becomes distracted from the family and her four children in pursuit of self and art during the ‘60s feminist era. The story is told from the viewpoints of the adult children looking back to their childhood, including one who is troubled and needing money, causing the conflict. Promises to be an engrossing, “leave me alone” fictional story that’s a family portrait, character study of individuals and evocative atmosphere of mid-century America. It received a starred forecast from Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal.

A retreat into wildness

February 11, 2015

H Is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldI discovered Helen Macdonald’s memoir last year in British literary reviews. The praise left no doubt it would be an unusually good book to read. I also caught a Twitter post from someone who saw a friend reading the book on the London subway and remarked on its engaging power. Such a remark is common fare for Twitter, but the way this one was written told me something about this book makes it stand apart from others. I had to read it, this journey of grief taken by way of training a goshawk.

Helen Macdonald received one of those out-of-the-blue, devastating phone calls that turn the world upside down. Her father, a newspaper photographer, had died suddenly and unexpectedly. The shocking loss drove her into a ruined state, a kind of normal madness, she tells us, and to cope she bought Mabel, a goshawk, for £800 on a Scottish quayside. Mabel came home with her to Cambridge, England, where, in the surrounding fields, Macdonald trained the bird to hunt with her.

This behavior may have been grief-driven, but it was by no means irresponsible. In childhood, Macdonald became obsessed with birds of prey and devoured books on the topic. When she was 12 years old, she spent an afternoon with falconers, observing for the first time trained goshawks flying from the gloved fists of men. She worked among falconers in her adult years, taught falconry to beginners and trained hawks, but never a goshawk — a bird she describes as nervous, highly strung and psychopathic — until now.

The rigors of working with Mabel gave Macdonald purpose and a way to shut out the world. She writes openly about how the loss of her father created overwhelming feelings of insecurity, fear and panic. She worried about her sanity. The narrative result is raw emotion that grips the heart with poetic resonance. This is where Macdonald excels, writing honestly and philosophically about her inner turmoil at the same time she writes arrestingly about the wild outdoors. Her storytelling sings in language and thought.

Many scenes involve Macdonald running after flight-bound Mabel to keep up, crouching in bushes and collaborating with Mabel’s kills by flushing rabbits and pheasants. She learns Mabel’s moods and monitors her weight, stuffs the freezer with dead animals to feed Mabel and walks public areas with her on the gloved fist. She plays catch with Mabel inside the house with a paper ball. Here and there, tucked into the story, we read about the history of falconry, its terminology, challenges and failures. They are intriguing historical glimpses of this once aristocratic sport.

T. H. White, who wrote his own memoir about training a goshawk, is a strong presence throughout the narrative. Macdonald rebukes him for the horrible ways he abused his hawk, and yet she compassionately connects with him for the rite of passage that engaged him. White believed if he could conquer the goshawk, then he could conquer his tortured soul. Like Macdonald, he wanted to escape into the wild. The way Macdonald captures his life — with a kind of passion that’s haunted and fascinated — adds more reason to love this book. T. H. White is best known for writing The Once and Future King.

It’s been months since her father’s death when Macdonald speaks at his memorial service. Time in H Is for Hawk passes without much reference to dates, but we know Macdonald has isolated herself with Mabel for a long while. Being among the gathered people, she experiences a turning point, recognizing the gift of togetherness and support from friends and family. She seeks medical help for her depression and then spends Christmas with her mother and friends in Maine. She learns, gratefully, that one can live a life that includes both loved ones and Mabel’s wild world, something T. H. White struggled to achieve.

H Is for Hawk is indeed the stuff of engaging power. It won Britain’s 2014 Costa Book of the Year and Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, two highly prestigious awards. It will be available for purchase in the United States beginning of March 2015.

Nominees for the 2015 Edgar® Awards were announced last week. These awards honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television. Sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, they are widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious in the mystery genre.

Invisible City by Julia DahlThe full list of nominees can be found on TheEdgars.com in a handful of categories that includes Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Paperback Original, Best Fact Crime and more. If you’re a Mary Higgins Clark fan, you might want to take a look at the nominees for The Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. Of note is that Invisible City by Julia Dahl is nominated for both the Higgins award and Best First Novel by an American Author. Marilyn Stasio, Crime columnist for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, describes it as “a harrowing tale.

World of Trouble by Ben H. WintersEven though novels are raised up to “award nominee,” this doesn’t guarantee a five-star reading experience. As I always say, one person’s great read is another’s epic bore. Kirkus Reviews went negative on World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters, nominated for an Edgar Best Paperback Original, saying, “This final installment in Winters’ trilogy (Countdown City, 2013, etc.) is the weakest, marked by a falling off of both the writing and the story that made the first entry worthwhile. ”

I’ve selected one novel from each of three Edgar categories, based on indications of a page-turning thriller (Best Paperback Original, The Day She Died), smart plot complexity (Best Novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible) and a unique perspective (Best First Novel by an American Author, The Life We Bury). Below you’ll find brief descriptions of these three.

The Day She Died by Catriona McPhersonThe Day She Died by Catriona McPherson
A young woman gets romantically involved with a man whose wife killed herself. But not everything she learns about his family adds up. This mystery received mixed reviews, but the positives are raves. Kirkus Reviews describes it as “a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.” Library Journal gives its verdict as: “Keep the lights on and batten down the hatches, for McPherson’s psychologically terrifying stand-alone demands to be read all night. … Scottish author McPherson has written a top-notch tale of modern gothic suspense that is sure to please Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier fans.” Whoa. Count me in.

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian RankinSaints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
I’ve not read Ian Rankin, and it’s time I did, although I’m jumping in with #19 in his Inspector Rebus series here. Hopefully, I’ll not lose any of the thrill, being a latecomer — Rebus is coming out of retirement. He’s been demoted from Detective Inspector to Detective Sargent. A case from long ago that involved his team is being questioned and re-opened. Publisher’s Weekly loved this book, saying: “The immense and intricate canvas includes dozens of characters, plots within plots, and multiple themes, from Scottish independence to the insidiousness of corruption, public and private. Too much may be going on at times for some readers, but distinctive characters (including Edinburgh itself) make the book memorable.” Paperback will be available end of this month.

