Friday, May 30, 2014

Summer Preview 2014: Part Nine

It was only after I became a parent myself that I appreciated how heroic (or crazy) my parents were when they packed up our old camper trailer, hitched it to the station wagon, and crammed us five kids into the car. Our destination varied, but it always took too long to get there. These days, I look forward to travel time so I can read. Here are some books I'd like to take with me on summer vacation:

The title, Cataract City (Graywolf Press/Macmillan, July 8, 2014), refers to the nickname for Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

The blue-collar city is a major character in this literary crime novel written by 30-year-old Canadian writer Craig Davidson. Davidson examines the life-long friendship of Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs, against the backdrop of a city where most characters work at the Nabisco factory ("the Bisk"), come home smelling like a particular cookie or cracker, and dream of escape to a better life. Duncan narrates the opening chapter, in which he has just completed a prison sentence for murder and is awaiting a ride back to Cataract City by a cop, his old friend Owen. Owen then picks up the narration to look back at events that bound and separated them: in particular, a drunken kidnapping that ended tragically and left the traumatized 12-year-old boys lost in the woods for a week. We see how from there Owen's life took a right turn, and Duncan's, a wrong turn. Now the two men share a possible scheme for redemption.

Cataract City, published last year in Canada by Doubleday Canada, was shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize and recently nominated for the Trillium Award, won last year by Alice Munro for Dear Life. I plan to read Davidson's book for its exploration of masculinity, memory, and identity, and because I hear the author makes your heart race with scenes of basketball and greyhound racing. Bare-knuckle fighting and dog fighting make an appearance (I know, but I will read it any way). Davidson is developing the reputation of an emerging top-class writer, and I'm looking forward to learning why.

Writer Haruki Murakami is a colossus, and not only in Japan. His English-speaking fans have been making a lot of noise, waiting for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage to be translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. The hours are crawling by until Knopf/Random House publishes this 400-page book on August 12, 2014.

It's the story of a man whose four best high school friends are Mr. Red, Mr. Blue, Miss White, and Miss Black. He is called "Colorless," because his name, unlike theirs, does not have a kanji symbol for a color. Once in college, these friends become mysteriously alienated from Tsukuru. When he asks why, they say something like, "If you don't already know, we're not going to tell you." For months, Tsukuru is in despair and contemplates death. Sixteen years later, he's living the simple life of a train station engineer when a friend suggests he reunite with these high school friends. Tsukuru sets off on a quest through Japan and Europe to discover what happened all those years ago to cost him their friendship. Murakami is one of those writers whose imagination dictates you read whatever he writes. Early reviewers report that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki has a smooth surface overlying emotional turmoil. It's closer in form to Murakami's early writing, such as Norwegian Wood, rather than the recent, and 925-pages long, 1Q84.

Donal Ryan's The Thing About December (Steerforth, August 26, 2014) is set in an Irish village, as is his earlier The Spinning Heart (Steerforth, February 2014). The latter, a gem that made the Booker longlist, unfolds after the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger. It has 21 narrators, each of whom has his or her own chapter.

The Thing About December's Johnsey Cunliffe narrates his 2001 month by month from January to December, while the economic bubble is still expanding. Johnsey isn't half-witted, but he's not quite all there, and what is there is preoccupied with thoughts about his loving father, now deceased, and his sharp-tongued mother. Johnsey inherits their small house and some property that Johnsey, not trusting himself to farm, leases to Dermot McDermott. As the value of his house and land skyrocket, friends and foes come circling. Word is that reading both is a must. After enjoying the gorgeous Irish lament of The Spinning Heart, I'm happy to read this one.

Sometimes it's best not to know too much when you open a book's cover. That's the early readers' consensus about a book they rate very highly, The Girl with All the Gifts (Orbit/Little, Brown and Co., June 10, 2014), by M. R. Carey. M. R. Carey is Mike Carey, the current writer of Marvel's X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four. He also wrote Lucifer and Hellblazer and a comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

The Girl with All the Gifts is "atmospheric, action-packed, thought-provoking" speculative fiction. The real focus is the relationships between the characters, because Carey explores what makes us human. Let me tell you about the setup, and then I'll stop. His narrator is a 10-year-old girl named Melanie, who speaks in the present tense. Every morning, Melanie, dubbed "our little genius" by Dr. Caldwell, and the other girls are taken from their cells. They're strapped into wheelchairs under the eyes of the rifle-wielding Sergeant and wheeled to class. The only world they know is the corridor, the shower room, their cells and the classroom. Melanie jokes about all this, but she loves school and learning about life outside her world from her favorite teacher, the sad-eyed Miss Justineau.

Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves (Simon & Schuster, August 19, 2014) is the first novel by this American high school English teacher. It took Thomas more than 10 years to write, but a bidding war among publishers over the 700-page manuscript earned Thomas an advance of more than $1 million in North America and a six-figure UK deal. (Unsurprisingly, Thomas has now quit teaching to write full time!)

