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.

The Man Booker Longlist was announced several days ago. It’s one of my favorite annual literary announcements because the list typically broadens my reading life to include diverse titles from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe. But this year, the dynamic is different due to the decision to include American books. In other words, unfortunately, there’s not so much unique discovery and surprise — that “broadening” — as before.

The Longlist of 13 books is below, divided by their current availability in the U.S. I’ll clarify this availability in the U.S. as hardbound versions, as I’m not sure if/how e-books might be made available from the U.K. That said, The Wake is e-book available only, anywhere, right now. Keep in mind publishers are moving up dates for some of the books because of the nomination. I’ve got my eye on Niall Williams, Richard Flanagan and David Mitchell for reading opportunities. Maybe they’ll enter the winning stretch.

The Shortlist of six novels will be announced September 9. The winner will be announced October 14.

Seven Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Presently Available in the U.S.

History of the RainHistory of the Rain by Niall Williams
Bibliophiles take note: There are three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books figuring into this story in which a bedridden woman is in search of her father. Much of that search, I gather, is from his books. Publisher’s Weekly says the “new novel has a unique voice and a droll, comic tone that takes a surprising, serious turn.” Kirkus describes it as: “A rambling, soft-hearted Irish family saga stuffed with eccentricity, literature, anecdotes, mythology, humor and heartbreak…”

The Blazing WorldThe Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
U.S. author Hustvedt focuses on artist/protagonist Harriet Burden who creates a hoax to prove gender bias in the art world. The NYRB review in its current edition (8/14/14) says this novel “…comes across more as a straitened feminist concept-piece than satisfactory storytelling.” The Rumpus review responds to the novel more positively, describing it as “dizzying, deeply felt.”

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
U.S. author Fowler’s unforgettable novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke about unusual family circumstances while she was growing up, specifically about her sister Fern.  I recommend if you chose to read the book, do so without reading too much about it. It’s got a clincher that’s best discovered on your own and that too many reviews give away. A terrific book I read, discussed and recommended last year.

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. U.S. author Powers is a National Book Award winner for The Echomaker.

To Rise Again at a Decent HourTo Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
U.S. author Ferris’s third novel received rave reviews this year. And it’s not only Longlisted by the Man Booker but also the International Dylan Thomas Prize. The story focuses on a dentist struggling with life’s meaning who has his identity stolen. From the publisher’s website:  “What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the real thing.”

The WakeThe Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Via the publisher’s website: “Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next. Set in the three years after the Norman invasion of 1066, The Wake will tell the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders.” Be sure to check out the book’s full description, so you’re aware of the unique narrative voice. At this point, e-book availability only from this Irish author.

The DogThe Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Starred reviews by Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, the story features an unnamed hero who leaves New York to start a new life in Dubai working for a wealthy family as a “family officer.” The publisher describes this novel as “a tale of alienation and heartbreak in Dubai.” Irishman O’Neill lives in New York. His residence is likely the reason some media outlets say there are five Americans on the Man Booker Longlist and others say there are four.

 

Three Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Soon to be Published in the U.S.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Australian author Richard Flanagan focuses his new story on the WWII Japanese POW experience and the “death railways” built in Burma. Reviewer for The Telegraph calls is “graceful and unfathomable.” Reviewer in The Guardian writes: “Flanagan’s novel is a grand examination of what it is to be a good man and a bad man in the one flesh and, above all, of how hard it is to live after survival.” In 2009, I recommended Flanagan’s novel Wanting for its lyric narrative voice but cautioned about its failure to ground readers in the plot’s historical timelines. (August)

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Irish author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice prior to this. Both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly have “star” reviewed this book that strikes as an unusual story spanning the life of Holly Sykes, a protagonist that’s described as a “lightning rod for psychic phenomena.” She runs away when she’s 15 years old and encounters other-worldly forces in the English countryside. Events affect her and others’ lives ever onward into the future. (September)

Us by David NichollsUs by David Nicholls
British author Nicholls writes about a man hoping to save his marriage. The publisher’s description says “Us is a moving meditation on the demands of marriage and parenthood, the regrets of abandoning youth for middle age, and the intricate relationship between the heart and the head.” Available in October 2014 and highly anticipated due to the popularity of his last book, One Day.