The Life We Bury by Allen EskensThe Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Suspense Magazine listed this mystery among its Best of 2014 books.  The publisher, Seventh Street Books, writes: “A young man, caught in the dark maze of circumstances surrounding a crime that occurred thirty years ago, must confront several ugly truths as well as direct threats to his own life.” That young man is Joe Talbert, a junior at the University of Minnesota, who receives a class assignment to write a biography of someone who has lived an interesting life. His subject is Carl Iverson, a Vietnam veteran dying of cancer in a nursing home, who has been medically paroled after spending thirty years in prison for murder. The combination of old connecting with young in storytelling calls to me, as well as the promise of a good mystery. Kirkus Reviews writes, “Eskens’ debut is a solid and thoughtful tale of a young man used to taking on burdens beyond his years—none more dangerous than championing a bitter old man convicted of a horrific crime.”

The Edgar Award winners will be announced April 29.

Two 2014-published books, which I didn’t get to read until now, are those below. It happens almost every year, this kind of desire in January to read one or two books from the previous year before I head further into the new books of the new year, because I know I won’t get to them in maybe, well, forever. These two novels are gripping in ways unique to each: Euphoria for its love story and exotic setting of New Guinea in between the World Wars; and the Young Adult novel We Were Liars for the unknown of what happened one summer night.

Euphoria by Lily KingEuphoria tips its hat to anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune during their brief time together in 1933 on the Sepik River in New Guinea, as noted by Lily King in her Acknowledgments. Their true story inspired her to write this fictional story that draws from their lives but does not reflect them. King writes, “I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.” And what a great story it is — beautifully written with soulful needs, desires and hopes palpably rendered in the characters, as well as a fascinating window into anthropological study of native cultures (those, too, fictional in Euphoria).

Here’s a plot summary.

Famous American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen unexpectedly run into English anthropologist Andrew Bankson at a Christmas Eve party in the Village of Angoram, New Guinea. The Stones, on their way to Victoria to study the Aborigines, are fleeing a discouraging and frightening time with the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo tribe. Desperately lonely and isolated, Bankson urges them to stay and find a new tribe on the Sepik River where he’s studying the Kionas. He succeeds, and as the three work together in the upcoming weeks, Bankson falls in love with Nell.

Her passionate work behavior and the off-hand way she carries herself, a person of the mind and not of her own well-being, comes across as endearing. Nell squints to see, having lost her glasses, and Bankson gives her spectacles that once belonged to his deceased brother. Nell is brilliant and driven and yet vulnerable — she’s feverish and limping in the beginning. Bankson yearns to take care of her, while Nell’s husband Fen pushes her to get going. He’s constantly fierce with her, jealous of her success, having published a popular book in the United States. Nell recovers her strength and flourishes with the new native tribe on the Sepik River, while Fen neglects their research. The relationship among the three, their work and the surprising conclusion tell a memorable story.

We Were Liars by E. LockhartE. Lockhart’s Young Adult novel (ages 12 and up) is told from the viewpoint of teen-aged Cadence Sinclair Eastman. She describes summers spent on Beechwood, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts owned by her Sinclair family. Lockhart provides a map of the island and the locations of the clan’s four houses and staff buildings, as well as a family tree. (I referred to them often.) The Sinclairs are self-interested, stoic, moneyed Democrats. They are athletic and beautiful. Cadence tells us, “We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” The patriarch Grandad and his three divorced daughters show forth with perfect appearances of control, privilege and power, yet below that perfection rumbles the reality of greed, insecurity and false love. We Were Liars makes use of the story of King Lear with narrative interludes about a king who had three beautiful daughters and who “as he grew older…began to wonder which should inherit the kingdom.”

An accident happens to Cadence on the island during the summer she is 15 years old. It causes her unbearable migraines and memory loss. Whatever happened also diminishes her closeness to her cousins and fellow liars, Johnny and Mirren, as well as to the non-Sinclair liar Gat Patel, who is the nephew of her Aunt Carrie’s boyfriend and the boy Cadence falls madly in love with. Summer 16, Cadence is taken to Europe. Summer 17, her first return to the island after the accident, she tries to find out what happened summer 15, but everyone is close-lipped.

Much of the story’s allure is the Sinclair’s East Coast, old money mystique and stiff-upper-lip attitude. The story’s power, however, is the uncertainty Lockhart maintains until the mystery is solved. It took me completely by surprise. The ending is horrific in one sense although, being written for young adults, tempered so as to be GP rated. Cadence leaves one to wonder why she did what she did, and how she’ll ever go forward into her life. That, too, makes for powerful reading, which even adults will find intriguing.

I always keep an eye on old books — or perhaps I should describe them as “books published not so recently” — and squeeze them in between reading the onslaught of new books grabbing my attention. Perhaps there’s a metaphor for life in this, a reminder not to overlook the old and used that just might offer a great treasure or teach something new.

And so, here are three fictional stories from 1993, 2009 and 1930 to start a new year. In each of them, I found myself involved and entertained.

The Man Who Was Late by Louis BegleyThe Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley
I discovered Louis Begley’s alluring second novel The Man Who Was Late in a rare and used bookshop. It’s what you would call a “mannered” novel in that the rhythm and tone of the prose carry a hint of formality, as the narrator Jack reflects on the life of his Harvard classmate, Ben. They are the closest of friends, with disparate backgrounds: Jack is East Coast upper class and Ben the Jersey son of Jewish refugees. The language creates what’s compelling about the story, a bit of remove that reflects Ben’s reserved character. He is a charming, high-profile international investment banker and lover of many women. But he holds the world at bay to protect his loneliness. Ben’s affair with Jack’s cousin Véronique in Paris forces him to confront painful realities about who he is and what he’s done with his life, burdened by believing he missed the proverbial boat in securing a place in the good life. The Man Who Was Late, published in 1993, ultimately is a love story, but you come away holding in afterthoughts a moving, unforgettable character portrait. Of note: Louis Begley won high praise for his first novel Wartime Lies. It was listed among the best books of 1991 and nominated for the National Book Award that year.

