Yann Martel hit superstardom in 2001 when Life of Pi was published. Soon thereafter, in 2002, won The Man Booker Prize. In this year’s The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel seeks the surreal in order to make better sense of the sorrows of life.
The High Mountains of Portugal is actually three loosely interrelated novellas, the longest of which is the first: “Homeless.” Set in Portugal, 1904, “Homeless” stars Tomas, a man who has lost his child, his lover and his father over a fairly short time. For obvious reasons, he feels betrayed by the world and by God, so betrayed in fact, that he has decided to walk backward for the rest of his life. This causes his uncle great consternation when he tries to show Tomas how to drive one of those new-fangled automobiles. It’s all fun and games until Tomas runs into his greatest tragedy and finds exactly what he thought he was looking for.
In part two, “Homeward,” Eusebio is a pathologist, and his town is in the shadows of the mountains of Portugal. Over the dying hours of the last day of 1938, Eusebio has a deep conversation with his wife regarding how Agatha Christie’s novels relate to the mysteries of the Bible. And then things take a turn for the weird. Magical realism sneaks into the office in the guise of a dead man and his wife. What Eusebio finds within and what he does thereafter must be read to be believed.
Finally, in “Home,” Peter, a member of the Canadian Senate, has a breakdown. His wife is sick. His son is going through a bitter divorce. What better time to quit and run to his ancestral home in the mountains of Portugal with an ape named Odo?
How do all of these things fit together? What is Yann Martel trying to say? What’s with all the animals? How are humans to deal with such grief? It is not until the very end, until the final story ties all of the stories together, that the ultimate epiphany is realized by the reader.
Readers who enjoyed Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil will derive even greater enjoyment from this journey through humility, hubris and the examination of what it might mean to be human.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.
What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.
Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.
But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.
Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.
Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.
South Korea is claiming a seat at the world’s literary table with the February release of female novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Londoner Deborah Smith. The novel was originally published in 2007 in South Korea as three separate novellas. The Vegetarian unites these related stories, which all center around Yeong-hye, a young woman described by those close to her as plain and unremarkable. That is, until she becomes tormented by recurring dreams of unspeakable horrors — dreams she associates with eating meat.
Her husband, the narrator of the first part of the novel, is alarmed when he finds her frantically throwing away the animal contents of their refrigerator. He immediately reminds her of the monetary costs, to no avail. Yeong-hye not only avoids all animal products but eats little at all and begins to rapidly lose weight. Her health declines but the dreams continue. Others scoff at her newfound vegan diet, while her blustering, domineering father decides to force-feed her during a family dinner to disastrous, far-reaching results.
The second part of the novel takes us forward in time, and this time the narrator is the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister, who is a successful and driven businesswoman and mother. The brother-in-law is an artist who has yet to find an audience for his work. He is obsessed with Yeong-hye, determined to use her as the centerpiece of an artistic, sexually graphic film conceived with her in mind. This middle portion of The Vegetarian takes the quiet yet alarmingly dark tone of the beginning and adds a brooding, hypnotic eroticism. What is it about Yeong-hye that bewitches him and causes him to risk everything? Is he driven by art, or merely lust?
The final part of The Vegetarian is told by the sister, whose life has been upended by both Yeong-hye’s actions and her stubborn convictions. Yeong-hye’s mental health is rapidly declining, or so it seems. Is there something much bigger lurking beneath her usual, seemingly placid exterior? Her rejection of the human world takes her to a startling place.
The Vegetarian is calm, cool, unflinchingly dark and unsettling. Readers looking for an intellectual and philosophical challenge will enjoy working out the rich symbolism for themselves, making this an excellent choice for book clubs with a literary bent.
Northern Alaska in winter…your dream destination? Probably not, but it is the perfect setting for Rosamund Lupton’s latest thriller The Quality of Silence. A fast-paced, bone-chilling tale about a mother and daughter who trek through northern Alaska to find her missing husband that includes a wild ride in a hijacked tractor trailer to the Arctic Circle (complete with menacing stalkers), threats of hypothermia, a blizzard and fear at every turn.
What would you do if you were told your husband was killed in a fire at a remote northern Alaskan village? Would you hijack a tractor trailer to drive through Alaska’s most treacherous landscape with your 10-year-old deaf daughter? Believing her husband Matt is alive and alone in the desolate, frozen tundra, Yasmin is determined to find him despite the bitter cold, constant darkness and barely passable snow-covered roads. But her and her daughter, Ruby, must also outrun the truck keeping pace behind them, and then there are the cryptic emails from an unknown sender. Who is following them? Who is sending the emails? And why? Unrelenting fear presses down on Yasmin and Ruby not only from outside factors but from the silence they experience as well. Will they conquer their fears? Will they find Matt? Will they survive?