It's a multi-generational epic, spanning six decades, that centers on Eileen Tumulty, a first-generation Irish-American born in the '40s in Queens, New York. As the resourceful Eileen passes through the decades––from her childhood years as the caretaker daughter of an alcoholic and a gambler; to her marriage to Ed Leary, a scientist and academician who doesn't consider money or material possessions very important; and mother to their son, Connell––we see what happens to her ambitions to live the American Dream. This book about identity, family, and loss has gained tremendous attention. The editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster calls it "one of the most beautiful and moving" books she has ever read. I received an advance reading copy from Powell's Indiespensable program, and I can't wait to dive in.

Lily King's historical novel, Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 3, 2014) is loosely based on the lives of three famous anthropologists: American Margaret Mead (Nell Stone), New Zealander Reo Fortune (Fen Stone); and Gregory Bateson (Andrew Bankson), an Englishman. It's set between the World Wars in Papua New Guinea, where Bankson has been doing field studies of the Kiona tribe for many years. He's lonely and recovering from a failed suicide attempt when he meets Nell Stone and her husband Fen. Bankson introduces them to the tribe down river they'll be studying and becomes obsessed not only with his work, but with Nell, too.

King's impressive research, the richness of her language, the complexity of the relationships among the anthropologists, and the fascinating tribes they study are cited by reviewers. If you enjoyed Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees or Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, two other recent books with anthropological settings, check out this one. People in the thrall of scientific discovery and each other sounds like reading euphoria to me.

On this happy note, I'll sign off, but we'll be back tomorrow.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Summer Preview 2014: Part Eight

One of the most obvious reading destinations for many is the beach. There is nothing better than a good book, an umbrella, iced cold lemonade and the mesmerizing sound of the surf in the background. Since reading and babysitting don't mix by the water, the experience is particularly nice at those times when you can leave the responsibility of watching little ones getting tossed by the waves to someone else.

A perfect book for this scenario is Andrea Camilleri's Angelica's Smile (translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli; Penguin Books, June 24, 2014). It is light enough to allow some wave watching but engrossing enough to keep your mind off sand fleas.

Salvo Montalbano has had his ups and downs with his long time girl friend Livia, and he is faithful to her in his fashion. But he has always had a weakness for lovely, seemingly innocent young girls who tend to bring out his protective instincts.

Enter the young and beautiful Angelica, who has the air of a medieval maiden, and Montalbano is smitten. Angelica is one victim of a rash of burglaries that so far has Montalbano perplexed. They seem to be the work of an elusive, mysterious Mr. Z, who begins to taunt Montalbano with menacing letters. Mail threats quickly turn to murder, and now the detective has to snap out of his doldrums to find and unmask a killer.

Camilleri's books are just long enough to read over several hours while basking in the sun. With sunscreen on, of course.

Maybe you feel like a lazy afternoon reading in the garden or in a "bee-loud glade" as W. B. Yeats would say. What could be more appropriate for your reading pleasure than a quaint English village mystery?

How about this title by Mike Ripley: Margery Allingham's Albert Campion Returns in Mr Campion's Farewell Completed by Mike Ripley (Severn House, July 1, 2014)? It turns out this is even more complicated than the common story of an author being commissioned to continue a dead author's sleuthing series. In her writing life, Margery Allingham sometimes collaborated with her husband, Philip ("Pip") Youngman Carter. This was particularly true when she first began the Mr. Campion series. After her death, Youngman Carter finished her manuscript of The Cargo of Eagles, then wrote two more Campion novels on his own. This Mike Ripley book returns the favor by completing the manuscript Youngman Carter left unfinished at his own death in 1969.

The Old World village of Lindsay Carfax may be picturesque, but you couldn't call it quaint. Unlike other villages, it isn't run by the parish council, the housing authorities, or even the local cops. The real bosses are the Carders, who take their name from the act of carding wool, which was intrinsic to the manufacture of woolens back in the day of do-it-yourself. These are wise guys of a sort, part of a syndicate that controls the town with their own rules.

Margery Allingham's Golden Age detective Albert Campion comes to visit Carfax because he has a niece who lives there. But he can soon see that things are not what they seem in the idyllic-appearing village. At first, there is the incident of a missing schoolteacher, then there is deliberate vandalism of Campion's car, and then the game is afoot.

If you are a fan of Allingham's, you will recognize several of your favorite characters, from Luke to Campion's former manservant, Lugg, as well as his wife, Lady Amanda Fitton and more. There is plenty of quintessential British atmosphere in the story; the plot is crisp, the dialogue dazzling and the climax is thrilling. It's a perfect read while lazing in a hammock in the gardens.