Bad Things Happen by Harry DolanBad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
The Wall Street Journal listed Harry Dolan’s The Last Dead Girl as one of 2014’s best mysteries, but when the book came out earlier in the year, I found more enthusiastic reviews for his 2009 mystery Bad Things Happen. It’s Dolan’s first novel, and it introduces his character David Loogan in his David Loogan Series. The Last Dead Girl is #3 and the prequel to Bad Things Happen. The final clincher for me to read the old rather than the new Dolan book was its “you won’t figure it out” description of twists and turns. That is indeed true, making Bad Things Happen intriguing high-entertainment. The easy-going, suspicious, criminally inclined Loogan is hired as an editor of mystery magazine Gray Streets in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gray Streets publisher Tom Kristoll lures him into hiding the body of a dead man (no questions asked) and then ends up dead himself. Two more murders follow, and the detective on the case is torn between thinking Loogan is a suspect versus an ally in finding the truth. The story is all-at-once suspenseful, fast-paced and written with a light touch of humor. Very fun to read.

Pietr the Latvian by Georges SimenonPietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
For many readers, this may be a so-what recommendation. Georges Simenon’s prolific outpouring of Inspector Maigret crime novels during the mid-20th century is legendary. Also, many likely are familiar with the Inspector Maigret PBS television series starring Michael Gambon. But the full monty of Maigret novels has been unavailable for some time, and hard to access. A few years ago, I wrote here on TLC about my unsuccessful attempt to get my hands on the first Maigret novel. Now it’s here, thanks to Penguin Books that’s publishing new English versions of all Simenon’s Maigret books, 75 in total. The first, Pietr the Latvian (newly translated by David Bellos), was originally published in serial format in 1930. It features the 45-year-old Inspector Maigret hunting a notorious international swindler. The narrative style is far from great prose, but that’s not what I’m looking for when I turn to Simenon. I want a reading snack, and he always delivers: suspenseful, plot-driven, quick-to-read (usually south of 200 pages) and very satisfying crime stories. I speed right over such laughable writing as:

“It could’ve sounded merely grotesque. But it did not! It was fearsome! Tragic! Terrifying!”

From The New York Times: “Penguin said it was working with the Brazilian company Companhia das Letras and the Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert ‘to develop haunting, evocative covers that will offer a window to Maigret’s dangerous world and allow readers new and old to identify the series.'”

What’s in your living room?

December 24, 2014

Here by Richard McGuireIf you casually flip through Richard McGuire’s new graphic novel, it won’t take long to realize the same view of one corner of a living room is the story. It’s about the events that take place in that space over thousands of years.

Each two-page spread depicts the corner, with a window on the left and a fireplace on the right, at different moments throughout time. The room’s decorations change according to the trends of decades, as do the hairstyles and clothing of the people. Some of these people reappear throughout the book, their emotions and moments captured and sometimes played out in mini stories.

The upper corner of the left page states the year of the living room. Windowed time capsules layered over the main illustration reflect past and future events that have and will occur in and around that very corner of space. Sometimes the living room isn’t even present, illustrating time before the house existed, such as in prehistoric and colonial times, as well as after the house disappears in the future, when rising waters of climate change roll in, or after the earth is destroyed and a new one begins. This is not as much a book to read as it is to experience, turning the pages and pouring over the history of one space throughout time.

The Living Room

Richard McGuire began this project 25 years ago when his first iteration of the concept appeared in the comics journal Raw, co-edited at the time by Art Spiegelman, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus.

Bison

According to an article in The New York Times, the concept moved toward development into a book, but Mr. McGuire couldn’t make it work and put away the project. And then, the death of his parents and an older sister “brought him back to the project with renewed energy and a mountain of source material.” The living room is from his childhood home.

In some illustrations, reactions or occurrences in one year reflect an event in the past, such as in this one below, where a woman in 1992 is reading on the sofa by the living room window, surrounded by a forest that populated the space in 1609. In the forest, a woman says, “Tell me a story,” to her companion.

Tell me a story
In 1763, we see a man chopping down a tree in the forest, which eventually will be replaced with houses. In 1989, a family member is telling a joke that in an abstract way relates to the loss of the trees.

Chopping down tree

During colonial times, a brick house existed on land across the street from Mr. McGuire’s 20th century suburban house. Ben Franklin makes an appearance at the colonial residence in one of the mini stories. In 1783, the house burns down. In the overlay of time in the living room, 1989, a man has a coughing fit, as if reacting to the smoke.

Burning house

The illustrations span a time range of 3,000,500,000 BCE to 22,175. In between, emotions of sorrow, joy, confusion and happiness play out, as well as experiences of birth, accident and death. Below, in 2005, a family member is losing his hearing while in 1964, a group plays a game of charades (“Sounds like,” the man says); in 2111, ocean waters swirl where once the house stood; and in 2006, a phone rings that nobody answers.

2111_water

The Morgan Library & Museum exhibited Richard McGuire’s work this past fall. “Sharing a Sofa with Dinosaurs,” an article in The New York Times, provides a slide show from the exhibit that gives an idea of how Mr. McGuire put the book together. He’s done it with such a seductive draw that it’s hard to stop turning the pages, creating a need to keep observing the fascinating life details as they unfold. You’ll come away thinking differently about a room you live in, specifically what happened in its space years before you ever existed — and what will happen years in the future, after you’re gone.

The time of your life

December 12, 2014

Time Present and Time PastThe first line in Deirdre Madden’s new novel is a simple question, but in the context of this spare, enlightening story, it carries heavy meaning. “Where does it all begin?” she writes, and then introduces us to Fintan Buckley, a middle-aged family man and legal advisor who’s “faithful as Lassie.” He stops at a café before returning to the office after lunch and there, over his coffee and cake, experiences a psychic detachment from the present moment. Words, language and objects are becoming strange to him. This is where it begins for Fintan, who starts to feel a dimension of past and present time existing simultaneously, that which is eternal time. This concept would be expected in a science fiction novel, but this is a story about an ordinary man living an ordinary life in the year 2006.