Grab a cozy blanket and something warm to drink, for Lupton’s description of northern Alaska will make you shiver, both from cold and fright. You will urgently read this icy page-turner to find out what happens to Matt, Yasmin and Ruby. After warming up, go to Lupton's website for photos of her recent trip to Alaska. Interesting, believe me! Still want more Lupton? Then check out her other moving and suspenseful novels, Sister and Afterwards. Both great reads!
The mother-daughter relationship is complicated at its best, damaging at its worst. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout deftly tells the tale of one such complex relationship in her latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. This beautifully written story is filled with hope, pain, love and understanding.
Life has come to a halt for Lucy Barton, a young married mother living in 1980s Manhattan. Succumbing to an unknown infection after routine surgery, she must convalesce in the hospital for nine weeks. Despondent and lonely, she wants nothing more than to get back to her family and her life as a writer in the West Village. To stave off loneliness, her husband flies in her estranged mother from the Midwest for a five-day visit. To say these two are not close is an understatement — they haven't seen each other in years and are barely on speaking terms. How and why did they become so distant? As Lucy tells of her mother’s visit, she also flashes back to her poverty-stricken childhood and forward to the future when her daughters are grown. We learn of her childhood, her college years and of her life in Manhattan. She attempts to forge a stronger bond with her mother during the visit, but she also hopes to get answers. Why did her mother not come to her wedding? Is she proud of her? Lucy soon realizes that as she learns more about her mother, she better understands herself.
Strout illustrates both the power and far reaching consequences of the mother-daughter relationship. You will empathize and perhaps even identify with Lucy Barton and her mother, feeling their raw emotion in spades. Check out Strout’s other works for more moving stories about relationships. My favorites are Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. Both great reads...and rereads!
Do you love a can’t-put-down thriller filled with lies, secrets and schemes galore? Yes? Then get your hands on a copy of Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar. Clever, engrossing and shocking is this tale of an octogenarian lifelong liar working on his last con. A page-turner that will haunt your thoughts long after you read the last word.
We meet Roy as he is preparing to embark on his last con. His mark is Betty, a sweet, trusting widow with a sizeable nest egg. They meet via online dating, arranged by Roy and the con is set in motion. Gain her trust. Move in with her. Have her “invest” with him in a phony high-yielding venture, leaving him with her investment. Easy, right? After all, Roy has been doing this his entire life. But what made Roy a good liar? Working backwards from adulthood to childhood, Searle brilliantly doles out details of Roy’s life, continually building suspense. You will devour each page, wanting to know Roy’s innermost secrets. But you will also need to know if Roy gets his mark. And what happens to Betty? The twists will shock and awe you!
Fans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice will enjoy Searle’s debut offering. The Good Liar also makes for an exceptional book club selection. Multidimensional characters, surprising twists and a good versus evil theme will definitely spark lively discussions. In fact, I was desperate to discuss this book with someone. So grab two copies of The Good Liar today, one for you and one for a friend, and get ready to be entertained and shocked! No lie!
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus prophesizes apocalypse by desertification. When part of the United States is engulfed by sand and declared uninhabitable, it becomes a refuge for those looking to escape from the lives they’ve made for themselves. To some, threats of dehydration and starvation are worth the risk to avoid returning to civilization.
Luz and Ray are surviving: after drought choked the West Coast and sand spread to the seas, it’s all anyone can do. California has shrunk into itself as golden kestrels encroached and devoured the landscape. Most have fled to military refuge zones to the north and east, but for some, that is a less desirable option than wandering the wasteland as a newly branded “Mojav.” After rescuing Ig, a malnourished child born into a gang of abusive Mojavs, Luz and Ray depart from the derelict McMansion they’ve been squatting in, hoping to find an old contact who can expunge their pasts and allow them passage into sanctuary.
During their journey across an ever-evolving frontier of shifting sands, Luz and Ray struggle to suppress nostalgia as they teach Ig about what their world has become. After losing the main road when the sand swallows the tire tracks, Ray leaves Luz and Ig to find gasoline for the car and fades from man to apparition on the horizon and alters the course of their new lives.
Readers who enjoyed Watkins’ short story collection Battleborn: Stories will recognize her beautiful prose style and wonderfully creative imaginings. Perhaps the best part of Gold Fame Citrus is the extended description of the desert itself, likening its fluid motions to those of the oceans.
