The cover of Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals leaves little doubt that this is a novel about partying. In fact, most of the book involves drinking and debauchery in engrossing detail. But what isn’t readily apparent from the cover is that this novel is a moving love letter to our best friends and their lasting impact on our lives. It also begs the question: Can our best friends and our significant others peacefully co-exist in the biggest spaces of our hearts?
Laura is engaged to Jim, a concert pianist. When Jim drops the bombshell on Laura that he’s stopping drinking forever, Laura tries to temper her partying ways. She is largely unsuccessful thanks to Tyler, her roommate and best friend. Tyler is a one-woman tornado of hilarious in-jokes, jaw-dropping nerve and quite a recreational drug habit. Laura finds it difficult to resist Tyler’s siren song of endless good times and, although her upcoming wedding hangs in the balance, she finds her late-night capers with her best friend a hard habit to break.
Animals explores the definition of what it means to emerge into one’s 30s and more solid adulthood. Laura’s choices about her career as a struggling writer, her relationship with Jim and her friendship with Tyler are in a state of flux; instead of moving forward, she refuses to move anywhere. This is not a novel for the squeamish, but one for those who can relate to Laura’s struggle in realizing that in her desperation to keep the party going, she may be erasing her best times ahead. Once we get on with the societal expectations of marriage and family, is the party truly over?
At the same time brash and literary, Unsworth’s writing style is an exciting treat for those looking for something a little different in 2016.
Paradise City by Elizabeth Day introduces us to four characters leading seemingly disparate lives: a businessman, a journalist, a maid and a widow.
Howard Pink owns a successful fashion brand in London. He immerses himself in his work and various sexual escapades to distract himself from his inward grieving — his 19-year-old daughter Ada went missing years ago, and at this point he has no choice but to presume she is dead. Stories of Howard Pink’s personal life are often splashed all over the pages of various London newspapers, as journalists are eager to show a glimpse into the tragic self-made millionaire’s life.
Esme Reade is one such journalist, though after years of unfulfilling work she lacks the motivation and passion she once had for her job — until her editor gives her a rare opportunity to take Howard Pink out for a formal lunch. Esme unexpectedly connects with Howard and learns that other journalists have barely scratched the surface of his tragic personal life.
Beatrice Kizza is a maid at the hotel where Howard Pink is staying. She fled her home in Uganda out of fear of being persecuted for her homosexuality. However, when she is assigned to clean Howard’s room, their interaction causes her to reevaluate her life, her misery and the opportunities she could take advantage of.
Recently widowed Carol Wetherington finds the loneliness unbearable. Carol wants to set up her daughter, a single mother, with her next door neighbor Alan in the hopes that her daughter will find the same love and companionship she once had. When Alan asks Carol if she can water his plants while he is out of town, she finds that he actually is far from the type of person her daughter should be with, and makes a discovery that changes the course of her grieving entirely.
Day weaves her characters’ stories together with universal themes of love, loss, fulfillment and redemption, showing innate connections of human experience that surpass outward appearance. Despite the differences in Howard's, Esme's, Beatrice's and Carol’s backgrounds, their stories each have a similar emotional resonance to them. Day’s character-driven novel has light mystery undertones, and becomes steadily more engrossing from start to finish.
Looking for a good mystery filled with offbeat characters and British wit? Then you must read The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox. Winner of the 2014 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition, this story hooks you from the very first page and continues to keep you guessing to the very end. Not dark or brooding in the least, this story is lighthearted and definitely fun to read.
Life in the quaint San Francisco neighborhood of Fabian Gardens, with its friendly neighbors and shared private garden, is just what Theo Bogart needs. So she thinks. Having fled her socialite life in England after a family tragedy, Theo lives under an assumed name as a partner in a toiletries shop. Just what the doctor ordered — life filled with the mundane tasks of running a business, while enjoying the company of her neighbors. Normal people with normal problems, including a jewelry designer with thinning hair, an overconfident surgeon, a depressed bakery owner and a garden designer obsessed with compost. But then local handyman Tim Callahan falls to his death from a third story window. Was he pushed? Why and by whom? Then, a man mysteriously appears on Theo’s washing machine. Who is he? Why did he not attack her? Odd behavior for an intruder, to say the least. As Theo becomes obsessed with finding this mysterious man, yet another murder occurs. Meanwhile, her business partner disappears and strange crates belonging to her business emerge. What is going on in Fabian Gardens? How involved are Theo’s friends? Who can she trust? Perhaps she is not the only one with a secret.
Fans of Agatha Christie novels and British comedies will enjoy Cox’s debut offering. She fills her pages with characters who keep you guessing and wit galore. Figuring out the mystery is only half the fun of this read. Learning about the residents of Fabian Gardens is definitely the other half.
