The bonds of family are strong, built out of intense love, and sometimes equally intense resentment and hatred. The Dinner by Herman Koch is less a meal than a psychological dissection of a family. The entire novel takes place during the course of an evening meal between two well-to-do brothers and their wives. Each member of the dinner party is trying to control the others and the unnamed “situation” with their children. Various scenarios play out in the minds of the diners, each more shocking and brutal than the last, as they attempt to sway the group toward the best solution. Best for whom remains to be seen.
Dutch author Koch takes a look inside a seemingly harmless gathering and answers the question “What are you really thinking?” Relationships—Parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother—all are put under the microscope with satirical wit and brutal honesty. Already an international best-seller, The Dinner has received advance praise from like-minded psychological thriller writers such as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and S. J. Watson (Before I Go to Sleep). Come to The Dinner and ask yourself, which way does your moral compass point?
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma: Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.
Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.
High school friends Avishag, Lea and Yael do what typical teen girls do—they gossip about friends, giggle over boys, and daydream about their adult lives to come. But in Israel, soldiers can come from anywhere, even the “caravan classrooms” of small villages, and the girls quickly find themselves serving in the Israeli Defense Force. Shani Boianjiu tells a unique coming-of-age story in her debut novel, The People of Forever are Not Afraid.
The girls are trained in different areas of military expertise-Lea in the military police at a checkpoint, Yael as a marksmen trainer and Avishag as a member of the only female combat unit. While it sounds dangerous and exciting, in reality the girls are bored most of the time as they watch foreigners and refugees sneak across the borders and steal everything not nailed down. They still talk, gossip, and occasionally flirt with other soldiers, but they also grow increasingly numb to the violence that surrounds them. At the novel’s center is the trio’s loss of innocence, but more profound and disturbing is the question-do they even remember that they once had it?
Shani Boianjiu, the youngest winner of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” earned rave reviews for People. Drawing on her own experiences in the IDF, she has created a novel that is literary yet accessible, and readers will quickly be drawn in by the early, fast action. Boianjiu’s writing is just like her characters-nuanced yet fragmented, disturbing but smart, violent and gritty. While this story is about teens, the strong language and violence make it more appropriate for mature teens and adults.
It was not a ghost thirteen-year-old Audun Sletten saw that day on top of the hill at the end of his newspaper rounds. It was his estranged father, who regrettably appeared to be back in town. For the troubled teenager it was just one more reminder of a gnawing past best forgotten and of a future, tentative and urgently beckoning. In Per Petterson's recently translated novel, It's Fine by Me, the Norwegian author revisits the cold, stark landscape of his previous novels with this quiet, coming of age story. Set in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, a story is told of a family chafed by family dysfunction and a young person's toiling for what is important.
Audun and his family have not had it easy. Escaping an explosive husband, his mother has started a new life for Audun and his siblings in a working class section of Oslo. On the first day at his new school he meets Arvid, an unlikely friend who is something of a political idealist and also loves books. In their growing friendship, Audun opens up about his past and his plans for the future. He wants to be a writer. Over the next five years, Audun sees his life change, his family slowly falling apart. His tough guy persona, fashioned after his favorite literary heroes, helps him cope when his own defenses are down.
Petterson, the author of the award winning Out Stealing Horses, reveals Audun's story at a leisurely pace. Alternating between a defining past and a present that are at times raw and emotionally charged, it is prose that also gives up streaks of hope. Readers familiar with J. D. Salinger's classic, Catcher in the Rye, will recognize in Petterson's protagonist the rebellion and alienation of youth and the unpredictable journey that awaits.
A forest aflame is what Dellarobia Turnbow sees as she pauses on her march up the mountain. She is on a mission to destroy her disappointing marriage by consummating a flirtation with the telephone man. In the smokeless silence, the ambivalently Christian Della knows she has been the recipient of a kind of grace and backtracks to return home. Barbara Kingsolver follows Dellarobia and the aftermath of her vision in her most recent entry on the New York Times bestsellers list, Flight Behavior.
