Monday, March 16, 2015

Spring Preview 2015: Part Nine

This March has been eventful. We've gone through a Friday the 13th, a  π  Day that comes only once a century, and the Ides of March. We're looking forward to St. Patrick's Day tomorrow and the college basketball tournament, March Madness, later this month. And we can't wait to read some of these upcoming books.

I love the built-in contradiction of π. It's an untidy irrational number but it's also a steady constant, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. There's a similar irrationality/consistency about the blondes in Emily Schultz's novel, The Blondes (St. Martin's/Dunne, April 21). It doesn't matter who they are or how they came about their yellow-colored hair, whether they were born with it or it was manufactured for them. As the result of a contagious something, they're rabid killers. How blonde women, who have been stereotyped as unintelligent and good-natured as Jersey cattle, become agents of a worldwide apocalypse demands an understanding. We'll get it from Schultz's Hazel Hayes. She's pregnant by her college professor and her narration is an accounting to her unborn child of her struggles to get home to Toronto from New York months earlier. "A nail-biter that is equal parts suspense, science fiction, and a funny, dark sendup of the stranglehold of gender" is the verdict of Kirkus Reviews. What's next, the end of civilization brought about by rampaging kittens?

Robert Charles Wilson, winner of the Hugo and Philip K. Dick Awards for his science fiction, goes beyond hair color and gender to categorize people. He examines the benefits and drawbacks of social media when it fuels tribalism. In The Affinities (Tor, April 21), social media genius Meir Klein of InterAlia develops a protocol identifying how ordinary individuals best fit into one of 22 social affinity groups. For example, Adam Fisk, an unhappy graphics design student, joins Tau and his life is turned around. This happens because like-minded people cooperate in ways that enhance their careers and increase personal happiness. There are problems though. Some people don't really fit into any affinity. As affinity members' lives get better and better, theirs get worse and worse in comparison. (Maybe these people should form their own affinity and call it Nowt.) There's also a tendency for an affinity to see their members as the best and others as inferior. Affinities become stereotyped and rivalries between affinities develop. Eventually, there are geopolitical consequences and a surprising murder.

A woman cave
I'm always on the lookout for something to save for a night's reading while my husband and our sons have boys' night out in the den. What this means for them is man-prepared food gobbled while watching men-played sports or a movie with more explosions and less character development than I can appreciate. In the meantime, I'm upstairs eating woman-baked cookies and reading a book with less blood and more nuanced writing than they'd enjoy.

One likely novel for boys' night out is Per Petterson's I Refuse (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett; Graywolf, April 7). Petterson is the Norwegian well known for his novels, I Curse the River of Time and Out Stealing Horses, with their drifting, damaged protagonists who have complex relationships with their pasts. Publishers Weekly calls I Refuse possibly Petterson's "saddest, most powerful take yet on families torn asunder, missed opportunities, lost friendships, and regrets that span a lifetime." It travels back and forth in time and between narrators to investigate the relationship between Tommy and Jim. Their chance 2006 meeting on an Oslo bridge is the first time these estranged friends have seen each other in 35 years. When they were children in rural Norway, they were inseparable until their teens and what seemed then like a small incident on a frozen lake sent them in diverging directions.

One can read only so many melancholy examinations of the human condition, no matter how beautifully written, before realizing it's close to income tax day (April 15) and the perfect time to ponder the question, "What if the Federal income tax is illegal?" Don't we wish! I've never read a Cotton Malone series book by Steve Berry, although I can see this now must be rectified. In the tenth book, The Patriot Threat (Minotaur, March 31), Cotton is no longer a member of the elite intelligence unit in the U.S. Treasury Department. Instead, he has retired to Denmark to sell books when his former boss, Stephanie Nelle, calls for help. Kim Yong Jin, a North Korean dumped from his leadership position for "a disgraceful abortive trip to Tokyo Disneyland" (!), has stumbled upon a book, The Patriot Threat, written by a U.S. tax resister in 1936. The book describes a flaw in our country's income tax code with the potential to destroy the U.S. economy. Assisted by his daughter Hana, Kim doesn't stop at murder in his attempts to make this happen. This sounds like the ingredients for a lot of fun. I mean, a couple of marauding North Koreans, a bookseller named Cotton Malone returning to harness as an intelligence agent for the Treasury and the possibility that our income tax is unconstitutional. I suggest we get our 1040 Forms for 2014 completed before we entertain this beguiling possibility.

I liked Irish writer Paul Lynch's Red Sky in Morning (Little, Brown, 2013), lyrical noir about an accidental murderer who is pursued across Ireland to Pennsylvania in 1832. Lynch's upcoming book, The Black Snow (Little, Brown, May 12), is geared toward readers who enjoyed Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 2011) (see review here) and Philipp Meyer's Texas epic, The Son (Ecco, 2013). It's set in 1940s Donegal, Ireland, and concerns a crisis (a farmhand dies after running into a burning barn in a futile attempt to save 43 cattle) and what it means for the farm's owner, Barnabas Kane, his struggling teenage son, Billy, and his anxious wife, Eskra. A tragic story told in Lynch's unconventional style might be a good bet for a cool night in May and Irish coffee.

Have a happy St. Patrick's Day tomorrow and stay tuned for more spring books from the Material Witnesses.

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