Watkin’s new novel about a frighteningly realistic, drought-stricken California is so clearly and crisply described that readers are immediately sucked into this unnerving story. The writing is as blindingly brilliant as the landscape. The book is at once beautiful and brutal.
Californians are portrayed as a group of people always searching for something better, buried gold for the taking, legendary status or even year-round citrus. The dunes destroy that California, and most flee. However, some continue to be drawn by an almost supernatural magnetism to the wasteland left behind. These “Mojavs” carve out an existence, forming strange new communities with few and fluctuating rules.
Watkin’s characters are made more tangible by their flaws and readers can’t resist the urge to protect them from themselves as well as their ruthless environment.
When Ray has to strike out and look for help, Luz and Ig are rescued by a seemingly peaceful society existing in refuge on the very edge of the habitable world. The leader of this group becomes an increasingly menacing character, and the group sheltering Luz and Ig begins to look more and more like a cult. This is an interesting twist in the story given Watkin’s own personal history. The father she never really knew was Charles Manson’s trusted assistant, often in charge of recruiting young women. Though she didn’t really know him, she does explore the topic of cults in her first collection of short stories, Battleborn. Readers will also enjoy Margaret Atwood’s new apocalyptic novel The Heart Goes Last.
“Finding your soulmate” takes on disastrous meaning as repercussions echo through the centuries in Susan Barker’s The Incarnations.
Wang Jun’s life as a Beijing taxi driver is dictated by the monotony of routine, until the day he finds in his taxi cab a letter addressed to him. The letter comes from an anonymous sender calling themselves Wang’s “soulmate.” This person has been searching for Wang to tell him that they are two souls that have been reincarnated together into different, yet connected, lives for a thousand years. More letters follow, all appearing mysteriously, all recounting the events in these past lives ranging from the time of the Tang Dynasty to Chairman Mao’s regime, all detailing in blunt and brutal language how their past lives ended in betrayal and violence.
Wang is disturbed by the letters and becomes determined to find out who is stalking him and stop them once and for all. But can he successfully determine who is behind the letters? Is the mysterious letter writer someone he knows or are they a total stranger? And if he succeeds in finding his soulmate, what will the consequences of his actions be?
The Incarnations is a novel of interwoven narrative layers, from the letters written to Wang to the five past lives described in detail by the soulmate narrator, with Wang’s quest the thread tying them all together. Mixing historical fiction with aspects of magical realism, Barker captures snapshots of Chinese history in brilliant and ruthless clarity as she blends them into Wang’s search and into each account of the past lives.
A caveat:The Incarnations is also a violent novel. Barker candidly details the acts of violence – physical, sexual and psychological – each incarnation experiences or inflicts. But it is a thought-provoking story about obsession, loyalty and betrayal as well, raising questions about humanity’s fallibility and the cyclical nature of time. Without giving too much away, this book makes you reconsider what reincarnation may involve and makes you wonder about the people in your own life. Readers who enjoy exploring the darker side of history or humanity, or who appreciate books that are a bit of a mind twist should check out this book.
A lame orphan, an incompetent grifter and London’s Blitz might comprise a fairly grim story. Instead, author Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart: A Novel is darkly comedic and heartwarming as it focuses on the incongruous pairing of a posh city child and his conniving country mouse foster parent.
Meet Mrs. Vee Sedge: resident of rural St. Albans, lives with her indolent adult son and disabled mother who writes motivational letters to Winston Churchill regarding homefront morale and offering friendly advice (“I saw your picture in the paper last week and I hope you don’t mind me saying that I wonder if you’re getting enough fresh air.”) Vee is so desperate for money that she’s taken out a life insurance policy on an elderly neighbor, who foils Vee’s plans by failing to die, and she goes door to door collecting money for the war effort which she keeps for herself. When Vee sees Noel limping through her village as part of a parade of children evacuated from London to evade Hitler’s bombs, she volunteers to care for the little boy, not out of patriotic duty, but as a prop to a con.
Noel is the child who never fits in. Precocious, pale and unathletic, he is also bereft since the death of his beloved godmother. Farmed out to the putative safety of the Sedge’s shabby quarters, Noel perks up when he realizes he can be the brains behind Vee’s ill-conceived swindles. World War II’s privations were harsh and Evans frames the duo’s petty frauds in a landscape where the common folk of England must scheme to survive. Nominated for a Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, Crooked Heart’s clever writing, multifaceted characters and thoughtful story make this an engaging read and a winning book club pick.