 

The Remaining Three — With 2015 or No Dates Listed

J by Howard Jacobson
British author Jacobson won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. His new novel is a futuristic love story. Howard Jacobson is a frequent presence on Man Booker Longlists. Scheduled to be published in the U.K. in August but, in the U.S., not until March 2015.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
A family story set in Calcutta 1967. The Guardian describes it as “engrossing”. No listed U.S. publication date. Visit the author’s website.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Description on the Man Booker site says it is a novel about art’s versatility. To be published September in the U.K. No date listed for the U.S.

I’m overloaded reading fiction right now, while these three non-fiction books, released this summer, pull at me with a siren call. Here are brief summaries of what they’re about, so you, too, can hear the call.

"The Nixon Defense" by John W. DeanThe Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
John Dean’s new book is here to divulge the full and complete story of President Richard Nixon’s role in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building — that nasty 1970’s scandal that riveted the nation, famously written about by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. August 8 marks the 40 year anniversary of Nixon’s resignation due to the scandal.  From the publisher’s description: “In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John W. Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon’s secretly recorded information and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President Nixon know and when did he know it?” Kirkus in its starred review tempts us with this statement: “And as for that missing tape, the one about which so much was made at the Watergate hearings? It would spoil the surprise to tell it here, but Dean has the answers.” Prepare to buckle down: The book’s page count is close to 800 pages. (Check out History.com for videos about the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation speech.)

"The Most Dangerous Book"The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
Kevin Birmingham takes us inside the story of James Joyce the writer and the struggle he endured to get his now classic novel published. Granted, Ulysses may be a challenging read, but the story around it is fascinating. For years it was banned in the English-speaking world, “disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain,” according to the book’s dust jacket that also states: “The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.”  Kirkus gives it a starred review. So does Publisher’s Weekly stating: “Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece.” If you haven’t read Ulysses, at least you could say you read about it in The Most Dangerous Book. The publisher says it’s “written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”

"The Interior Circuit" by Francisco GoldmanThe Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman
I’ve loved Francisco Goldman’s novels since his first, The Long Night of White Chickens that’s a love story and murder mystery set in Boston and Guatemala. Then came The Ordinary Seaman and Say Her Name, not a full list of his novels but the ones I read. And so I’m drawn to read his new, non-fiction book. It bears knowing that in 2005, Goldman married Aura Estrada. Two years later, during a vacation on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Estrada died in a bodysurfing accident. The Interior Circuit, written after grieving for his wife in the fictionalized account of her tragic death in Say Her Name, explores the people, politics and communities of Estrada’s native city, “balancing personal memoir and reportage,” according to the book’s dust jacket. Publisher’s Weekly gives the book a star and describes Goldman as “a perceptive, funny and philosophical narrator.”

"The Hour of Lead" by Bruce HolbertWhen I read an author’s second novel — and I’ve not read the first one — I feel like I’ve walked into a show in the second act. I’m not talking about novels in a series, such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or detective sequences. This is about literary novels or stand-alones, and it happens especially when the first book, the author’s debut, is a five-star stunner that I’ve missed for one reason or another.

When the second novel comes out, I’m eager to get acquainted with the new, lauded writer. My expectations are high. I’m thinking I’ll be swept away with awesomeness, but many times the second novel doesn’t measure up to expectations created from what I’ve read about the amazing debut. That’s where I stand with The Hour of Lead, Bruce Holbert’s new, second novel.

Similar to his first novel (which I haven’t read), it takes us deep into the culture of the American West in Washington state. The Hour of Lead, without a doubt, is written with gorgeous prose, the kind that loops around a thought in long, poetic sentences, evoking impressionistic images of the territory. The strength of the story lies in a tragedy that takes place in 1918, in the first pages, and rings in an echo throughout the rest of the book: A monumental snow storm suddenly sweeps into Lincoln County, Washington, taking the life of protagonist Matt Lawson’s twin brother and father. The event permanently unsettles Matt’s sense of himself. He’s unable to fully love and remains constantly vulnerable to simmering rage. We care about him, and that’s what saves this otherwise problematic novel.