Fintan lives with his wife and three children in a small coastal town outside Dublin, Ireland. We learn about his courtship and marriage to his wife Colette and his struggle to be a loving parent to his two sons both now in college – frugal, socially conscious Niall and materialistic Rob. Then, Lucy came along, a surprise, late-in-life baby, now seven years old, the love of Fintan’s life. His widowed mother never tires of her own company, and his sister Martina owns and runs a women’s clothing boutique. She unexpectedly returned to Dublin from London just in time to help their recently widowed Aunt Beth. In one chapter, Fintan takes Lucy and her friend Emma to the zoo.

In other words, it is a typical life for Fintan and his family. Except Fintan has become worried that his life will be over before he’s had a chance to live it, or understand it. Madden writes, “Sometimes he feels he can almost hear time rushing past him; it is like a kind of unholy wind. He wakes, he works, he sleeps, and then another day is gone and then another week.” Fintan becomes intrigued with old black-and-white photographs and the way they stop time. Lucy asks questions, such as: When did the world change from black and white to color? Where does the past go? Meanwhile, the odd shifts in perception continue. For example, Fintan listens to his elderly Aunt Beth and hears her voice as it would’ve been when she was a young girl.

Three months go by, and the shifts become less frequent. Deirdre Madden writes, “Where does it all end?” as the first line of the last chapter. Fintan discovers the answer in the conclusion of this perceptive novel, and it lies in the full nature of time beyond the measurement of clocks and calendars — because they can only tell us time is passing.

The title Time Present and Time Past comes from “Burnt Norton” in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

You can hear T.S. Eliot reading the complete poem at Open Culture.

Dora BruderThe Nobel Foundation gave French author Patrick Modiano the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature 2014 this past October.  He’s written 17 novels during his career, but few are available in English translation. Yale University Press and University of California Press in November released Suspended Sentences and Dora Bruder, respectively. David R. Godine published Modiano before he won the prize with Missing Person and Honeymoon, as well as the children’s book Catherine Certitude.

I’ve picked up a copy of Dora Bruder, which I’m looking forward to reading. Meanwhile, my curiosity about books originally published in French led me to the recently announced longlist for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And when I say longlist, I mean indeed a long list — there are 142 nominees. The titles are nominated for the award by libraries worldwide. The award goes to a single work of fiction that must be published in English. According to the organization’s press release, this year’s candidates were nominated by libraries in 114 cities and 39 countries.

Eight of the nominees are books translated from the French into English. I’ve listed the eight novels here, with beginning sentences from their overview descriptions. The Read More will take you to the full overview on the website of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. All eight appear to be available with online booksellers. Éric Reinhardt’s novel, at this point in time, is only available as an ebook and Andreï Makine’s novel I found on Amazon but not Barnes & Noble.

Horses of GodHorses of God by Mahi Binebine;
translated by Lulu  Norman
Published in English by Tinhouse.
Published in French as Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen.

“On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The bombers came from the shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a poor suburb on the edge of a dump whose impoverished residents rarely if ever set foot in the cosmopolitan city at their doorstep. Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God follows four childhood friends growing up in Sidi Moumen as they make the life-changing decisions that will lead them to become Islamist martyrs.” Read more.

Return to KillybegsReturn to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon;
translated by Ursula Meany Scott
Published in English by Lilliput Press.
Published in French as Retour à Killybegs.

“Tyrone Meehan, damned as an informer, ekes out his days in Donegal, awaiting his killers. ‘Now that everything is out in the open, they will all speak in my place – the IRA, the British, my family, my close friends, journalists I’ve never even met. Some of them will go so far as to explain how and why I ended up a traitor…’” Read more.

For SureFor Sure by France Daigle;
translated from by Robert Majzels
Published in English by House of Anansi.
Published in French as Pour sur.

“For Sure is among other things a labyrinth, a maze, an exploration of the folly of numbers, a repository, a defense and an illustration of the Chiac language. Written in dazzling prose — which is occasionally interrupted by surprising bits of information, biography, and definitions that appear on the page — Daigle perfectly captures the essence of a place and offers us a reflection on minority cultures and their obsession with language.” Read more.

Nothing Holds Back the NightNothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan; translated by George Miller
Published in English by Bloomsbury.
Published in French as Rien ne s’oppose a la nuit.

“Only a teenager when Delphine was born, Lucile raised two daughters largely alone. She was a former child model from a Bohemian family, younger and more glamorous than the other mothers: always in lipstick, wayward and wonderful. But as Delphine grew up, Lucile’s occasional sadness gave way to overwhelming despair and delusion.” Read more.

Saving MozartSaving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy;
translated by Howard Curtis
Published in English by Europa Editions.
Published in French as Sauver Mozart.

“Raphaël Jerusalmy’s debut novel takes the form of the journal of Otto J. Steiner, a former music critic of Jewish descent suffering from tuberculosis in a Salzburg sanatorium in 1939. Drained by his illness and isolated in the gloomy sanatorium, Steiner finds solace only in music. He is horrified to learn that the Nazis’ are transforming a Mozart festival into a fascist event.” Read more.

Brief Loves That Live ForeverBrief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Maldine;
translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published in English by Maclehose Press.
Published in French as Le livre des brèves amours éternelles.

“In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance. Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him…” Read more.

Life FormLife Form by Amélie Nothomb;
translated by Alison Anderson
Published by Europa Editions.
Published in French language as Une forme de vie.

“Here is a new work of fiction by the always surprising Nothomb that subverts any attempts at categorization; a smart, singular, surreal novel about personality and philosophy, trauma and healing, solitude and human connection from one of Europe’s most talked about and beloved authors. One morning, the heroine of this book, a well-known author named Amélie Nothomb, receives a letter from one of her readers – an American soldier stationed in Iraq by the name of Melvin Mapple.” Read more.

The Victoria SystemThe Victoria System by Éric Reinhardt;
translated by Sam Taylor
Published as an ebook by Penguin Books.
Published in the French language as Le système Victoria.