New England is a favorite vacation destination for people in this part of the country, but if getting to the reaches of Maine is beyond any daydreams, then find yourself a spot under a shady tree and pretend you are in the North Woods alongside Mike Bowditch. Mike has left the Maine Warden Service and is working as a fishing guide in the North Woods. He is trying to recover from a family tragedy and he likes the calm and quiet of the of the forests and lakes in the area.

In The Bone Orchard (Minotaur, July 15, 2014), written by Paul Doiron, Bowditch feels compelled to come to the aid of his mentor, Sgt. Kathy Frost, who has just been an unwitting accomplice to a an apparent case of "suicide by cop." Kathy Frost is forced to kill a troubled war veteran and then finds herself the target of a government inquiry. Adding to this, she has to face the outrage from the dead soldier's platoon mates.

Soldiers will be soldiers and, before long, Kathy is in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle––and the shot is dead on.

As Kathy hovers on the brink of death, it seems to be up to Mike Bowditch to join the search for the shooter. He needs to find out if there are motives other than the obvious, and so he has to backtrack into Kathy's life. Going back in time gives Mike himself an opportunity to confront the choices he has made in his own life, and maybe even find some romance in the future.

Lying back and listening to the leaves rustling in the breeze while enjoying some vicarious Maine is a great way to while away some summer hours.

Before the flies start biting and the heat turns into a monster, a little fishing is a perfect pastime. Well, maybe reading while some one else fishes is the way to go. Victoria Houston's latest entry in her Loon Lake mystery series, featuring Police Chief Llewellyn (Lew) Ferris and retired dentist Dr. Paul (Doc) Osborne, is Dead Lil' Hustler (Tyrus Books, June 18, 2014).

Most of Houston's books are named after fly fishing lures, but the actual lures in the series are the well-drawn likable characters, plots that are far from common or garden variety, and finally, the aroma of fish just pulled from the water and cooked to perfection.

Loon Lake, in Northern Wisconsin, is a draw for nature lovers, hunters and fishermen throughout the year, but in mid-July the population swells with vacationers of all sorts. Police Chief Lew Ferris has her hands full, because she is involved in a murder investigation of a grad student, as well as an investigation into the finding of some skeletal remains that appear to be those of a missing bank executive. Making matters complicated is the fact that the scene of both possible crimes is an area in the Nicolet National Forest where wolves congregate.

What is making Paul Osborne nervous is the antics of a different sort of wolf; one that is putting the moves on Lew by teaching her the Japanese art of tenkara fly-fishing. Not the kind of sweet talk that would impress most women, but Lew is not most women.

I have to warn you that the easy pace and the interesting plots make the series a bit addictive. Before you know it you will be using some Wisconsinisms like razzbonya or jabone when you are referring to some nincompoop as if you were a North Woods native yourself. It is a nice way to insult someone without them being aware of it.

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas (Crown, August 5, 2014), by Marie-Helene Bertino, will take you there to a time right before Christmas in the lives of three people who are suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The first is nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari, a lonely child struggling to get along after the death of her mother. She has no friends and that is primarily because she is a jerk whose main talent appears to be swearing. Deep inside herself, she believes that what she is really good at is singing. When the role of singing at the school Christmas concert is snatched away from her at the last minute, she makes plans to explore the Philly streets to find the legendary Cat's Pajamas jazz club where she plans to sing on stage to vindicate herself.

Madeleine's schoolteacher, Sarina Greene, feels for the girl but she herself is lonely and longing for a second chance at love. There has been a chance encounter with an old flame that has put a little excitement into Sarina's life .

The Cat's Pajamas club itself is in dire straits due to onerous fines recently levied on it, and the owner, Lorca, has this one night to recoup his losses.

All these tender and sorrowful stories take place on the same day, and the lives of the three participants in the drama become intertwined in a lovely way. The story is much like jazz itself. There are singular riffs, repetitions and reversals sometimes sounding like cacophony, but at other times notes coming together in a lively rhythm but with a melody that is often made up by the musicians as they play.

I found that the most interesting character of all was the city itself:

"The city awakens. Crust on its windshields and hungry. Snorting plumes of frustration in the harbor. Scratching its traffic on the expressway. Bone cold and grouchy, from the toes of its stadiums to the strands of its El."

With crisp prose like this, the novel will engross you and take you away for a while through the many city streets of Philly's fascinating byways that are well worth visiting.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Summer Preview: Part Seven

If Georgette's first set of previewed books made her think of ice cream flavors, my third set, with its mix of thrillers, domestic dramas, epistolary novels, and a wide variety of quest tales, makes me think of a potluck cookout. As you go down the red-checked tablecloth-covered table, you load up with a collection of colors, textures and tastes that may clash, but end up on your plate anyway.

After reading his Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway will always be a main dish at the cookout for me; the double burger with the works. And I'll be first in line to read Tigerman (Knopf, July 29, 2014), even though the publisher's book description doesn't sound very much like the inspired lunacy of the other two books. I was so puzzled by it that I had to go find reviews of the book, which was published a few months ago in the UK. Now that I've read the reviews, I get it; this is a real Harkaway tale.