Matt as a teenager, alone with his mother, continues to run the family farm. Wendy, the grocer’s daughter, becomes Matt’s first and only love, but their relationship is shattered by a gross misunderstanding. Wendy delivers her rejection with a gunshot wound, and Matt vanishes like an injured animal. He finds jobs away from home, eventually settling in as a dedicated workman for a 70-year-old man whose lazy son gambles and drinks. Meanwhile, Wendy, feeling guilty, moves in with Matt’s mother to help on the farm.

Nineteen years pass until Matt is able to face Wendy again. His return comes at a time when the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is breaking apart the area’s farms. So, too, at this point, does the story break apart. Events are colorful, violent and dramatic, but they equate to plot movement without engagement, and lose our emotional tie to the heart of the story — of Matt as a broken man, who knows being the one survivor of the snow storm changed him forever and confesses to Wendy, “I’m not right.” Also, those gorgeous sentences begin to feel forced and wrestled.

Matt and Wendy marry, raise two children and scrape by with Matt’s job on the Coulee Dam. Their story ends in Hallmark fashion, surrounded by grandchildren. What we are to make of it all, I’m not sure, with no sense of resolution or meaning – no fundamental gift from the storytelling given to us upon the last page, where the author is merely clever and has lost the atmosphere and pull of Matt’s story.

Whether or not I read Bruce Holbert’s first novel, Lonesome Animals, remains to be determined. Reading a debut after the second novel isn’t the same as experiencing an author’s first, fresh, exciting burst onto the literary scene. Meanwhile, I just finished Tom Rachmann’s debut The Imperfectionists, published four years ago. It’s a terrific novel about editors and reporters working for an English newspaper based in Rome, now out in paperback. I read it because Rachmann’s second novel is out this summer, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. I wanted to be ready for it.

 

This is not a beach-read list, rather the “required” reading I’ve set forth for myself as a tip of the hat to the summers of my youth, when I had assigned summer reading lists. From all those summers, I only remember Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court assigned during two separate summers. I struggled through them — probably why they’re the ones I remember — confused by and uninterested in the plots. I should reread them as an adult because they may simply be classics that were wasted on my youth, but not this summer. I have three classics I want to read before Labor Day arrives, tucked in among the new books that are always ongoing.

Ten North Frederick by John O'HaraTen North Frederick by John O’Hara
Penguin Classics began re-issuing John O’Hara’s books last year to coincide with the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio, reminding us that writer Fran Lebowitz famously called O’Hara “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” (She said it in an interview with The Paris Review.) O’Hara chronicled the world of the upper class and its wealth, ambitions and discontent. He’s best known for his first novel Appointment in Samarra, but also BUtterfield 8, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor. Ten North Frederick won the National Book Award in 1956. It focuses on the public and private life of the politically ambitious Joe Chapin in the fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. From the Penguin description: “… as his daughter looks back on his life, a different man emerges: one in conflict with his ambitious and shrewish wife, terrified that the misdeeds of his children will dash his political dreams, and in love with a model half his age.” John O’Hara is thought to be one of the most prominent American writers in the 20th century.

A New Life by Bernard MalamudA New Life by Bernard Malamud
This is Bernard Malamud’s third novel after The Natural and The Assistant. It tells the story of Sy Levin, “formerly a drunkard,” relocating to the Pacific Northwest to teach English at Cascadia College and start the eponymous new life. He doesn’t fully realize Cascadia is not a liberal arts institution, rather an agricultural college. Further, the positive change he anticipates for his life doesn’t exactly materialize. What draws me to spend time reading this book is not only having loved Malamud’s The Magic Barrel and Dubin’s Lives, but also Jonathan Lethem’s claim that A New Life is Malamud’s “funniest and most embracing, an underrated masterpiece.” You can read more of Lethem’s comments in the book’s introduction via a preview. A New Life was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award in fiction along with Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. The award, in a surprising upset, went to Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer.