“David Kolski never sleeps with the same woman twice – apart from his wife. Then he meets Victoria. Head of people at a multinational company, by day she is a ruthless executive in a lightning-paced, high-pressured whirlwind of power and productivity. By night she likes good wine, luxurious hotel rooms, and abandoning herself to her sexual fantasies.” Read more.

The IMPAC shortlist from the 142 longlist will be announced April 15, 2015. The winner will be announced June 17, 2015. Of note: the longlist includes 37 American novels.

A woman who never compromised

November 11, 2014

Florence Gordon by Brian Moore

Florence Gordon is a renowned feminist, activist and writer whose heyday in the 1970’s marked her as a hero of the Women’s Movement. She is the Big Gorilla in this novel’s cast of characters, a touchstone of truth and one of a kind, to say the least: an intense, blunt, intimidating 75-year-old woman who’s intolerant of distractions. In one scene, annoyed by a friend who constantly checks her BlackBerry, Florence grabs the device and throws it into a pitcher of sangria.

The book’s dramatic pulses lie within the uncertainties Florence’s son Daniel, his wife Janine and their daughter Emily bring to the story. They are temporarily living near Florence on the Upper West Side of New York, thanks to a fellowship Janine is pursuing in psychology. Janine is attracted to her supervisor and tests the waters of an affair. Daniel discovers her attempts and suffers what appears to be a heart attack while Janine attends an out-of-town conference with her lover. Nineteen-year-old Emily also is out of town, exploring sex and drugs with a problematic ex-boyfriend.

Janine’s fellowship is about the complicated relationship between our intentions and our impulses, between the parts of ourselves that seem to be under our control and the parts of ourselves that don’t. Author Brian Morton tugs at us with this concept as Daniel, Janine and Emily wrestle with their confusions and desires. They exist in contrast to the majestic Florence for whom, as Morton writes, “There was no corridor of uncertainty between the decision and the act.”

What makes this novel so engaging is that the characters, living these profound concepts, are funny, colorful and warmly human. Their story is written in precise, upbeat prose with a seductive energy. Morton explores ideas about the Women’s Movement, aging with grace and dignity, and living with integrity.

Florence is unaware of her family’s trials. She keeps herself removed from family and friends, and yet she inspires them.

“Florence’s success had shaken something loose inside Janine. Florence was a woman who had never compromised. And now, at long last, she was reaping the fruits of her courage. So the question, Janine thought, is this: If I exercised a bravery in my own life equivalent to that which Florence has exercised in hers, what would I be doing? What would I be doing differently?”

Meanwhile, Florence writes her memoir, participates on panels and enjoys a renewed celebrity status due to a prominent New York Times book review that describes her as a national treasure. However, her left foot begins to drag. It’s annoying at first, and then, after medical tests, it becomes the beginning of this memorable character’s final challenge. She faces it, not surprisingly, with conviction, giving her family — and us, as readers — an example of what it’s like to live boldly with trust in one’s beliefs.

Horror books are being talked about this Halloween week, but my thoughts go to these three books soon to be released and far from anything that’s blood curdling in tone and frightening in intent.

Then We Take Berlin by John LawtonThen We Take Berlin by John Lawton

The paperback for this suspenseful novel has a planned release in November. It’s serving as a reminder that I missed picking up the book a year ago, when it was first published (and I wrote about it here on TLC). The protagonist is John Wilderness, a gifted orphan who survives the London Blitz and goes on to serve as an MI6 agent and black market con artist in Berlin, just after the war, 1947. His story also takes place in 1963 when he’s approached with an assignment that takes him back to Berlin. Kirkus Reviews says it’s “a wonderfully complex and nuanced thriller,” the first in a new series. Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist all gave it a starred review. From the book’s overview/description: “Then We Take Berlin is a gripping, meticulously researched and richly detailed historical thriller — a moving story of espionage and war, and people caught up in the most tumultuous events of the twenty-first century.”

The Art of Stillness by Pico IyerThe Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer

Travel writer and essayist Pico Iyer brings to light the importance of hitting the pause button in our over-scheduled, frenetic contemporary life. Kirkus Reviews writes, “This book isn’t a meditation guide or a New-Age tract but rather a celebration of the age-old practice of sitting with no goal in mind and no destination in sight.” A mere 120 pages, it seems like a must-read. The Art of Stillness is one among 12 in a series of books being co-published by TED  and Simon & Schuster. Many may know of Iyer’s popular essay published in The New York Times, “The Joy of Quiet.” This brief excerpt gives an idea of what may come in his new book.

“‘Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,’ the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, ‘and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.’ He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam ToewsAll My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Given starred reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, this novel tells the story of two sisters raised in a Canadian Mennonite community: Elf (Elfrieda) a famous, glamorous, wealthy pianist with everything going for her in life but suffering from depression; and Yoli (Yolandi) on the opposite end of the spectrum, divorced and broke. Elf is suicidal, and Yoli pledges to keep her beloved sister alive. The Guardian writes: “Its  compulsive readability is all the more remarkable since the story issues from such a dark place in the author’s heart.” (Canadian author Toews has a family history of suicide.) The Telegraph writes: “… ironically for a book with self-annihilation as its subject, bursts with ramshackle, precious life.”

 

The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisSeveral years ago, in the late 1990s, an acquaintance I met at a conference suggested we each read a favorite book recommended by the other. For him, I proposed Francisco Goldman’s debut novel The Long Night of White Chickens, published in 1992. It came to mind immediately — a story that captivated me with its plot about a woman who runs an orphanage in Guatemala and the mystery of her murder. For me, he proposed The Information by Martin Amis. I hadn’t read anything by this acclaimed British author, who had by then published many novels, including the Booker short-listed Time’s Arrow, so I looked forward to this new book and its comedic approach to two novelists at odds with one another.

The Information turned out to be so far from what I would call a favorite in my reading world that I promptly turned to another Amis novel, thinking it was just a wrong fit. But Amis’s Other People, about a woman who’s lost her identity and, after that, London Fields and Night Train didn’t resonate with me either, although I recognized the brilliance of Martin Amis, universally lauded for his linguistic dexterity and mind-twisting inventiveness. Still, I recall trudging through the complexity of London Fields, which Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times described as: “A comic murder mystery, an apocalyptic satire, a scatological meditation on love and death and nuclear winter…by turns lyrical and obscene, colloquial and rhapsodic.”