The Scotsman review says, essentially, that Tigerman is a comic book in which the superhero's subdued alter ego is protagonist Sergeant Lester Ferris, worn out by his tours of duty in Afghanistan and other trouble spots. Along with representatives of the other western allies, Ferris is sent to act as consul to the island of Mancreu. Long a pirate isle, it's now a powder keg with a wide variety of restless natives. A powder keg with the fuse lit, because scientists say that an underground volcano will soon blow up the island––and maybe destroy the planet.

Ferris informally adopts a street urchin who calls himself Robin, after Batman's sidekick in the comic books he's addicted to. Ferris becomes a superhero, Tigerman, to Robin and the community when he totally kicks ass against a gang that attacks and kills the local café owner. But now, as conditions become increasingly anarchic on Mancreu, Ferris has to stick with the role, which includes finding out what's behind the deadly attack on the café, where Robin comes from, and whether there is anything to the rumors that the boats offshore are home to a gang of international cutthroats involved in human trafficking, drugs and mercenary activities. This being a Harkaway book, there will naturally be operatic levels of action! adventure! and emotion!

French author Marc Levy has written an American-style thriller in Replay (translated from the French by Kate Bignold and Lakshmi Ramakrishnan Iyer; Europa Editions/Penguin Group (USA), June 3, 2014). I will resist assigning him anything along the lines of Franco-American SpaghettiOs or French's Mustard for the cookout, but a hot dog with plenty of mustard does always go well with thrillers, I think. Levy's protagonist is Andrew Stilman, a muckraking journalist for the New York Times. One day, while jogging along the Hudson, he is stabbed in the back. The next thing he knows, he wakes up two months earlier, knowing he was killed by the stabbing and has the next two months to solve––and prevent––his own murder.

Stilman has his work cut out for him. There have been so many of his exposés, so many targets who might want their revenge, from Argentine war criminals to Chinese child traffickers. Or it could be somebody a lot closer to home, like the wife to whom he had just confessed a serious indiscretion, or the resentfully envious cokehead of a co-worker. Publishers Weekly calls it a page turner that is as much about the big issues Stilman covers as it is about the thriller plot, but cautions that the ending may disappoint.

Levy's been a best-selling writer in France, but he hasn't made it big in the US yet, despite the fact that his If Only It Were True was adapted for the screen in the Reese Witherspoon romance Just Like Heaven. Replay seems perfectly designed for summer beach reading, so maybe this will be his US breakthrough.

At the better class of cookout, there may be a collection of nice, runny cheeses, rustic pâtés, artisanal sausages and crusty baguettes. Since Parisian art cinema owner Alain Bonnard won't serve the usual vats of fake-butter popcorn and extra-value sized sodas at the Cinéma Paradis, I'm guessing he'd insist on bringing the good fromage and charcuterie to the party. Bonnard is the protagonist of Nicholas Barreau's One Evening in Paris (St. Martin's, July 1, 2014). I don't normally read romance novels, but throw in a Paris location and reviewers saying that it's also a love letter to the movies, and I'm in.

Shy Alain had thought of himself as living on the periphery of events, and had to content himself with living vicariously through the artistic masterpieces that he showed at his cinema. That is, until he begins a romance with the woman in the red coat who was in the audience every Wednesday night. Then, one night as he is closing up, a famous director and his muse appear and tell him that they want to use the cinema as the shooting location of their next film collaboration.

This Hollywood attention suddenly makes Alain and his cinema the focal points of the public's gaze. But when this spotlight is turned on, Alain's new love disappears. Alain leaves the periphery of events and living vicariously, and sets out to find her––and become the lead actor of his life.

I doubt anybody takes espresso to a cookout, but it's hard to think of Jean-Patrick Manchette as anything but an astringent, double shot of high-octane caffeine. His taut, absurdist, violent noir novels are short, sharp punches that get the adrenaline flowing. Up to now, only three of the 10 he wrote have been translated to English: Three to Kill, Fatale and The Prone Gunman. The first and third of those were also published in graphic novel form under the titles West Coast Blues and Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot.

In just a few weeks, though, The Mad and the Bad (translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York Review of Books Classics, July 15, 2014) will hit the streets. The publisher's book description implies more than it tells, but the picture I get is that the fabulously rich and famous Michel Hartog might just be a big-time psychopath. He hires Julie out of an insane asylum to care for Peter, his nephew, who is now an orphan due to the accidental (?) death of Hartog's brother.

Hartog then hires Thompson, a hit man with stomach problems, to take out both Julie and Peter. The targets manage to escape Thompson, and all three then head for the mountain estate where Michel is holed up. Anarchical violence ensues.