The Mountain Lion by Jean StaffordThe Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
There’s a common saying among addicted readers that we keep buying more and more books, with less and less time to read them, because it fuels the hope that the time one day will be there. And so here’s my self-reveal: I purchased my copy of The Mountain Lion at Three Lives & Co. in New York in December 2009. It is the story of a young sister and brother, Molly and Ralph, who leave Los Angeles to summer on an uncle’s ranch in Colorado. From the book’s back cover: “There the children encounter an enchanting new world — savage, direct, beautiful, untamed — to which, over the next few years, they will return regularly, enjoying a delicious double life. And yet at the same time this other sphere, about which they are both so passionate, threatens to come between their passionate attachment to each other.” This is Jean Stafford’s most highly acclaimed novel, published in 1947. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970 for her Collected Stories. “Jean Stafford: Diamond in a Rough Life” by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post (2007) showcases her forgotten talent and work.

 

 

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.S.

The Undertaking opens with a wedding, but it’s not a typical exchange of romantic vows. A German soldier named Peter Faber commits to Katharina Spinell from the battlefield. Her photo is tied to a nearby post of a barbed wire fence. A thousand miles away in Berlin, at exactly the same moment, Katharina commits to Peter in a similar ceremony. They’ve never met. Both are taking part in a war pact that ensures honeymoon leave for Peter and a widow’s pension for Katharina in the event of Peter’s death.

It’s a unique premise for a World War II novel that Audrey Magee, in an interview with her editor, says she discovered in conversation with a  German restaurant owner. He spoke of his WWII experiences as a transport pilot and happened to mention that he married a woman he’d never met so he could get honeymoon leave. The concept fascinated this talented first-time author and helped shape the structure of a novel that had been brewing for a long time.

Regarding that brewing, Magee describes an earlier incident involving a visit to Dachau with a Jewish-American man. The concentration camp was closed, so they walked the perimeter and met a German woman tending her garden who’d lived all her life next to the camp. In a heated discussion, Magee heard from the woman an everyday existence lived with a blind eye turned to what was happening during the war, even next door. This, too, helped shaped The Undertaking.

Magee writes this unforgettable novel in spare prose that’s void of elaborate description and inner thoughts of the characters. The dialogue is written with a staccato rhythm. But don’t for a moment think the result is a dry story. It’s instead quite profound and vivid in its stark portrayal of ordinary Germans waiting for the war to be over, with Germany as the ruling empire, Berlin at the center of the world. Not much description or explanation is needed – their delusion speaks for itself, as does their selfishness and casual cruelty.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.K.

Surprisingly, during their honeymoon in Berlin, Katharina and Peter like each other and even fall in love. After their short time together, Peter returns to the Eastern Front where he faces the monumental Battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Katharina enters the upper echelons of Nazi social society.

Shortly after Peter leaves, Katharina and her parents get to move into a luxury home due to their connection to the Führer’s inner circle. The apartment is filled with the previous owner’s lavish belongings. Katharina’s mother chillingly says, “It’s our turn now … our turn at the good life.” Katharina’s father trashes the library books and also a white marble bust of the composer Mendelssohn, which is later replaced with Wagner.  In this instance, as in many others, the novel’s power is drawn from what’s implied and what we already know from history.

The narrative superbly goes back and forth between Katharina and Peter’s worlds, the one filled with cakes and holiday parties, the other with battles, horrific starvation and bitter cold. Their belief in a normal life with each other at the end of the war sustains their hope, but the bombing of Berlin and the defeat at Stalingrad change everything.

Katharina and Peter’s WWII story grips us with unsettling power from beginning to end in this magnificent new book. It is scheduled for publication end of the summer. Eager readers, however, can purchase the U.K. edition (the real first edition) from The Mysterious Bookshop — their books are signed firsts, a treasure for collectors, and because of that and the U.K. origin, you’ll pay a bit more.

Many years ago, I took piano lessons at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. I was a hobbyist, an amateur, playing technically difficult pieces, practicing nights and weekends around my 9-to-5 job. I also practiced during my lunch hours, in the practice rooms at the Conservatory that was near to where I worked. One day, riding the elevator back to my desk, an executive seconded to the company from London, England, asked about the piano music I carried in my arms. We were the only two on the elevator taking us to the 52nd floor.

