Promising young voices in modern literary fiction are hard to come by, which makes Justin Taylor a man who deserves more recognition. In his newest collection Flings: Stories, Taylor confronts the awkward truths of adult life in stories centered around people who share a collective desire to be genuinely good, despite their misguided tendencies.
Both the titular story “Flings” and its continuation “After Ellen” follow people who are ensnared in the directionless, bleak traps of uncertainty that riddle our mid-20s. As friends, they live hollow lives in which they careen through dead-end jobs and relationships while waiting for what they perceive to be their real adult lives to begin. In the meantime, they’re left celebrating their miseries with compassion in their own beautifully tragic ways.
The more light-hearted "Sungold” stars Brian, a 30-something manager and bookkeeper at an organic pizza place. After nearly suffering heatstroke while wearing a questionably shaped purple mushroom costume in front of the restaurant, he gets busted cooking the books by a girl who happens to be there looking for a job. Her name is Appolinaria Pavlovna Sungold (seriously), and she knows what's up; she promises her silence in exchange for regular shift hours and a percentage of Brian's stolen funds. Brian hires her on the spot as both an act of self-preservation and an act of defiance towards the store owner, who only hires attractive college girls who enjoy fashioning the collars of their tie-dyed uniforms into deep, dangerous Vs.
Taylor’s prose is brilliant, humorous and unwavering. His characters are marvels; both uniquely individual and equally empathetic, and united by their searches for things to fill the voids in their lives.
Lines between dream and the reality of an isolated existence become hazy in acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s newest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel.
In high school, Tsukuru was included in a tight-knit group of friends. Although they were inseparable, spending their free time volunteering and studying together, Tsukuru felt deficient in their presence. Ao, Aka, Kuro and Shiro are each shown with a distinctly vibrant essence. In comparison, Tsukuru felt colorless, yet satisfied to be a part of such a special assemblage. This circle remained unbroken until Tsukuru was ejected from the group during his second year of college. At first, he thinks his friends must be missing his messages but after countless awkward brushoffs from their families, the banishment is clear.
Not having the faintest clue as to why, Tsukuru thrusts himself into an existential depression which wears down both body and spirit. Plagued by fear of actually being a nonentity, he is reduced to an inert husk. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we are taken on an enigmatic journey as an older Tsukuru sets out to discover the truth behind his exile. He soon encounters ghosts from the past, new acquaintances and lovers in an oscillating series of hallucination, memory and restless fantasy. Only Murakami, a master of magical realism, could conjure such pensive yet uneasy visions.
Stuck. That's what Nora Webster is since her beloved husband Maurice died. With four children, the 40-year-old widow is mindful of the hole in their lives while trying to eke out their existence in the small Irish town where everyone knows your business. Set 40 years ago amidst Ireland’s religious unrest, Colm Tóibín’s newest novel, Nora Webster, is a quiet and eloquent study of the power of transformative grief and the new way of living that only Nora and her family can define.
Protective and no nonsense, Nora knows it's now her role to run a household that includes two growing boys and two daughters on the brink of adulthood. Through the careful, keen observations of family and friends, we get to know and sympathize with Tóibín's stubborn and private protagonist. While people swirl around her, Nora can only ponder the course her life has taken, the decisions she has made, the actions she has regretted. She is not the only one grieving. All the while her children, especially her boys, Conor and Donal, wait with unmet needs. When she does unwittingly nudge toward a passion that stirs her, contentment is slow to insert itself.
A recurring Man Booker Prize finalist, Tóibín is the author of six previous novels including the provocative Testament of Mary. Here he offers up the richest of character portraits in Nora and her family while smoothly glancing the social, religious and political issues of the day. Complicated and contemplative, reflective and fluent, Tóibín probes Nora's mind with a subtle psychological deftness until we, too, feel as intimate with her as those in her orbit. It is confident, undramatic prose that takes us to Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s birthplace, and to the solitary effort of learning to live again. Fans of this highly regarded contemporary writer will not have to wait too long for his next book; On Elizabeth Bishop is due out next April.
Nature preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir is considered the father of the United States National Parks system, thanks to his influence over President Teddy Roosevelt. Muir’s philosophy permeates author Garth Stein’s newest novel, A Sudden Light, which pits the Riddell family members against each other alongside the backdrop of a fortune built of trees.