Manchette saw good noir as social criticism told, anecdotally, through the form of the crime novel. It's true you can see politico-social messages in Manchette's books, but most of the time you're too busy reading breathlessly, trying to keep up with the fast pace and wild action. I'm not even much of a noir reader, but I wouldn't consider missing one of Manchette's.

I Love You More, by Jennifer Murphy (Doubleday, June 17, 2014). Doesn't that sound sweet? Like the s'mores at the end of the cookout? Well, maybe if you stuck the treat straight into the flames and didn't pull it out until it was blackened and smoking. Twelve-year-old Picasso Lane is just one of the narrators of this domestic murder mystery that sounds like it might achieve a Robert Barnard level of inspired nastiness. At the start, her father, Oliver, has been murdered at the Lanes' beach house and Picasso's mother, Diana, is the prime suspect.

The spouse is always the prime suspect, right? Absolutely, and especially when you find out that Oliver had three of them. This is something Picasso suspected for a while, based on her eavesdropping on Oliver's phone calls, seeing what looks like a family portrait of Oliver with a different woman and kids, and catching sight of a female visitor at the house who was accessorized like Diana. When the two other wives show themselves, you'd expect the three women to be at each others' throats, but they seem to find it beneficial to provide cover for each other, at least for awhile.

Investigating police Detective Kyle Kennedy has his turn at the narration, along with each of the wives, and a portrait of the charming, but conniving and maybe even sociopathic Oliver emerges. Those of us who read a lot of mysteries are used to falsehood, red herrings and misdirection being inherent in the plot, but I'm excited about the entertainment value of a book that promises so many lying liars and the lies they tell.

After reading the description of Jeff Soloway's The Travel Writer (Random House, June 3, 2014), I have to see it as the sliced ham at the cookout table. Jacob Smalls is a travel writer––he refuses to debase the term "journalist" for a profession that is all about snagging freebies––who jumps on a plane to La Paz, Bolivia, when his old girlfriend, Pilar Rojas, asks for his help. Pilar runs PR for a luxury resort in Bolivia and has a major challenge on her hands when an American woman, Hilary Pearson, disappears from the resort.

Pilar's proposal is that in return for the resort's plush accommodations, gourmet food and hot-and-cold running alcoholic beverages, Jacob will do some damage control by writing a puff piece for the resort. While he's there, he'll also try to find Hilary. Jacob lives in a cramped studio apartment in Queens, so naturally he jumps at the offer.

As soon as he lands in Bolivia, he gains all kinds of unwanted attention, from a political gang that might have had something to do with Hilary's disappearance, and the nebbishy Kenny, a co-worker of Hilary's, who firmly believes (with no evidence) that he and Hilary are soul mates. With Kenny firmly attached to his side, Jacob investigates. One of my favorite authors, Christopher Fowler, who writes the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, says: “Travel doesn’t just broaden the mind; it can also get you killed. Sassy, cynical Jacob Smalls is an ideal guide for journeying into unknown territories.”

If we were at a cookout for the English/Creative Writing department at a university, you might assume there would be cucumber and watercress sandwiches, strawberries and cream, elderberry wine and, of course, tea. But do you remember what your mother said you do when you assume? Based on Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members (Doubleday, August 19, 2014), you might want to avoid whatever dish Professor Jason Fitger contributes. What with his attitude, the sandwiches would be dried out, the cream would be curdled, the wine skunked and who knows what might be in the tea.

In his younger days, Fitger made a big splash as a novelist, but he turned off friends, colleagues and lovers when he used what they had thought of as their private lives as inspiration for his fiction. Now, he is a tenured professor at a small midwestern university whose students are more likely to end up asking if you want fries with that than writing for a living. Fitger is bitter about the lowly status of his department compared to more career-oriented departments, like economics, and despairing about his prospects of future successful publication, but he still manages to have a bit of a soft spot for some of his students.

Here's the kicker. Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel, in which Fitger reveals his thoughts about his students, himself, the university, life and work in a series of recommendation letters he writes for his students applying for various jobs and positions. The publisher's book description says: "Finally a novel that puts the 'pissed' back into 'epistolary.'" That seems like a groaner of a tag line to me. I'm more attracted by Kirkus Reviews' summing-up: "Truth is stranger than fiction in this acid satire of the academic doldrums."

In addition to being a successful writer with two prior adult novels and five young adult books (including the well-known The Unbearable Book Club For Unsinkable Girls), Julie Schumacher is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. She estimates she writes at least 100 letters of recommendation every year. I hope her subjects don't see themselves too clearly in Dear Committee Members.

A very (very) different book about a writer is Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life (Harper, June 3, 2014). First things first. There is a lot of food in this book, which is set mostly in Brooklyn, New York's Jewish community of immigrants who came to the US in the mass exodus from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and 1990s. Invite these people to the cookout and you'll get a lot of food on the table, though you might not recognize all of it.

