Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Happy Birthday and a baker's dozen

Happy Birthday, Ethan! Ethan is ten today, and I have no idea what we are doing for his party this weekend, but I'm looking forward to it. Somewhere, I see the gazebo, some iced cream and Popsicles, hot dogs, and fun time. Maybe bubbles; who knows? I was poking around at NPR's site today, after having cataloged some new books at the library last night. I ended up with a list of ones that, from the reviews, I certainly would like to read. So here are my as-yet-unread recommendations to me, along with the review that caught my imagination.
  1. The Thin Place, by Kathryn Davis
    Kathryn Davis' novel is a mesmerizing and mysterious tale that opens with three adolescent friends on an aimless walk: There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall. This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock, still reeling from what they'd seen, what they'd done or failed to do. The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living. In five short sentences Davis sets the stage for this remarkable and unpredictable story set in Varennes, a town near the Canadian border. The town's denizens seem ordinary enough: Helen Zeebrugge copes with the various indignities of old age; ex-hippie Andrea Murdock researches the past; Buddy the dog does his doggy doings; Gigi the cat works on fully experiencing every one of her nine lives; and 12-year-old Mees tries to understand the strange gift she's been given. But Varennes is a "thin place," a shimmering, permeable division between the real and the inchoate, between the living and the dead, and strange things happen almost as a matter of routine. Davis uses a variety of points of view to tell her story, including those of two- and four-legged animals, but to give a plot summary would be unfair to readers — suffice it to say that you've never read anything like this before. [Review by Nancy Pearl]
  2. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, by Don Robertson
    You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll totally delight in meeting 9-year-old Morris Bird III (whom some classmates unkindly call Morris Bird the Turd) as he decides to skip school one autumn afternoon in 1944 and walk across Cleveland to visit his best friend, Stanley Chaloupka. Morris sets off with an alarm clock, a dollar and some change, a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, a map, a compass and — to his great dismay — his 6-year-old sister, Sandra. Along the way he gets delayed by a cigarette riot and Sandra's whining insistence that she be allowed to play a game of jacks. He also drop-kicks a football into a coal wagon (much to the annoyance of the football's young owners) and is rescued by Miss Edna Daphne Frost. Eventually, as the afternoon winds down, Morris and Sandra collide with history; they arrive at Stanley's block at the exact moment when above-ground gas tanks belonging to the East Ohio Gas Company explode. (The explosion and subsequent fire would kill 130 people and destroy a square mile of Cleveland's east side.) Among the many other wonderfully drawn characters we meet are a passionate optician named G. Henderson LeFevre and the object of his lust, Mrs. Imogene Brookes, who is described as "a rare beauty if there ever was one, a woman of immense passions and appetites who really didn't belong there in Shaker Heights living out her years in a succession of blank matronly conditioned activities and responses." I loved Don Robertson's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread when it was first published in the early 1960s, and I am thrilled that a whole new generation of readers is now going to read it, too. [Review by Nancy Pearl]
  3. Bangkok 8, by John Burdett
    If you like your suspense novels set in exotic locales and you have a high tolerance for grisly and gruesome crimes, then you won't want to miss John Burdett's Bangkok 8. Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep stars in this adrenaline-fueled more-or-less mystery that is distinguished by smart (frequently witty) dialogue, a terrific depiction of place and plot twists galore. The plot involves jade smuggling, sexually deviant behavior and death by snake venom; figuring out what's going on sends Sonchai (who struggles to reconcile his Buddhist beliefs with his knowledge of humanity at its worst) deep into the criminal and sexual underworld of Thailand's biggest city. I found Burdett's presentation of the Thai sex trade fascinating; it reflects an attitude toward sex that is very different from Western sensibilities, and is apparently characteristic of the Buddhist influence on Thai culture. Bangkok 8 is not the sort of book that I would have ever thought I'd enjoy — it's way too violent and grungy for my normal reading tastes — but I was totally won over by Sonchai and Burdett's insights into the depths and peaks of human behavior. [Review by Nancy Pearl]
  4. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