In his engrossing new novel The Great Forgetting, James Renner takes us on a part sci-fi, part-conspiracy, part-thriller journey with Jack Felter, a 30-something-year-old history teacher who tries to have as little to do with his family and hometown as possible. Jack doesn’t want to see his father, who is suffering from severe dementia. He feels guilty for not helping his older sister, who has become their father’s primary caretaker. Most of all, he doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend Sam, who just dumped him for his childhood best friend Tony.
However, when Jack gets a phone call from his sister saying that their father’s dementia is getting even worse, Jack feels that he has no choice but to return home and help out. Once there, Jack finds some surprising news: not only are Sam and Tony no longer together, but Tony has gone missing and is presumably dead. Sam refuses to believe the police’s claims that Tony committed suicide and pleads for Jack’s help in solving the mystery. Sam claims that Tony was behaving oddly just before he went missing, and through looking at Tony’s journals and notes as a psychologist, Sam realizes that Tony may have been more than just a little influenced by one of his last patients. Jack investigates further and decides to meet with this patient, a 15-year-old teenage boy who believes the government has been brainwashing citizens and altering their memories to forget certain historical events they would rather keep secret.
Through Tony’s journal entries, his meetings with Tony’s last patient and flashbacks to his childhood, Jack slowly starts learning about the conspiracies Tony believed and starts wondering if the impossible is actually possible. If the government was brainwashing us in an elaborate conspiracy to make us forget what would have otherwise been a major historical event, who would be able to confirm or deny it? How much can we even trust our own memories, when our brains can be so selective about what to remember and what to forget? Renner’s book is fast-paced and intriguing as it answers these questions, seamlessly blending history, psychology and science fiction into one compelling read.
A Wild Swan is Michael Cunningham’s new collection of reimagined fairy tales, and though they may look familiar at first glance, Cunningham offers a completely new angle. He examines the flat characters who have been doing the same things for centuries, and gives them motives, neuroses and secrets.
In the chapter “Beasts,” Cunningham offers up a very different interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Beauty is not some impossibly selfless ingénue. It is her vanity, her sense that she is too good for her village, and in fact her family, that leads her to the beast’s castle. She believes that anything that happens to her there can be no worse than the tedium of her daily chores and the dull assortment of village men she is expected to choose a husband from. When she finds that the beast means to ignore her, she becomes bored with life at the enchanted castle. Released, she goes back to her village only to find that everyone believes she has actually been away to hide some sort of disgrace, and she is treated like a social pariah. This is truly what makes her decide she can love the beast. Once transformed, we discover the beast hadn’t been the unfortunate victim of a horrible curse by an unreasonable old shrew either.
Cunningham peels back the layers behind each character to offer up a completely different kind of tale for modern readers. He delves a little deeper, beyond the happily ever after and into the hasty marriages, the toll a wish granted can take and the occasional need for a curse.
Like the originals by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, there is an enchanting combination of hope and horror in each tale. The stories take place in a hybrid of folktale villages and the modern world. The characters face old-world problems with modern sensibilities to delightful effect.
The prologue, aptly titled “Dis. Enchant,” reminds readers that at least a part of fairy tales’ timeless appeal is the cruel justice in them. They are often about terrible things happening to those who have been too lavishly blessed with beauty or good luck. In that sense, there is a certain kind of balance restored when these characters are cursed with wings and whatnot. This collection is wickedly fun and will appeal to fans of fairy tales or simply well told short stories.
The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are a perfect accompaniment, both lovely and haunting.
In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.
Do you have time in your busy schedule to read a short story? Not just any short story, but a ghost story. Not just any ghost story, but a ghost story by Gillian Flynn. You may have heard of her. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Sharp Objects, Dark Places and Gone Girl, one of most talked about novels of 2014 . Flynn’s latest release is a stand-alone copy of her 64-page, Edgar Awarding-winning short story, The Grownup. It made its first appearance in author George R. R. Martin's Rogues anthology.
The Grownup is about an unnamed and “barely thirty” female con artist who works at a sketchy place called Spiritual Palms that provides fortunes and illegal sex services. Viveca, her boss gives her a job promotion, which makes the con artist no longer a sex worker but a fraudulent fortune-teller. A troubled customer by the name of Susan Burke stops in to have her fortune told. The con artist learns that Susan is being terrorized by her 15-year-old stepson,Miles, and that a trickle of blood drips on the wall inside Susan’s renovated Victorian house. The con artist helps Susan by cleansing the inside of her home. During one of her house cleansing visits, the con artist meets Miles, a menacing teen who gives her an ultimatum: stay away or die. However, the con artist ignores his threat and soon finds out that she is the one being swindled. Swindled by who? You’ll just have to read it and find out.
If you are a Gillian Flynn fan or you just want to read an entertaining short story, I encourage you to check out a copy of The Grownup at a BCPL branch near you. And whatever you do, avoid a place called Spiritual Palms.
Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.