When I first read the description of A Replacement Life, I thought: Are you kidding? A book about a writer helping Russian Jews falsely claim Holocaust restitution funds? Considering that we still have plenty of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers around, it just seemed like breathtaking––maybe even offensive––chutzpah to write this.

But while this scheme is what moves the plot along, it's secondary to the real subject, which is about Slava Gelman's complicated love for his grandmother, who has just died, and his now-widowed grandfather. Slava has always wanted to be a writer, but he's not getting anywhere in his job at Century magazine. He uses his best writing to tell his grandmother's story through the affidavits he invents.

Like the well-known writer Gary Shteyngart, Boris Fishman was himself part of that flood of Soviet Jews who found a home in the United States. Fishman was born in Minsk and came here in 1988. This is an immigrant-experience book like no other I've ever read, in particular the dizzying richness of its language. Only someone for whom English is a second language can revel in it the way Fishman does.

Away's cover was based on Sherrie Wolf's Fruit Bowl Still Life
Back in 2007, I fell in love with the lushly transporting novel, Away, by Amy Bloom. The gorgeous cover art showed a background of a canyon in what appeared to be the American West, and the foreground a bowl of apples, plums and pears. Ever since, I've associated Amy Bloom with the mature, perfumed juiciness of perfectly ripe fruit.

Her new novel, Lucky Us (Random House, July 29, 2014)––also with eye-catching cover art––promises to be another engrossing, unusual tale of characters you've never seen the likes of before.

The story begins:
My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
That's 12-year-old Eva talking in 1939, shortly before she meets Iris, the half-sister she never knew she had. Eva finds herself dumped with her father and Iris, and within a couple of years she and Iris will head west together, so that Iris can pursue her dream of Hollywood fame. As in Away, though, this won't be just a journey from east to west. It will be a much longer and meandering trip, over a 10-year period, involving a colorful array of characters and events, and an exploration of what family really means.

The quest for family is also the theme of Tom Rachman's The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (The Dial Press, June 10, 2014); in this case the quest of bibliophile Tooly Zylberberg. Since Tooly's journey moves among Bangkok, New York City and Wales, I'm suggesting that a takeout carton of Pad Kee Mao on the cookout table comes closest to making sense in connection with this book.

In 2011, Tooly has retreated to a barely-scraping-by bookstore, World's End, in Wales, where she passes her time sitting on the floor reading books, interrupted only by the very occasional customer and the musings of her unnecessary clerk, Fogg. Flash back to 1999, when Tooly lived in a New York squat, then further back to 1988, as 10-year-old Tooly moved from Australia to Bangkok.

In each slice of Tooly's life, she is cared for––sort of––by various people, including the flighty Sarah, the charming conman Venn, the uptight Paul and the bibliophile and self-proclaimed slob, Humphrey. In 2011, when Tooly gets a call about Humphrey, she decides to return to New York and get answers about all of these characters and what her proper place is in their universes––and theirs in hers.

Each trip back to 1988 and 1999 gives the reader more insights into Tooly's life and helps inform her current quest. This makes the book sound so purposeful, though, as if it's a directed and determined quest, when it feels much more leisurely and rambling than that; almost picaresque. And it's filled with conversations and debates about history, politics and society.

I don't associate a book by filmmaker John Waters (Hairspray, Serial Mom, Pink Flamingoes) with any particular dish at a potluck cookout. Instead, I see a plate that is the opposite of the one held by the kid who can't stand for his foods to touch. Waters would start with some fried chicken and a couple of Maryland crab cakes, then layer on some three-bean salad, tuna noodle casserole, a little bit of every dish that all the other guests avoid and then, on top, a big glistening mound of lime-green Jell-O––ah, what the heck, stick a deviled egg on top of that, sprinkle with M&Ms and you're good to go.

In Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 3, 2014), well, I guess the subtitle tells you what happens. Just the idea of that pale man with the pencil mustache sticking out his thumb to get from his Baltimore home to San Francisco (which used to be known as Baghdad by the Bay, back when Baghdad meant "exotic," not "war zone") makes me giggle, if a little nervously. Before he hits the road, he imagines Best Case Scenarios (like, everybody will be crazy and happy and share pot and hot sex with him) and Worst Case Scenarios (like, everyone will be hostile and homophobic and he'll get beaten up and jailed).

Once he gets on his way, he finds the real thing very different from anything he'd imagined. He's surprised by the friendliness and kindness of his many automotive hosts, including a farmer, a minister's wife, a rock band and, most surprising of all, a straight-arrow Republican city councilman. I'm used to reading crime fiction, where a road trip like this would end with a shallow grave in the desert, but I'll perfectly willing to give up murder and mayhem for a ride-along with the Pope of Trash.