    I have never been a fan of novels with vampires in them. In fact, until recently I'd never read horror fiction at all — I've always felt that real life is scary enough before you add the supernatural to the mix. But I've always loved the novels of award-winning fantasy writer Robin McKinley, and a friend whose book smarts I respected recommended McKinley's novel Sunshine, so I (somewhat hesitantly) picked it up, started reading and found — to my surprise — that I couldn't put it down. Set in a world quite similar to ours in the time just after the Voodoo Wars, Rae Seddon, who's nicknamed Sunshine, is driving home from a baking stint at her stepfather's café when she is kidnapped by a group of vampires and locked in the ballroom of an old house. It soon becomes clear that she's intended to provide the main course of a meal for their starving captive, the powerful, handsome and enigmatic Constantine — who also happens to be a vampire. But Constantine, going against everything Sunshine thought she knew about vampires, resists his powerful urge to drink her blood, and the two form an uneasy alliance against their joint captors. Just in time, Sunshine discovers that she has apparently inherited the magical talents that run through the blood of her long-absent father's side of the family, and she contrives to set herself and Constantine free. But that's when her troubles really begin … [Review by Nancy Pearl]
  5. Metzger's Dog, by Thomas Perry
    Perhaps all you need to know to decide whether to read Thomas Perry's thriller Metzger's Dog is that Dr. Henry Metzger happens to be a cat. … So, if you're hankering for a humorous crime story, you can't do better than this one. The delectably complicated plot revolves around Leroy "Chinese" Gordon and his group of antisocial pals who break into a UCLA professor's office in order to score some cocaine, but find, instead, detailed instructions for bringing a major urban city to its knees. Think Los Angeles, think traffic, think roadblock, think gridlock — then think what the CIA might do after phase one plays itself out, in order to stop these geniuses from producing further mayhem. It's up to agent Ben Porterfield to try to broker a deal with Chinese, his friends and his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, Margaret — not to mention Metzger's dog. [Review by Nancy Pearl] The Other by Thomas Tryon A fine example of why first books are worth seeking out comes in the form of a reissue of the 1971 debut novel by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tryon. Known for parts in science fiction and horror films (including the title role in I Married a Monster from Outer Space), Tryon quit acting after a stint working for Otto Preminger and took up writing. His first novel is a subtle, insinuating portrait of psychological decay and transference between identical twin boys born, incongruously, on different days (one before, the other just after midnight) and with different Zodiac signs. The author's own ambiguous life — that of a gay man in the movies at a time when such sexuality was not to be openly discussed — informs the undercurrents in his portrayal of a town infected by madness and murder. The 2008 reissue includes a perceptive introduction by British horror novelist and critic Ramsey Campbell, and several new pieces of artwork by noted surrealist Harry O. Morris. [Rick Kleffel]
  6. Petite Anglaise, by Catherine Sanderson
    Blogger-turned-novelist Catherine Sanderson capitalizes on her popular online journal in a novel ripped from the blog-lines of her life. The title means "little English woman," which, depending on how you spin it, can be either affectionate or cutting. Catherine Sanderson (the protagonist) finds herself in Paris but falling out of love with Frog, the father of her daughter, Tadpole. She's no longer keen on her admin career and turns to the Internet, where she uses the popular "blogger" software to create the titular online persona. But what starts as a lark becomes a virtual romance, and life imitates Second Life in a 21st century Cyrano — minus the big schnoz. Sanderson's witty blog translates well as she leans on the truth-turns-to-fiction button. Her prose is infectious, and even when things are dire for her character, they're a delight for the reader. [Rick Kleffel]
  7. The Boat, by Nam Le
    First books that collect short stories by a single author are rare; it's an honor given only to the best writers. Vietnamese-born Nam Le offers ample evidence of immense talent in his debut collection, The Boat. Le writes in a remarkable variety of voices and tones, with prose so transparent you won't necessarily even notice that you're reading. You'll simply disappear into the characters and lives Le creates, whether it's a 14-year-old hit man in Columbia ("Cartagena") or an aging New York painter preparing to see his daughter's debut in Carnegie Hall ("Meeting Elise"). At least three of the stories, including the previously unpublished "Halflead Bay," come in at novella length. Another heretofore-unpublished story, "Tehran Calling," is an unexpected thriller set in the Iranian capital. You'll have a hard time finding common threads here besides stellar writing. [Rick Kleffel]
  8. One More Year, by Sana Krasikov
    The temporary textures of lives in transit thread through the short stories in Sana Krasikov's debut collection, which focuses on Russian immigrants and exiles, characters who have been uprooted so often and so violently that their only notion of home is that which they carry within themselves. Krasikov's tales of emigres and escapees remind the reader just how different the short story form is from a novel. "Maia in Yonkers," in which a woman from Tblisi who has managed to get a footing in America receives a brief visit from her now-teenaged son, is a little miracle of compression. In "Companion," Ilona is a young Russian divorce who has become the live-in companion to Earl, an older man who permits her to stay with him even as she unsuccessfully (and humorously) dates men closer to her own age. When Earl has a heart attack, his son and daughter, Lawrence and Lucinda, show up and suggest that she'll need to find some other place to live. "Like anyone else, Lawrence would be gracious until the time came to be cruel," writes Krasikov. Krasikov's characters find it harder than most to make ends meet mentally and financially, and the author is brilliant at putting the reader seamlessly into these unmoored lives — giving us a lifetime of disarray and departures in a few compelling paragraphs. [Rick Kleffel]
