Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Fiction’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Martha S’s Picks

December 29, 2014

I enjoy reading realistic fiction, with some humor thrown in from time to time, and and occasional work of nonfiction.  These are my favorites books discovered this year, but published prior to 2014:

LookawLookaway, Lookawayay, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
Meet the Johnstons: Jerene and Duke are the heads of a socially prominent, highly dysfunctional Charlotte family. Duke is an ardent Civil War reenactor; Jerene is the manager of the Jarvis trust, her family’s collection of landscapes by minor American artists. They are the parents of Annie, an outspoken, brash real estate person on her third marriage, minister Bo, gay son Joshua who is not officially out of the closet, naïve daughter Jerrilyn. There is also Jerene’s outrageous, dissolute brother, Gaston Jarvis, who has squandered his literary talent on a series of Southern potboilers. This is a blisteringly funny satire of just about any contemporary Southern thing you can think of.  Read another review.

The PostmistressThe Postmistress by Sarah Blake
Three women’s lives intersect after Frankie Bard, a reporter from wartime London during the blitz, meets a doctor in an air raid shelter who asks her to deliver a letter to his wife in Massachusetts. The postmistress of the town in Massachusetts also has a mission from the same doctor to deliver a letter to his wife in the event of his death. This is a gripping story of the war in London, its effect on the three women and other people in the small town in Massachusetts.

The Language of FlowersThe Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
After a childhood spent in foster care, Victoria has nowhere to go and has no people in her life. Through luck she finds work in a florist’s shop and is able to expand her knowledge of the language of flowers that she has been interested in since childhood. Victoria is able to help others with her skill with flowers while she struggles with her own past.


TransatlanticTransatlantic by Colum McCann
The novel uses three events that actually happened as the basis for his novel; Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland in 1845, the 1919 flight of British aviators Alcock and Brown, and the attempts by U.S. senator George Mitchell to broker peace in Northern Ireland. One of the fictional characters, Lilly Duggan, who is first seen in the Frederick Douglass chapter boldly leaves all behind and immigrates to America, becoming the mother of a long line of descendants in America, some of whom return to Ireland in later times. Fascinating and brilliantly written.

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a brilliant, but socially awkward professor of genetics at an Australian university. Nearing his 40th birthday, he decides to find a wife and devises a questionnaire to rule out all unsuitable candidates. Soon Rosie Jarman enters the picture and Don mistakenly believes she has submitted a questionnaire and been vetted by his coworker. Rosie and Don hit it off in spite of the fact that she fails to meet some of his requirements. Rosie does not know who her biological father is, so together they embark on the Rosie Project to attempt to learn his identity. Hilarious and heartwarming events ensue.  Read another review.

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 23, 2014

These five books were the ones that stuck in my mind during 2014. They reveal truths about our shared humanity while introducing readers to new places and new forms of style. Take a moment to try these out; they are well worth your time.

Claire of the Sea LightClaire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
On the night of Claire Limyè Lanmè’s seventh birthday, she disappears. Motherless, her fisherman father Nozias has decided to give Claire away to Madame Gaëlle, a shopkeeper who lost her daughter in an accident years earlier, to ensure Claire greater opportunities. As the members of the seaside Haitian town of Ville Rose, search for her, their interconnected stories, secrets, and losses emerge. Danticat creates vivid characters and her writing captures the beauty and sorrow of daily life.

The CommitmentsThe Commitments by Roddy Doyle
Put together a group of Dublin working class misfits with the soul sounds of the 1960s and you have Roddy Doyle’s punchy and charming novel about the joys of rock and roll. The book follows the escapades of the band as they combat over practice, get through their first gig, cut their first single and run into inevitable creative differences. Doyle’s free-flowing bawdy dialogue is exhilarating. So, if you are looking for some fun, introduce yourself to the Hardest Working Soul Band in Dublin: The Commitments.

My Struggle Book OneMy Struggle Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard blurs the lines between fiction and memoir in the first volume of his novelistic autobiography. The book begins with a meditation on death and then proceeds to explore Knausgaard’s childhood and fraught relationship with his troubled father. This expansion and contraction of universal ideas and the minute details of Knausgaard’s life creates a fascinating tension between the author and the reader. Knausgaard lays his life out on the table with unflinching directness for the reader to examine. My Struggle is probably not for every reader, but it is something strange and new.

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W. G. Sebald
Traveling across Europe, the unnamed narrator meets and befriends Jacques Austerlitz an architectural historian. As their relationship develops, he gradually learns of Austerlitz’s search for his lost history. As a small child, Austerlitz’s mother placed him a Kindertransport to Britain where an aged Welsh couple adopted him and gave him a new identity. After learning of his birth family after their deaths, Austerlitz begins to discover his past and how the Holocaust severed his past life from his present. Uncanny, hypnotic, and dreamlike, Austerlitz conveys the incompleteness of memories with their ragged and hazy qualities, while capturing the devastation of the Holocaust.

The Patrick Melrose NovelsThe Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn pillories the excesses and absurdities of the British upper class with elegant prose and vicious wit in this cycle of four novels. He begins with Patrick’s childhood relationships to his sadistic father and neglectful mother, and following him into a ravenous drug addiction, recovery, marriage and fatherhood. His character eventually reaches a form of uneasy redemption. Patrick and the world he inhabits aren’t likable, but there’s a level of truth to St. Aubyn’s storytelling, as Patrick struggles to place himself beyond his lifelong demons. Despite some of their grim subject matter, the novels are deeply, darkly funny.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

September 25, 2014

This is my favorite new book of the year so far. It’s composed of funny, angry letters, mostly letters of recommendation, written by a man who has been around too long and seen too much, but who can’t stop caring about his job and the people it touches. The book jacket promises that each letter is “a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive aggressive strategies”, and the author delivers on that promise.