The year is 1990. Thirteen-year-old Trevor Riddell’s parents are bankrupt, their marriage crumbling under the strain. In a last ditch effort to lure back his wife, Trevor’s dad Jones hauls Trevor to the Pacific Northwest where demoralized Jones hopes to reunite with his estranged sister and their father while tapping into his family’s enormous wealth. Trevor finds himself on the Riddell’s vast estate populated with old growth woods, living in a decaying timber mansion and becoming acquainted with his disconcertingly sexy aunt and a grandfather succumbing to dementia. Grandpa Samuel hears his dead wife dancing in the ballroom at night; Jones and Aunt Serena’s conversations have a disturbing subtext which leaves Trevor unsettled. As Trevor begins to explore the manor, he uncovers (with a little help from a long dead uncle) evidence of a tragic family history which reaches back to his great-great grandfather, Elijah, a lumber baron, businessman and eventual philanthropist.
Stein is the author of the bestselling book The Art of Racing in the Rain, in which the story is told from the perspective of a dog. In A Sudden Light, trees and the notion of preserving undeveloped land are mute characters whose looming presence shape the Riddells’ fate over generations. Stein has surely written another book club favorite with this modern gothic coming-of-age story.
Spending childhood nested in the same neighborhood can have a profound effect on how one grows up and views the rest of the world. When stories of the past share a consistent backdrop, memories become more cohesive and captivating, as they have in Mark Chiusano's debut collection, Marine Park. Nearly all of his stories take place in the neighborhood surrounding the run-down, isolated Marine Park in New York City.
Half of Chiusano's tales follow two brothers: Jamison, who narrates the duo's adventures, and his younger brother Lorris. Jamison seems like the fictional embodiment of Chiusano in his youth; he dredges up old emotions with such elegance that it feels autobiographical. Throughout their endeavors, Lorris overcomes rooted introversion to develop a social life more vigorous than his older brother’s. All Jamison feels he’s capable of doing is watching with brotherly pride and envy.
Chiusano's other stories volley between humorous and serious motifs. The amusing "Vincent and Aurora" is the recounting of a retired mobster who agrees to help with one last job to combat the stagnation of aging. "Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away" laments the woes of unrequited love between two scientists working in a secret military base during World War II. "For You" is the wondrous second-person account of a man's visit to an unfamiliar bar and his conversations with strangers about wait-staff gratuity and lifelong dreams.
Short story and fiction enthusiasts of all varieties will find something to enjoy in Marine Park. Lorris and Jamison are both highly relatable, and Chiusano's more imaginative offerings are entertaining and just as finely crafted.
Daniel Kelly needs to be the fastest, the strongest and the best. The other members of his swim team call him Barracuda, also the title of Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel. Daniel’s goal is to swim freestyle in the Olympic Games. He is half-Greek and half-Australian and comes from modest roots, but his mother insists he attend an exclusive school where he can be coached by a gifted trainer. Daniel quickly realizes he does not fit in at his new posh school. The boys that come from money are quick to tease. He shields himself from the insults and uses the anger to push through the water even faster. His ever-present drive to succeed deafens him to the instructions of his coach, and Daniel soon finds that his dream of Olympic gold leads to nothing. Consumed by hatred for himself and his modest beginnings, Daniel lashes out, and this incident will have repercussions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Like Daniel, Christos Tsiolkas grew up in Australia, the son of Greek immigrant parents. His previous novels have won awards in the South Pacific region, including his previous novel The Slap that won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He shows skill again with Barracuda, a detailed literary masterpiece that only an accomplished writer can deliver. Daniel Kelly is a deeply flawed protagonist, struggling with life and trying to find his place in the world. It is a novel of incredible loss, but also of hope and ultimately redemption. Kelly’s story will resonate with the reader long after reading the final pages. This beautifully written novel should be savored by many a reader and would make a perfect title to discuss with a book group.
Matthew Thomas is a New Jersey high school English teacher who has spent the past decade writing his first novel We Are Not Ourselves. A labor of love well worth the effort, his debut is being heralded as the next major American novel.
The story begins in the early 1950s with Eileen Tumulty, the American daughter of two Irish immigrants. Eileen’s hard-working, barroom-preaching father is trying his damnedest to provide while shunning racetrack bookies. Her mother, reeling from a miscarriage, spends her days drinking herself into a quiet stupor to quell the pain. Eileen is left without anything to call her own, and vows to become empowered and successful as she grows up. We Are Not Ourselves is Eileen’s story as she searches for the American Dream in New York City.