He told me that he studied the piano once and had intended to make it his profession. He was accepted at the London Conservatory of Music, but on the first day, he didn’t show up at class. In fact, he walked away from the conservatory and the career forever, fearful and intimidated by what it would take to succeed. He also walked away from the piano, never touching it again. While he was cool and calm, I heard a wrenching personal trauma. He admitted that, seeing my music, a yearning for the piano rose up in him, what Alan Rusbridger in Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible refers to as one’s musical inner life — or creative DNA — tugging at the soul.

"Play It Again" by Alan RusbridgerRusbridger “mucked around on the piano” for most of his life, aided by the fact he’s an excellent sight reader. In his 50s, he became inspired to push himself to a greater understanding of the instrument by learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23, a tremendously challenging piece both technically and musically, one of the hardest piano compositions in the canon to master. He gave himself one year to do it, practicing 20 minutes a day. The goal was to not just play the Ballade, which he could get away with by skating over the tricky parts or creating workarounds or fudging on the fingering and pedaling, but to learn it properly.

Here’s the kicker: Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian, one of the most distinguished newspapers in the world. It’s not unusual for him to leave work after midnight and in the morning attend a breakfast meeting. He travels the world for speaking engagements and panels, fields hundreds of daily emails and is always on-call running a major newspaper with “a hum of low-level stress much of the time, with periodic eruptions of great tension.”( He tells a fascinating story of flying to Tripoli to secure the release of a Guardian journalist held in prison somewhere in Libya.) Little did he know that the year he committed to learning the Ballade would be an unusually dramatic year for the newspaper due to the publication partnership with WikiLeaks and breaking the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It was also the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami. In other words, if you think you don’t have time to pursue your passion in life, think again. It’s one of the major messages in this book: “Essentially, you do have the time; you just don’t realise (sic) it,” Rusbridger writes.

There are additional thoughtful points made in Rusbridger’s Play It Again. For example, he explores the concept that social success alone in one’s life — status, career, family, financial gain, etc. — is not enough for a satisfying life, and middle-age can be a time to reclaim ignored passions. He tells us progress is not always linear, and breakthroughs come with patience.

The book is formatted as diary entries, a perfect way to bring us into his daily newspaper life, as well as his musical life. It’s a balance of politics and culture, personal and public lives, as well as a venue that allows Rusbridger to share interviews with experts on topics such as memory (he struggles to memorize music), the difference between amateur and professional pianists, the recording industry’s effect on perfection required by concert pianists and the future of newspapers.

Granted, this book isn’t for everyone — if you don’t read music and/or don’t have an interest in the piano, your eyes will glaze over in the long technical passages about the Ballade, let alone the interviews with famous pianists, including Daniel BarenboimEmanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. For me, it was a chance to sink into a world I’ve missed.

Play It Again interior pages

I walked away from the American Conservatory after a rather difficult performance of the first movement of Schumann’s A minor piano concerto, but I didn’t walk away from the piano forever, like the British executive on the elevator. More like Rusbridger before he took on the Ballade, I find myself endlessly replaying the pieces I know, and not all that well. I’m not inclined to take on the Ballade, but there’s the Bach Toccata in D major BWV912 I want to play. To Rusbridger’s point, I told a piano tuner I couldn’t play it, and he said, “Yes you can.” I said, “No, I can’t.” Back and forth we comically argued beside my piano, until the tuner said what I knew he was going to say: “You just have to commit the time to it.” Play It Again is about just that, with Rusbridger reminding us to get on with one’s life ambitions.

 

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve HarrisI almost always have a book in my hand when I’m standing in line at the Northstar Café, where I occasionally get dinner after my workout. Often, I get approached and conversations start because of the book. One time, the restaurant “greeter” told me about his sister who loves to read and described the tables at her house overflowing with books. And then there was the professor, who jumped out of her chair to talk with me about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a young adult novel about the capture and interrogation of a young British secret agent in Nazi-occupied France.