Note: Thanks to the publishers and Amazon's Vine program for providing advance reviewing copies of The Rise & Fall of Great Powers and A Replacement Life. Versions of my comments about those books may appear on Amazon and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Summer Preview 2014: Part Six

June is traditionally wedding month, and this brings to mind that English rhyme "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe." That's what a bride is supposed to wear for good luck in her marriage. I hope this advice also holds true for reading books. If so, I'm on the road to good fortune.

Something Old

I have an old family scrapbook/photo album that I treasure, but my family's survival doesn't depend on it. On the other hand, Hannah Wilde's family diaries are crucial to their existence. The diaries are tied together with string and have been handed down from mother to daughter for more than a hundred years. They're in the trunk of the Wildes' car when Stephen Lloyd Jones's The String Diaries (Mulholland, July 1, 2014) begins. Hannah has the gas pedal to the floor, daughter Leah crouches in the backseat, and husband Nate sprawls in the front passenger seat, bleeding to death.

In ensuing chapters, writer Jones blends elements of horror, the supernatural and thriller to create a gripping urban fantasy. This isn't a book of vampires, ghosts or werewolves. Rather, Jones uses fabricated Hungarian folk tales and mythology to create an unusual story of destructive obsession based on character rather than supernatural nature alone. No one and nothing can be taken at face value. A layered timeline of three stories includes the ever-vigilant Hannah's, set in the present; Oxford professor Charles Meredith's, which begins in 1979; and Jakab's, which opens in Hungary in 1873. These three stories create the history behind Hannah's family diaries. Early reviewers report an engaging, confident story that forces them to stay awake until the early hours, furtively turning pages.

The "old" in Fredrik Backman's tragicomedy and Swedish bestseller, A Man Called Ove (translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch; Atria, July 15, 2014), is the title character himself. Ove is an old man whose view of the world has darkened since the death of Sonja, his handicapped wife, and his forced retirement. His days are long and a burden to him. As the self-appointed enforcer of his housing complex's rules, Ove judges everyone else by how closely they adhere to "the way things are done." It almost goes without saying that others fall far short and few fall shorter than his new neighbors, the pregnant Parvaneh and her inept husband, Patrick.

At this point, Ove longs to be reunited with his deceased wife and he's scheduled his demise on his daily calendar. Interruptions by deliverymen, his noisy new neighbors and even a stray cat constantly force Ove to reschedule for the following day. Eventually, these interrupters worm their way into Ove's life and give him a reason for living it. There are sky-high reviews for this poignant and funny first book by Backman and it's recommended as the perfect book for people who loved Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Something New

James Lee Burke's upcoming Wayfaring Stranger (Simon & Schuster, July 15, 2014) isn't one of his Dave Robicheaux books. It's the first in a new series with Weldon Holland. That last name, Holland, will ring a bell for Burke fans. Billy Bob Holland and Hackberry Holland, two tough-minded Texas lawmen and cousins, has each featured in his own Burke series. Now we follow Weldon, Hackberry's grandson, into manhood.

Burke's writing has great strength and poetic beauty. His appreciation for war veterans and honorable Americans who are the backbone of our country is evident in all his series. In the Robicheaux books, his concern is sin and redemption. This book is a morality play set during a coming of age/Texas family saga, seen through Weldon's eyes. An early encounter with evil takes place in 1934, when the 16-year-old Weldon has a chance encounter with infamous robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Weldon chases them off Holland property with a bullet through the back window of their stolen car. He's a hero as an Army second lieutenant in World War II, in combat and action behind German lines. Back again in Texas, Weldon weds exactly the sort of gutsy woman you'd like to see him marry. He and his partner, Sgt. Hershel Pine, build a pipeline business in the cut-throat Texas-Louisiana oil industry. When all else fails, Weldon administers justice in the traditional Holland way.

Since we're talking about "something new" and administering do-it-yourself-justice, I need to tell you about Joe Abercrombie's Half a King (Del Rey/Random House, July 15, 2014). Like Wayfaring Stranger, it's the first in a series that combines a coming-of-age story with a family saga. Unlike Burke's book, Half a King begins a fantasy trilogy (Shattered Sea), set in a neo-Viking world. Although it's written for young adults, early reviewers emphatically assure us that "Abercrombie's stellar prose style and clever plot twists will be sure to please both adult and teen readers" (Publishers Weekly).

Abercrombie's protagonist, Yarvi, the youngest son of the king of Gettland, was born with a withered hand. He's smart and resourceful, but his inability to use a sword and shield leaves him vulnerable to taunts and bullying. It also leads to people underestimating him in a world where being a warrior is everything. (Game of Thrones' Tyrion Lannister, also called half a man, come to mind, anyone?) Yarvi is slated for the ministry and a role as royal advisor. When his father and older brother are ambushed and killed, Yarvi is totally unprepared for his ascent to the Black Chair (doesn't have quite the steely ring as the "Iron Throne" but this doesn't worry me, given the enthusiastic reviews). Gettland's people aren't prepared for their new half a king and Yarvi finds himself betrayed, nearly murdered and quickly dethroned. Yarvi swears to avenge his kin and, with the help of a motley crew that includes a woman (Sumael) and The Man Called Nothing, to retake the Chair.