After college, Eileen takes a well-paying job in a city hospital and marries Ed Leary. Ed is a scientist and professor at a community college whose dedication to academic integrity keeps him in the classroom and out of the Dean's office, where Eileen wishes he would be. After months of failed conception, Eileen and Ed are graced with Connell, who grows up pudgy and struggles with body image issues amongst his classmates. Against Ed’s wishes, Eileen decides to move the family out of their comfortable apartment in Jackson Heights and into a large, dilapidated house in the upper-middle class suburbs. She hopes that tasking Connell and Ed with evening home improvements will help bring the family closer, but Connell is preoccupied with developing renown at his new school and Ed is seemingly inundated with his studies. While Eileen achieves her childhood goal of working domesticity, the Learys are not nearly as cohesive as she wishes. Her efforts to bring them together only cause more tension, which, when combined with the everyday tribulations they experience in their personal lives, stress everyone into a state of crisis.
Thomas asks in We Are Not Ourselves if it still counts as the American Dream when it comes with so many hitches and broken promises, and he does so through an incredibly well-developed cast of characters and with beautiful, insightful prose. Contemporary fiction enthusiasts and readers who enjoy deep characterization should not miss this wonderful debut.
A devastating pandemic wipes out the human population in Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel Station Eleven. Kirsten Raymonde was just 8 years old when it happened, but she was one of the lucky ones. Now, she is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of artists and musicians that wander from town to town, keeping the works of Shakespeare alive. Her comfort lies in two issues of a gloriously detailed comic book and a glass paperweight that was given to her just before the pandemic began by fellow actor Arthur Leander who died on stage that night while performing King Lear. In a world torn apart by disease, the things that matter most are memories and people.
Station Eleven is a lyrical dystopian novel with compelling and complex characters. The plot transports the reader forward and backward in time, meaning you meet many of the characters at different times in their lives. The central characters connect in ways that become more apparent throughout the course of the novel, and each shines with their own intensity. These connections become more important as the characters face their own mortality and the mortality of those they care about. They hold on to memories of the past, clinging to the world that was as they are forced to face an uncertain future. Although this is dystopian literature, the prose is both graceful and thoughtful and will appeal to a much wider audience. The characters, themes and style would make this a good novel to discuss with book groups.
How are houseguests like fish? They both start to stink after three days, or so the joke goes. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Quick by Laura Owen, both set in London, are stories involving some houseguests that have truly gone bad.
In The Paying Guests, Francis Wray and her mother live alone in their upper crust dignified home, struggling to keep up appearances. Francis’ father died and her brothers were killed in the War, leaving mother and daughter penniless. To make ends meet, they decide to take in lodgers, euphemistically known as “paying guests.” Young newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber make the not-yet-30-year-old Francis feel like life has passed her by, until she begins a surreptitious love affair with one of the Barbers, which ends in tragedy and the courtroom. Waters, a frequent flyer on British writing prize lists, pens a literary thriller that examines the consequences of the societal and moral strictures placed on women in early 20th century England.
Author Owen’s debut novel The Quick opens with motherless siblings Charlotte and James exploring their moldering country estate home. As they grow, James heads off to boarding school and then to Victorian London, leaving Charlotte to a quiet country life with an elderly aunt. James becomes a paying guest at the home of a city widow, sharing lodgings and passion with a former schoolmate. What starts as dreamy period piece takes a sharp turn when James and his lover are attacked by a supernatural being and Charlotte leaves her narrow settled existence to become a vampire hunter. From the elite members-only Aegolius club to the Dickensian working poor, Owen’s vampire world is richly and eerily imagined. Fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or John Harwood’s The Asylum should give The Quick a try.
It’s way past midnight on Christmas Eve and the streets of Philadelphia are littered with the lonely, the unlucky, the unloved. They’re all departing from their sacred mecca hidden amongst the Fishtown warehouses: A run-down jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas, where the tumultuous house band keeps things hopping, even when they aren’t on stage. Amongst the waylaid wanderers are Madeline, a bright and plucky nine-year-old who refuses to let the world win; Sarina and Ben, who are together conflicted as they pick up where they left off after an estranged high school prom years ago; and club owner Jack Lorca, whose prodigal teenage son, Alex, is instrumental in the night’s electric excitement.
Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas recounts the 24 hours prior, affectionately referred to as “Christmas Eve eve” by Madeline. Readers are treated to intertwining stories of determination in the events leading up to the most memorable night at The Cat’s Pajamas since the house drum kit was set on fire during the band’s performance. By its lonesome, the club is just a sad, dilapidated building, but on nights when the Cubanistas are playing and the city’s detritus flocks through the doors, The Cat’s Pajamas is resurrected to its former glories of jazz’s heyday—it’s part symbiotic relationship, part yuletide miracle.
2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas features stories in which the hostilities of city life are conquered by the solidarity of people who have been destroyed by the very place they inhabit. Stories in which good-natured, wounded people stay afloat by looking out for one another, rather than wallowing and commiserating. It’s a great read for those who enjoy literary fiction or heartening stories of blossom.