The Long Night of White Chickens didn’t go over well, either.

Other People by Martin AmisI haven’t read Martin Amis since that time, until now, with the release of his new book The Zone of Interest igniting a desire to jump in and try again. The novel is described by the publisher as a love story, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s heart-sinking romance. It’s more sexual desire that becomes an obsession that then becomes love never physically requited between a Nazi liaison officer, who is Angelus Thomsen, a self-proclaimed stud, and Hannah Doll. The setting is a German concentration camp called the Zone of Interest (Auschwitz otherwise named), and Hannah is the kommandant’s wife.

Similar to Time’s Arrow, about a Holocaust doctor/war criminal, The Zone of Interest takes the Nazi viewpoint. Chapters alternate between Thomsen, Kommandant Paul Doll and a Sonderkommando named Szmul, who parries with Doll to keep his life steady under the horrific circumstances. Szmul persists in his grotesque Sonder role for three reasons: to bear witness, exact mortal vengeance and save or prolong a life. He’s engaged by Doll to spy on Hannah, whom Doll suspects is having an affair first with Thomsen, and then with the man she loved prior to marrying Doll. Meanwhile, there are mishaps with arriving transports, the selection process and an overload of cremated bodies. Also going on: Thomsen, who is cast as the fictional nephew of Hitler’s secretary, oversees the construction of the Buna-Werke, a nearby synthetic rubber and fuel factory that has its own challenges. Doll and Thomsen wrestle with the politics of “the Deliverer” (you know who, with that silly mustache)

London Fields by Martin AmisIt goes without saying that the Holocaust is grim subject matter, but keep in mind this is Martin Amis, whose signature narrative brilliance and wit is very much in play here, as is the “lyrical and obscene.” Bottom line, The Zone of Interest is a satire, and you have to go into reading it knowing Amis is using humor, exaggeration and ridicule to illustrate, in the extreme, the Nazi crime of the Final Solution. Otherwise, the novel comes across as hugely offensive.

In the beginning, I couldn’t bear it — the sexual banter between Thomsen and his friend Boris, a Waffen-SS colonel, mixed with blithe commentary about transports to the camp, as if they’re in casual, friendly conversation over coffee; the comedic perspective of events surrounding the selection ramp; and Paul Doll ridiculously prancing among his lackeys, as if in scenes from a sitcom. And then the thoughts of the characters, which are hard to take, designed to showcase their idiocy and lack of self-awareness, such as Doll thinking about Szmul and the Sonderkommandos: “You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comment is suppose to make us smile because it’s a reverse onto himself, but the smiling just doesn’t feel good.

Time's Arrow by Martin AmisNot all is sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Hannah stands firm in her horror of the surrounding reality, and Thomsen attempts to sabotage the progress of the Buna-Werke factory; however, their anti-sympathy is too little to make a narrative impact. And it’s here I think satirizing the Final Solution is an un-winning endeavor, unless it’s so wickedly profound we come away shattered with new insight, which doesn’t happen with The Zone of Interest. It’s not really that great of a love story, either, which prevails, carrying through to the end of the war and the book, with Thomsen’s continued desire for Hannah. But Hannah cannot see Thomsen outside the framework of the inhumanity in which he participated. Their relationship rings true, but it still feels more like a misguided story of desire and not love.

Should I read Martin Amis’s acclaimed Time’s Arrow? Maybe I’ll connect with his fiction in that novel. Why am I not falling down the rabbit hole of that which creates a Martin Amis cult follower? The fellow reader I met at the conference kept a framed photo of Amis and himself on his office desk that was taken at a book signing.

I eventually settled into The Zone of Interest, employing emotional distance and embracing the satire. I understood and marveled at the literary skill, but that one-of-a-kind Amis talent — experienced also in his other aforementioned novels — doesn’t drive me to want to read his books. I don’t get involved in them. Instead, I seem only to experience the brilliant work. I also seem to be chasing Martin Amis, thinking the one Martin Amis book for me is the next one. (Perhaps The Rachel Papers?) At this rate, I’ll get Martin Amis under my reading belt, despite myself.

The National Book Award longlists have been announced for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. As is usual for these types of lists, announcing books in the running for the awards, they provide great reading suggestions. Below is a quick look at the fiction nominees. You’ll find short stories, dystopia, World War II, the life of an Iowa farm family and more. To get all the longlists, visit the National Book Foundation.

The finalists (shortlists) will be announced exclusively on NPR’s Morning Edition on October 15. The winners will be announced November 19 in New York City.

An Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
This is a portrait of a woman’s life in the Middle East (Beirut), focusing on the fictional 72-year-old translator Aaliya Sohbi who lives alone with her books. The publisher describes the story as a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis. Publisher’s Weekly in a starred review says: “Alameddine’s most glorious passages are those that simply relate Aalyia’s thoughts, which read like tiny, wonderful essays.”

The UnAmericansThe UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol
A debut story collection with plot lines focusing on critical moments in the 20th century. Kirkus Reviews says Antopol is a writer to watch. I love this comment by Meg Wolitzer on NPR about the stories: “They’ll make you nostalgic, not just for earlier times, but for another era in short fiction. A time when writers such as Bernard Malamud, and Issac Bashevis Singer and Grace Paley roamed the earth.”

ThunderstruckThunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
Another story collection, this one by the author known for her debut novel The Giant’s House that was a 1996 National Book Award finalist.  The New York Times review says, “…her wisdom and wit have a moral dimension that deepens our sympathy for her straying souls, encouraging us to picture ourselves in even their most improbable predicaments.” Publisher’s Weekly gives it a starred review, as does Kirkus Reviews.

Redeployment by Phil KlayRedeployment by Phil Klay
Yet another story collection among the contenders, this one’s a piercing look at U.S. Marines involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Klay digs deeply, honestly and convincingly into the inner lives of his men and enlightens our understanding of the Marine combat experience. Via “The morally bruising battlefield” written here on TLC: “It’s impressive, enduring fictional truth.”