More recently, the girl at the register taking my order asked me if the book I had with me was any good. I was reading The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, a surprisingly addictive novel. There was a long line, so I quickly summarized the book’s plot about a 19-year-old, headstrong girl who’s getting married to a 20-year-old thoughtful young man, both from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in London. The girl taking my order seemed interested, and then she told me she had a hard time finding good books. She said her mother gave her books, but she didn’t like them.

I asked, “What kind do you like?” She said stories with romance and real life scenarios. To me, that meant no dystopian universes, vampires, zombies or fantastic thrillers, and also no romance novels (or she would’ve said “romance novels”, indicating the genre).  She started to write down the Eve Harris title, and I said, “Why not let me give you a list.”

I’ll admit, the list didn’t come easily. I sensed she was a casual reader, who could easily live without reading, likely a result of not being matched with books that are right for her. It’s easier to make recommendations to a perpetual reader who can’t seem to find a good book at the moment — you can ask for favorite books they’ve read in the past, and that offers indicators. In retrospect, I should’ve asked what books her mother gave her.

I thought it best to suggest a combination of guaranteed good reads, as well as something beyond the parameters of what she might normally choose, or come across, e.g. literary novels, but they couldn’t be too intimidating in size and depth (such as Donna Tartt’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner or a Hilary Mantel door stopper). The literary novels would need to be engaging, moving and entertaining.

And so here’s what I quickly scribbled on a napkin.

The guaranteed good reads were One Day by David Nicholls and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, both with romance, both page-turners and real-life situations.

Next was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a great story of love, Hollywood drama and heart-grabbing characters, although a bit risky because of her age, which, I guessed, was in the 20’s. Beautiful Ruins takes much of its story from the filming of Cleopatra in Italy with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, way before her time.

Also, the book I was reading, The Marrying of Chani Kauffman by Eve Harris, not only because she saw it, but also because it’s a type of book she won’t likely come across, and it’s really quite good. Perhaps a bit of a risk, as I wasn’t sure if she’d be drawn into the cultural theme, but still I believed there was a good chance she might love it.

And finally, for a surprise factor, a memoir, Half a Life by Darin Strauss because of its moving, true story of how one event for an 18-year-old boy reverberated through the rest of his life. Not a thick book, plus easy to read and hard to put down. Also, I thought it would fascinate her. I believe it came to mind because I talked about it in a group-setting once with an audience in their 20’s and 30’s — and I recall the room becoming completely silent, as I explained how Darin Strauss’s story so eloquently shows us what guilt looks like, as well as  forgiveness and empathy.

The Whiskey Baron by Jon Sealy

In Jon Sealy’s debut novel, the men of Castle County South Carolina like their whiskey. It doesn’t matter the beverage is illegal. The alcoholic buzz takes the edge off the tough economic times of 1932. The country has been dry since January 1920, when the 18th amendment went into effect outlawing alcoholic beverages; however, thanks to Larthan Tull, a.k.a. the whiskey baron, the men are well supplied.

Tull is a drug lord of sorts, a Mafioso type monopolizing the region’s illegal liquor trade, working closely with Aunt Lou, who looks more like a spinster aunt than the largest distributor of liquor in the Carolinas. Sheriff Furman Chambers turns a blind eye to the baron’s activities, until he can’t, when two of Tull’s runners — young boys — are shot dead on Highway 9 outside Tull’s speakeasy. Tull’s deputy claims “Mary Jane” Hopewell did it, only the sheriff knows the drunk no-good doesn’t have it in his DNA to pull the trigger like that.

What unfolds is not a whodunit. We know early on how and why the killing happened. The murders are catalysts in a larger, atmospheric story about bootlegging in the south during harsh, violent times. Farmers sell their corn crops to Tull to keep their farms solvent and others, who lost their farms, go to work in the local cotton mill and scrimp to make ends meet. As the sheriff’s brother so eloquently states to his law-enforcing sibling:

“There’s laws from God, there’s laws from man, and there’s the law of the economy, and those things don’t always agree, especially when you’ve got a banker to pay.”