Della and her husband Cub live with their two young children in the shadow of his domineering parents on the family farm situated in a rural Tennessee valley. Scarcely adequate high school educations and a severe dearth of employment opportunities mean the Turnbows, along with most folks in their community, are scrambling each month to survive. In danger of losing their land, Cub’s parents view Money Tree Logging Company’s bid to clear cut a portion of their property as an answer to their fiscal prayers. Silent about her vision and uncertain as to its import, Della convinces the family to hike the land, where they discover Della’s fire is actually an immense roost of Monarch butterflies.
As in earlier books such as Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver intertwines an environmental issue—in this instance, climate change—as in integral piece of the larger story. Along with the King Billies, as the butterflies are colloquially known, come scientists, tourists, and opportunists which include the local media, all with a different interest in the flock. Della and her family struggle to come to terms with the changes brought by the insects both to their community and individually. With a background in biology, Kingsolver marries the scientific tale of migratory butterflies to the human struggle for meaning and self-fulfillment in Flight Behavior.
Negotiating life outside of London's Caldwell council estate is a little like surviving a video game for the sympathetic characters in British writer Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW. The NW stands for the gritty northwest corner of London, where this story takes place. Just like a video game, cantilevering to the next level involves luck, mobility, chance encounters, and the ability to beat perceived demons. The fictional housing project known as Caldie to locals is ground zero for Smith's thirty-something survivors who now cope with the vagaries of their life beyond their rough beginnings. At its core are Leah and Natalie, longtime best friends whose divergent paths belie their internal struggles to thrive. While Natalie in her dogged fashion goes about shedding her old life (she becomes a lawyer), Leah appears stuck in a morass of her own making. Their march toward college, adulthood, and marriage is not without the hardship of merging the past with a present that is strewn with self-doubt, regrettable decisions, and misguided envy. Along the way, their messy lives entwine with others from the old neighborhood, including likeable Felix, a recovering addict whose desire for a respectable life proves illusive.
No stranger to literary rebellion, Smith’s brassy tinkering with narrative style asks a lot of her readers. She divides the story into sections, with the largest given over to Natalie and conveyed in 185 snapshots, some only a sentence long. The author of several highly regarded novels, including White Teeth, Smith is adept at drawing out the heart and soul of her characters and sandwiching them between the rough edges of a diverse, violent, and modern city. In this case, it is a world too layered to fully understand and too fluid to remain still.
I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by Rajesh Parameswaran is an unusual collection of nine stories that tackle love and ecstasy, each with elements of the grotesque. Each story becomes odder with each turn of the page. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” recounts one catastrophic day in the life a heart-breaking sincere tiger who finds himself irreversibly in love with his zookeeper, Kitch. Told from the tiger’s perspective, it becomes obvious that even the kindest of intentions can have deadly repercussions.In “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Golarajan” we find Gopi, who has recently been fired by CompUSA. He takes this opportunity to fulfill his dream of being a doctor by checking out medical books from his local library and opening his own practice in a filthy old pet store. In a cringing series of events, Gopi and his wife, Manju, become lost in the murky realms of pride, illness, and deception.
For readers who like exploratory narration, this rich, unsettling collection plays with nontraditional points of view and alternative storytelling. From the single collective voice of a community to a group of insects under attack from humans on their planet Lucina, each new world feels both familiar yet foreign. Although it is impossible to guess where Parameswaran will lead you, be assured, where you will end up will be like no place you’ve ever been. Be forewarned.
For best-selling authors like Jo Nesbo and Dennis Lehane, even if the adage “crime doesn’t pay” is true, writing about it most certainly does. Nesbo offers up Phantom, the ninth book in his police detective series, while Lehane continues his Boston-based Coughlin family saga with Live by Night. Joe is the baby boy of the Coughlin brothers, introduced to us in The Given Day. All grown up and despite coming from a line of Boston Irish policemen, Joe chooses the gangster life of the Prohibition-era 1920s. Moving between rival mobs with bloody street wars and after a stint in Boston’s infamous Charlestown prison, Joe ends up with a promotion to expand Maso Pescatore’s “family” businesses in Florida, including hooch distillation and prostitution. Cuban immigration, evangelical tent revivals, the love of women both good and bad, and some rather snappy dialogue (along with a plethora of weaponry) illuminate Joe’s struggle to balance his humanity against his choices. Better known for the psychological thrillers Mystic River and Shutter Island, Lehane shows his versatility as an author in Live by Night.