OrfeoOrfeo by Richard Powers
In this novel, composer protagonist 70-year-old Peter Els ends up on the lam when Homeland Security discovers his home-based biochemical engineering lab, where Peter pursues an innocent hobby. It’s called “engrossing” by The Washington Post and considered an emotional engager by the reviewer in The New York Times. Powers won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echomaker.

AnthonyDoerr_novelAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Ohio author Anthony Doerr’s newest novel has held a sustaining place on The New York Times best-seller list this year. It’s a World War II story about the converging lives of a German soldier and a blind French girl in occupied France 1944. The book industry’s forecasting magazines — Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal – all give Doerr’s book starred reviews.

Lila by Marilyn RobinsonLila by Marilyn Robinson
This is Robinson’s third novel set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. It focuses on Reverend Ames’ young bride, Lila, whom Robinson introduced in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. The publisher describes the new book as “an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe and wonder.” Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times calls it “flawed but poignant.”

Some LuckSome Luck by Jane Smiley
This is the first book in a trilogy about the Langdon Iowa farm family, Walter and Rosanna and their five children. Spanning 1920 through the early 1950s, each chapter covers a single year. Publisher’s Weekly gives it a starred review as does Kirkus Reviews, which says it’s: “An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.”

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van by John Darnielle
The story is about a 17-year-old-boy with a grossly disfigured face and the role-playing game he invents about a post-apocalyptic America. A recent New York Times review describes the book as a “strange and involving novel…about alienation and despair and the search for meaning.” The book’s publisher says it “unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax.”

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A dystopian novel about a pandemic that wipes out society as we know it. After the catastrophe, a traveling group of actors and musicians performs Shakespeare in towns around the Great Lakes Region. I’m one-third of the way through the book and find it gripping. Early chapters about the uncontrollable virus overcrowding hospitals and taking lives is chilling. Starred review from Kirkus Reviews but not from Publisher’s Weekly.

The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards, as stated on the Foundation website, is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

Barricuda by Christos TsliokasIn this new novel by best-selling Australian author Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), an uplifting, redemptive scene provides the book’s title. It takes place in the great assembly hall of a posh Melbourne prep school when protagonist Danny Kelly is called to the podium by the principal. The room erupts into foot-stomping cheers, lauding Danny’s first place win in an Australian swimming championship. Students chant, Barracuda, Barracuda! It’s a spine-tingling moment that raises this working-class boy to a level of acceptance among his wealthy, contemptuous peers. Australia’s class issues, as well as its multi-ethnic demographic, are hallmark themes for Tsiolkas — Danny is the son of a Scottish truck driver and a Greek hairdresser.

Swimming is everything to this teenager on scholarship at this expensive school where he trains with Frank Torma, a no-nonsense coach who recognizes the makings of a champion. Danny proves him right, excelling above all others on the school swim team. His goal is to win gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and his mantra that he is stronger, faster, better than anyone else keeps him steady among all that goes on in his life — the taunts and exclusions at school, his father’s disparaging remarks and the confusion he feels between the two class worlds.

Tsiolkas’s narrative method employs the teen-aged and young adult Danny Kelly to tell the story in alternating chapters taking place between 1994 and 2012. These chapters are so seamlessly knitted together you barely feel the change in time, rather move fluidly with the rhythmic flow, similar to how Danny describes moving through and becoming one with the water. Back and forth the narrative pulls us. We engage with Danny in his school days of becoming an A-class swimmer, winning Torma’s praise and favoritism and becoming chummy with the team’s golden boy Martin Taylor (who started the barracuda chant in the assembly hall). And we engage with Dan (what Danny prefers to be called later) reading classic literature in a one-room apartment, living in Glasgow with his lover Clyde, stocking shelves in a supermarket and working with disabled adults.

The scenes are colorful, dramatic, moving; and as we read them we’re gripped with the simmering tension of knowing something bad happens to Danny who failed to achieve his dream. Early on in the story, well before the great assembly hall scene, the adult Dan confesses to Clyde he’s been to prison for almost killing a man. Tsiolkas masterfully uses this early knowledge to hook us emotionally into Danny and Dan’s situations and the mystery of what went wrong. We are so deeply involved with this character that when we finally read the answer, it hits hard. I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and talk to Danny as his downfall unfolds, convince him to have greater courage and integrity: You don’t have to go that route. You can recover. You can live your dream and be the champion. And then it gets worse, an act of violence that’s painful to read, bringing the two class worlds together in a crash.

Barracuda, in its deep dive into Danny’s soul, is superbly crafted. It’s not just a gripping story, but also an important one, providing a heart-wrenching viewpoint into what it’s like for a talented young athlete to dream of being a champion — to dream and then to fail. Dan strives to outlive Danny’s shame by seeking truth and forgiveness, something his friends, family and enemies don’t readily embrace. They still can only see Danny Kelly, the swimming phenomenon who let them down. They don’t understand, after all he’s been through, Dan simply wants to be a good person. It’s a goal that’s harder to attain, under his circumstances, than the gold of an Olympic medal, and he knows it’s more valuable.

We’re entering publishing’s top season, when they bring out literature’s notable and best-selling authorial names. This fall, we’ve got Irish mystery writer Tana French, British author of Atonement fame Ian McEwan, American crime novelist James Ellroy, popular historical fiction writer Sarah Waters and the incomparable British novelist Martin Amis releasing new novels. There are others, but these few particularly caught my attention. Below are brief summaries of their books. Also included, a sneak peek at Colm Tóibín’s new novel coming out early October.

The Secret Place by Tana FrenchThe Secret Place by Tana French
Tana French’s new detective novel is set for release this coming Tuesday, Sept. 2, and already getting rave reviews. It’s a boarding school mystery ignited by a note posted to the school’s anonymous tell-all bulletin board (called the Secret Place) that says someone knows the identity of a boy’s killer. French is known to use characters from previous novels and in this one brings back Detective Stephen Moran and the Mackay family from Faithful Place.  Publisher’s Weekly said, “French stealthily spins a web of teenage secrets with a very adult crime at the center.”