It is just such philosophy that drives Mary Jane to encroach on Tull’s turf with a special tasting whiskey he’s brewed on the riverfront property of his girlfriend, the widow Abigail Coleman; however, you just don’t mess with Tull’s business. Mary Jane learns this the hard way — the boys who are gunned down had agreed to be his runners — and he goes into hiding.  Tull meanwhile pays threatening and destructive visits to Abigail, and the Feds arrive in town looking for a way to get Tull in jail once and for all. Mary Jane’s family — his brother, sister-in-law and nephews — have no idea what’s going on. They’ve got problems of their own, squeezed to the breaking point with life’s stresses, including the oldest boy Quinn sneaking off to “spark”  with Tull’s beautiful daughter, Evelyn.

Sealy writes powerfully on several levels, drawing us in with a palpable sense of place, a violent time period and a quick pace of events that sustain incertitude to the very end. The characters, in a few scenes, come across as cut-outs of what we’d expect, but that’s an isolated complaint considering their circumstances add to the story’s pull — Tull as a soulless business man who needs his daughter; Joe Hopewell, Mary Jane’s brother, held together by a thin wire of courage in his adversity; and the burned-out sheriff, worrying about his marriage and grieving for the sons he lost in World War I.

The sheriff closes in on the truth of what happened on Highway 9, and Larthan Tull closes in on Mary Jane. What brings the story to its explosive conclusion is a clever entangling of the people in this South Carolina mill town. It’s unexpected and flat-out unforgettable, making this impressive first novel written by Jon Sealy a reason to jump up and shout “bravo!”

 

Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.

Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)

Ordinary Grace by William Kent KruegerBest Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.

The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.

William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.

The Wicked Girls by Alex MarwoodBest Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood

I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.

Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”

What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.

Best Short Story

Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.

Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.

 

These books arriving soon have caught my attention. Simply put, they look like good ones. I share them here so you, too, can consider and anticipate them.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Ohio author Anthony Doerr’s new novel is a World War II story about the converging lives of a German soldier and a blind French girl in occupied France 1944, specifically in Saint-Malo, Brittany. Their parallel lives and coming together take us through this 400+ page novel that I’m thinking could be a great book to put on the summer stack. In an author video, Doerr says the themes he wanted to write about include the magic of radio, the invasion of Paris and the power nationalism can have over a child’s mind. He also mentions wanting to write about a boy trapped in the city of Saint Malo, a town Doerr visited and where he gained inspiration. He is an award-winning novelist with a gift for writing gorgeous prose and memorable, engaging stories.  Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal, the book industry’s forecasting magazines, give Doerr’s new novel starred reviews of excellence.

RozChast_memoirCan’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Roz Chast, a cartoonist for The New Yorker since 1978, has penned a memoir about the aging of her parents. Better said, she’s written and illustrated the story, as it’s a graphic memoir with text and drawings. From the publisher: “Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.” Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal all give the book starred reviews. You can see samples of illustrations in the book via The New Yorker.  Chast’s father died in 2007 and her mother died in 2009 (via The Washington Post).

Bird Box by Josh MalermanBird Box by Josh Malerman

Here’s a first novel about an apocalyptic reality set in a Michigan community. It doesn’t sound like something I’d typically want to read; however, after being completely smitten with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, I find myself wanting to add Bird Box to my reading pile. The plot involves creatures that drive people to madness and suicide, blindfolds to protect people from seeing the mysterious creatures and a woman and her children fleeing to safety. The publisher’s website writes: “Written with the narrative tension of The Road and the exquisite terror of classic Stephen King, Bird Box is a propulsive, edge-of-your-seat horror thriller set in an apocalyptic near-future world — a masterpiece of suspense from the brilliantly imaginative Josh Malerman.” Malerman is the lead singer and songwriter for The High Strung from Detroit. You can read an interview with him in The Huffington Post. Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews give stars, but Library Journal went negative, saying the “extreme suspense becomes tedious after about 50 pages.”

Correction: The original title for the blog post incorrectly stated the three books are novels. Chast’s book is a memoir. The blog post title was changed to reflect the correction.

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