  9. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, by Galen Beckett
    On the island nation of Altania, the Lockwell sisters make do while their father, perhaps injured by his experiments with "magick," remains sequestered in the library of their home. Ivy, the eldest and the most beautiful, is the studious sister, known for reading as she walks down a street; Lily is the romantic; Rose, a bit of a prophet. Ivy accepts an offer from her father's friend, Mr. Quent, who requests that she come to his country home to act as governess for his two young wards. There she discovers that her family is part of a secret society and that magick is not just a fashionable pastime, but perhaps more powerful than she ever suspected. Though this may look like the sort of book you'd find nestled in a shelf of paperback potboilers at a beach rental, don't judge The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by its cover. Galen Beckett's debut cleverly mixes fantasy and literary in a novel that imagines the social strictures that hemmed in Austen's and Bronte's heroines are the result of magical intervention. The novel's supernatural elements and imaginary (but familiar-seeming) setting allow Beckett to examine class and economic conflicts from the outside, without resorting to polemics. The result is a work that mixes the rich pleasures of a Victorian epic with elements of the fantastic, an imaginative eye and a dry sense of humor. [Rick Kleffel]
  10. The Wolfman, by Nicholas Pekearo
    Author Nicholas Pekearo was a volunteer cop who was killed in the line of duty on March 14, 2007, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood where he grew up. He offers what we hope for in a first novel: a raw voice bristling with energy. Dishonorably discharged after a tour in Vietnam, Marlowe Higgins is a man wrapped around a beast who must kill. He cannot stop the wolfman within, but he can make sure that those he kills deserve to die. It's vigilante justice meted out by a monster, a police procedural with fangs and claws. As a first-person narrator, Higgins tells his story in a rough vernacular that's not just unreliable — he also seems dangerous and unpredictable. Every sentence creates tension because it's just not clear how far Higgins will be pushed or how far he will go. Pekearo taps into a current of anger so pure that the metaphor of the werewolf becomes a natural outlet, rather than simply a supernatural one. Powerful without polish, The Wolfman may star a supernatural detective, but it reads like a gritty retro-crime thriller. You can feel the street in the prose of this energetic and tragic debut. [Rick Kleffel]
  11. Lady of the Snakes, by Rachel Pastan
    Rachel Pastan's novel, Lady of the Snakes, came out in February, but I've been saving it, because I had a hunch that it would be my idea of the perfect summer book — and was I ever right. Lady of the Snakes is a literary mystery crossed with a funny, feminist commentary on marriage — think A.S. Byatt linking arms in sisterhood with chick-lit champs Susan Isaacs and Jennifer Weiner. I was hooked from the opening scene, which finds Pastan's heroine, Jane Levitsky, a hotshot graduate student in Russian literature, in the midst of 20 gruesome hours of labor. Finally, in a delivery room smelling of "ocean and rust," she gives birth to a daughter. When a nurse places the newborn in Jane's arms, her first thought is that "the bundle was so light it seemed to weigh less than the completed chapters of her dissertation." Jane is an expert on the novels of the (fictitious) 19th century Russian writer and cad, Grigory Karkov, and also on the diaries of his tormented wife, Masha. As the story unfolds, Jane struggles with the demands of being on both the mommy track and the tenure track, as well as with the sense that her seemingly emancipated life has some queasy similarities to Masha's wifely serfdom. Crack open Lady of the Snakes on the beach, and I predict your funny bone and brain will be exercised while your bathing suit stays dry. [Review by Maureen Corrigan]
  12. The People on Privilege Hill, by Jane Gardam
    A few balmy nights ago, at an outdoor party filled with English professors, I mentioned to a small group that I had belatedly discovered the extraordinary British writer Jane Gardam. Four out of my five colleagues looked blank; the fifth, our host, ran into his house and came out with two early Gardam novels that he insisted I take home and read immediately! I think that mixed reaction typifies Gardam familiarity in this country: Since a lot of her books are hard to find here, even many voracious readers don't know her. So I'm declaring Jane Gardam my late-blooming discovery of the summer. In July, Europa Editions is publishing her short-story collection, The People on Privilege Hill, which is a stylistic hodgepodge of wit and weirdness, compassion and even a few examples of the classic supernatural tale. The title story features Sir Edward Feathers, "Old Filth," who's a recurring character. My Gardam-loving friends assure me that her 2004 novel, Old Filth, is wonderful beyond description and that her 1991 epistolary novel, The Queen of the Tambourine, is even better. I plan to plant myself in the sand in August and find out if they're right. [Review by Maureen Corrigan]