Something Borrowed

I wasn't able to finish Zoran Drvenkar's gritty 2011 thriller, Sorry, though I read enough to recognize the book is stunning. It's a controlled chaos of fragmented chronology and various points of view, written in the first-, second-, and third-person. Drvenkar's narrative uses the word "you" to drag you into his story about a serial killer. The writing style wasn't a problem. What did me in was I simply couldn't take another woman nailed to the wall.

So why am I looking forward to reading Drvenkar's stand-alone psychological thriller, You (Knopf/Random House, August 19, 2014)? First of all, it's translated from the German by the same man who did the outstanding job on Sorry, Shaun Whiteside. Second, Drvenkar is such an inventive writer I want to see how well the structure of this book works. I've heard that it's written entirely in the second person and told in flashbacks from various points of view. Finally, the story itself is intriguing. The brother of Berlin criminal Ragnar Desche is killed and a cache of drugs is gone. It's no coincidence a group of teenage girls at the movies notice one of their friends is missing because she's going to bring these girls up against the Desche gang in a fight for their lives. (Something tells me not to expect Bambi Meets Godzilla.) I'm going to borrow some courage and read this top-rated German thriller.

Something Blue

This book with a beautiful blue cover, The Story of Land and Sea (Harper/HarperCollins, August 26, 2014) is a "big buzz" book by Katy Simpson Smith, who earned her Ph.D in history at the University of North Carolina. It's historical fiction set in a small town on the coast of North Carolina during the final years of the American Revolutionary War. It tells two stories; one of land, one of sea, that are linked by a woman named Helen.

When Helen's daughter, Tabitha (Tab), is 10 years old in 1793, she develops yellow fever. John, her father, is a former pirate turned Continental soldier. He has stayed away from the sea for Tab's sake but now he loads her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, in the hopes that she'll be helped by the sea air. While John and Tab are sailing, we look landward and back in time at Tab's mother, Helen, raised by her widowed father, Asa. Asa is a small plantation owner and he gives Helen a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. The two girls develop a relationship that's neither a friendship nor a master-slave connection. Years later, Helen marries John and Tab is born. Moll's marriage is arranged, yet she dearly loves Davy, her son. This historical fiction explores love in its many forms.

The title of Karin Slaughter's first stand-alone novel is Cop Town (Delacorte Press, June 24, 2014). As soon as I heard that, I envisioned a city full of blue uniforms. The city here is Atlanta. The time is 1974. We follow two female cops, Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy, as the Atlanta Police Department grapples with social change inside and outside the Department and a serial killer targeting cops ("the Shooter").

Recently widowed Kate Murphy grew up in an affluent home, the daughter of a psychiatrist. To change her life, she joins the APD. Maggie Lawson, in contrast, bleeds cop blue. Five years earlier, she followed her uncle and brother into the APD, but she's still mostly writing tickets. To keep these female cops out of the way and on the periphery of the investigation, Maggie and Kate are partnered. But the Shooter's most recent victim was Maggie's brother's partner, and Maggie and Kate refuse to stay put.

Karin Slaughter writes the bestselling Will Trent/Sarah Linton novels and I expect flawed, but empathetic characters, a riveting plot and a significant amount of gore.

And a Silver Sixpence In Her Shoe

I was poking around, when I came across what sounds like a treasure, The Supernatural Enhancements (Doubleday, August 12, 2014), by Barcelona writer/cartoonist Edgar Cantero. Here's a piece of a Goodreads review:
it is basically a haunted house story. a gimmicky haunted house story full of cryptography, puzzles, and wordplay, which would call to mind House of Leaves, but unlike House of Leaves, it doesn't use its gimmicks as a crutch. . . . it is, instead, a very charming gimmicky haunted house story, and the gimmicks are fun and playful and not bleak and distancing like House of Leaves. it's an engaging adventure book which could be friends with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore or The Shadow of the Wind, one that scoops you up, promises you a fun time, and actually delivers on its promise. it's a little bit gothic novel, a little bit treasure hunt adventure, a little bit dreamscape fantasy, with shades of the traditional victorian orphan-narrative, and a little secret society codex drama. and that ghost." (Karen)
That was enough to sell me, but if you want a little more info, it's about A., a young European who unexpectedly inherits Axton House, a beautiful estate in Point Bless, Virginia. Its previous owner threw himself out a third-story window, exactly as his father had done at that age. A. and his companion, Niamh, "a mute teenage punk girl from Ireland," haven't been in Point Bless long before they realize they have quite a something on their hands and they (and I) want to know exactly what it is.

I'm feeling very lucky as I survey the summer of reading before me. Tomorrow, we'll show you more upcoming books.