Nesbo is the Norwegian author of the Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-eh) books. In Phantom, Hole, having been dismissed from Oslo’s force, is working independently to prove Oleg Rauke, the drug running son of Hole’s former lover, innocent of murder. Nesbo has a “sins of the father” theme running through this book; as he is dying, the victim addresses his dad as part of the ongoing narration while Hole’s motivation stems in part from his guilt at abandoning his paternal role in Oleg’s upbringing. The Harry Hole series is tightly written and often weaves politics and institutional corruption into its intricate plots. Fans of Stieg Larsson and Nelson DeMille won’t want to miss Jo Nesbo and Phantom.
It all begins with a boy, a father and a busy street. Christopher Wakling’s latest book, What I Did, shows how one small incident can become a case study in multiple viewpoints, having a much greater impact on people as a result. Billy runs into the road ahead of his father on an outing to the park. His father reacts with the typical fury of an overworked parent, cursing and roughly handling his son. What takes this incident from minor to major is a woman who sees him disciplining the boy and calls child protective services, who launch an investigation. What is equally intriguing and at times baffling for the reader is trying to determine the details of what actually happened, since the story is told by an unreliable narrator--six-year-old Billy.
Despite the serious plotline, the narration is often laugh-out-loud funny. Billy’s voice is similar to the young narrators of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Emma Donoghue’s Room. Lacking in social skills, he is imaginative and has a unique perspective of the world around him. He also has a fascination with animals and science, and his commentary is interspersed with random bits of trivia. Still, the reader only has Billy’s perspective, and his actions are steered by a six-year-old’s intellectual capacity for understanding what to do and say in order to bring this incident into proper perspective. A few sections read like a “Who’s on First” routine, when Billy misinterprets what is being asked by social workers and doctors. Wakling has an interesting background, and mentioning on his website that this book was in part inspired by his own experience with fatherhood and the character flaws it has exposed in him. This is a unique, engaging read where the reader roots for Billy and his parents, despite their flaws.
One of the literary world’s more prestigious prizes is Great Britain’s Man Booker prize for contemporary fiction. On October 16, Mantel’s novel, Bring Up the Bodies, won this year’s Booker award. Second in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII, Mantel won the same prize in 2009 for her first book in the series, Wolf Hall. While Mantel is only the third author (and the only woman) to win the Booker twice, she is also the only author to win again for a sequel. Between the Covers looked at Bring Up the Bodies in September.
One of the short list nominees was Indian poet and musician Jeet Thayil’s debut novel and an homage to the sub-continent’s drug culture, Narcopolis. Thayil, a self-confessed former addict, takes the reader on a fantastical journey through Bombay’s opium dens and brothels. Often revolving around Dimple, a beautiful enigmatic eunuch working as a prostitute and pipe-preparer, the narrative slips in and out of the side stories of other characters while the arrival of heroin begins to exert its influence in this underworld. In interviews, Thayil says he wanted to honor the “poor and marginalized, the voiceless,” whose story rarely is told and he does so in a portrayal that is disturbing and graphic but not gratuitous.
Also on the short list was author Tan Twan Eng for his novel The Garden of Evening Mists. In the earliest stages of dementia, Malaysian judge Yun Ling Teoh is retiring from the bench. Once a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp in the Malayan jungle where her sister died, Ling Teoh then survived the pursuant guerilla civil wars by taking refuge in the Highlands with an exiled Japanese royal gardener and artist. Elegantly written, grim with historical detail, The Garden of Evening Mists tantalizingly reveals the secrets in Ling Teoh’s complex past.