The Children Act by Ian McEwanThe Children Act by Ian McEwan
Set for release on Sept. 9, Ian McEwan’s new novel takes on the issue of religious belief preventing medical care for a 17-year-old boy who could die without it. The British judge hearing the difficult case is simultaneously struggling with her husband’s marital infidelity. This promises to be another one of McEwan’s best. For book collectors: A special limited signed first edition of The Children Act is available. All full leather copies are now sold out, but quarter leathers are still available.  Scroll down the page on Mr. McEwan’s website to get details.

Perfidia by James EllroyPerfidia by James Ellroy
Also set for release Sept. 9, this novel begins a new crime series by James Ellroy, well-known for his L.A. Quartet that includes Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. Perfidia is the first novel in what will now be a Second L.A. Quartet series. Characters from Ellroy’s previous novels will appear here in their younger years, as this is a prequel to the L.A. Quartet #1. Perfidia begins the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor and unfolds through the following days in December 1941. Rival investigators bump up against one another trying to solve the death of four members of a Japanese family, who may have had foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Previews and James Ellroy’s letter on his literary agency’s website point to a complex, involving crime novel. Note that its page count is just north of 700 pages.

The Paying Guests by Sarah WatersThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Planned for release Sept. 16, this 560-page historical novel takes place in London, 1922, with a debt-ridden mother and daughter forced to rent rooms in their large, genteel home. Forbidden romance plus a shocking act of violence drive the novel’s tension. The Paying Guests is described as one of those novels that keeps you guessing until the end regarding narrative outcome. Sarah Waters is a three-time Man Booker prize short-listed author for her previous novels Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger.

The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisThe Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
Publisher’s Weekly begins its forecast for this new novel by describing it as “an absolute soul-crusher of a book.” I wouldn’t let that deter you, though. They also gave the book a starred review — as it’s received from every other forecast I’ve come across — and say it’s “the brilliant latest from Amis.” Just be prepared for a devastating love story. Amis draws again on a World War II theme that provided the narrative fulcrum for his earlier novel, Time’s Arrow. The setting is a German concentration camp, and the primary narrator is the camp’s commandant. Two other narrators also help tell the story, a Jewish inmate and the fictional nephew of the real-life Nazi official Martin Bowman, Hitler’s private secretary.

Nora Webster by Colm ToibinNora Webster by Colm Tóibín
This is an October release (10/7) I can’t help but mention here among the September books by acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín. The story focuses on a young Irish woman, recently widowed, having lost the love of her life. She lives in a small village in Ireland, and she’s overwhelmed with everyone’s condolences and her grief, let alone the needs of her children. She yearns to find her way back into the world. Previews for Nora Webster portend a powerful character study.

 

Books are our friends, at least for those of us who read them and clutter our homes with them. But when I was struck with unfathomable sadness recently from my father’s emergency surgery and then death, these friends dried up on me. I stared at open pages of print while I sat beside him in his hospital room. I read sentences two and three times and, if I got through a paragraph, often I had to return to the beginning and read the paragraph again. I struggled to remember plotlines. At home, late at night, unable to sleep, I tried reading out loud but got lost within the sounds of my voice. I would put a book down. I would start another one and then repeat the process. I became anxious in my longing to find solace in the familiar land of literature as I kept attempting it without success. And then I picked up David Connerley Nahm’s new novel, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, the friend that stopped the spin.

***

With emotional precision, Nahm wholly engages us in the story of protagonist Leah Shepherd’s lifetime grief over the disappearance of her brother Jacob when he was seven and she was 10 years old. The inventive plotting navigates past and present with elegiac unfolding that reveals Leah’s isolation built with walls of loss and guilt. She is the executive director of a nonprofit organization that supports low-income women and children in Crow Station, Kentucky, where she grew up with Jacob. It is here we experience their lush childhood days and, three decades later, Leah’s adult work life.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley NahmJacob and Leah are “rippling reflections of one another,” a brother and sister entwined as they romp with unfettered innocence through and around Crow Station’s yards and driveways, woods, pastures, streams and lakes, surrounded by smells of lilac and manure. They share a bedroom, and most nights Jacob crawls into bed with his big sister, scared of a menacing creature. He’s always afraid, it seems, and doesn’t want to leave her side. Every Sunday morning he fusses, cries and resists going to church, threatening to run away. He complains about a strange man in the backyard that no one else sees. Leah plays with Jacob’s fears, teasing and terrifying him, and then backing off to comfort him.

The prismatic scenes magnetically lure us toward the day of Jacob’s disappearance, but we can only know what might have happened because Leah knows only the how, what and why of it in murmured possibilities. We observe her deep yearning, thinking and hurt about her past while she’s at work, helping the disadvantaged women. A most notable, symbolic moment occurs when she buys herself a blue VW Bug, reminding us of a plastic toy replica she once gave Jacob for Christmas. Strangely, an unfamiliar man repeatedly tries to contact Leah at her office, but she ignores him. Amid the drama, we are comforted by the Kentucky environment, depicted as an ocean that rises up and floods our senses with atmospheric images of its terrain, mood and small-town humanity.

Many novels are being published with plots centered on the mystery of a missing child, including Bret Anthony Johnston’s newly released Remember Me Like This, let alone Alice Sebold’s famously popular 2002 bestseller The Lovely Bones. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky holds a solid, laudable place in this fictional category with its impressionistic, recollective and worried style. You cannot help but be transfixed.

One Sunday morning, before church, Leah does not respond to Jacob’s predictable and annoying, pouting protests as he storms out of the house, and that is the morning he disappears. She is forever haunted, and so are we.

***

Why this book worked and others didn’t I can’t know for sure. I suspect it’s because of the atmospheric draw and the sympathetic connection to a world of grief. As I write this, I wonder if it’s fair to the author that I position his book as I have, framed in the significance it played during days I spent consumed with worry and sadness – because I wonder if that overshadows what simply needs to be known about this book, being its top literary quality, a story for any time. But what greater praise can one give a book than to say, of all the books available during a difficult time in my life, this one became my friend.

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