Jay Fitger is a professor of English at the aptly named Payne University. Jay is 55 years old, divorced twice, the kind of guy who is just too honest and too smart for his own good. He’s also angry as he watches his department become more and more downsized and marginalized as the university budget constricts. His letters of recommendation for students and colleagues who need his help in applying for jobs, grants, etc. often tend to lack the tactfulness one expects in such missives.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter written on behalf of a student seeking an internship in the office of a state senator:

Malinda is intelligent; she is organized; she is well spoken. Given her aptitude for research (unlike most undergraduates, she has moved beyond Wikipedia), I am sure that she will soon learn that the senator, his leathern face permanently embossed with a gruesome rictus of feigned cheer, has consistently voted against funds for higher education and has cosponsored multiple narrow-minded backwater proposals that will make it ever more difficult for her to repay the roughly $38,000 in debt that the average graduate of our institution inherits—along with a lovely blue tassel—on the day of commencement.

Gee, with friends like these…

As the book progresses, the reader learns more about the failures of Jay’s personal life, and about the politics surrounding him at the university. By the time the book ends, both Jay and the reader encounter the sadness that any good comedy includes as well as a surprising satisfaction at how things turn out.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

September 24, 2014

Mae Holland couldn’t believe her luck. Her college roommate and best friend Annie, a Stanford MBA who had been recruited everywhere, but chose to work at The Circle, had gotten Mae a job there. Only two years out of college, and Mae has health insurance, her own apartment, and a Real Job with the hottest, highest-tech company in the world. From her very first day, she is nearly dumbfounded by the incredible techno-games, toys, and tools she sees. Everyone Mae meets is working on “something world-rocking or life-changing or fifty years ahead of anyone else.”

Annie shows her a portrait of the Three Wise Men, founders of the company. Ty, the first Wise Man, looks about 25, wears ordinary glasses and a huge hoodie, and seems to be tuned into some distant frequency. Cleverly, before The Circle’s IPO, Ty hired the other two Wise Men, serious business managers, and The Circle took off.

Annie has risen fast and high in The Circle, and is now part of the Gang of Forty, the 40 most crucial minds in the company. Mae feels incredibly grateful that Annie is her mentor, and vows to repay her. Annie assures Mae that she’ll climb fast out of Customer Experience. So Mae puts her head down and focuses on absorbing everything, dedicating herself to the company and its goals. She learns that Ty was the developer of the Unified Operating System, which has brought together everything online: your social media profiles, your payment systems, all your passwords, your email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of your interests. He called it TruYou.

Mae does well, and incorporates herself into The Circle. But she starts to see a stranger lurking around campus, and starts to suspect it’s Ty. Why is he so secretive? Meanwhile, Mae wants to find to find her long-lost boyfriend. Mercer has intentionally withdrawn from technology, and has emphatically cut ties with her. Despite his deliberate rejection, in a public display of the efficiency of The Circle’s integrated tools, she hunts him down.

Does privacy exist today? Can it? Should it? If these questions intrigue you, read The Circle.

Btw, did you know that Google finally has acquired Skybox, a company whose small, cheap satellites collect daily photos and videos of the Earth? In June, the Wall Street Journal published aerial Skybox images of February protests in Kiev, Ukraine.

If you like this book by Dave Eggers, you may also enjoy Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

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Influx by Daniel Suarez

September 17, 2014

Influx, published this year, is Daniel Suarez’s fourth novel. It deals with a shadowy and overlooked federal government organization: the Bureau of Technology Control. The Bureau was long ago tasked to suppress disruptive technologies, for the sake of the status quo. Lax oversight has allowed the Bureau not only to suppress, but also to further develop and utilize these technologies for its own sinister purposes.

An unconventional physicist comes up with a way to alter gravity. As you can imagine, this might disrupt both the air travel and shipping industries. On the eve of the invention’s debut, there is a disastrous explosion right after the inventor is abducted by the Bureau.

The physicist finds himself in a matrix like prison, subjected to various tortures undertaken to gain his cooperation. Slowly he makes contact with other prisoners who have invented many of the hoped for scientific breakthroughs society has yet to see. Working together, these inventors are able to help the physicist escape so he can expose the Bureau and rescue them.

Suarez is a former technology consultant to big business and government. He knows his science. Suarez has developed into a writer that not only can present technological issues through his storytelling but also turns out a crackling page-turner that readers won’t want to put down.

I’ve since read Suarez’s three other novels in their published order. Out of the blocks, Suarez proved himself a capable writer. His first book, Daemon is about a computer game let loose in the real world that slowly begins to change how the world works. In Daemon’s sequel, Freedom, the Daemon is overcome. His third book, Kill Decision is about militarized autonomous drones that have the ability to kill people without a decision being made by a human.

Ultimately, two things made me decide to read Daniel Suarez’s books. The first was a cover blurb by my trusted guide Stewart Brand, a Merry Prankster and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. The blurb reads, “Daemon is better than early Tom Clancy…The tech is invoked with inside knowledge, the writing is better, and deeper issues are explored with greater imagination.” The second is that Suarez’s blogroll includes Homestar Runner.

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Intuition by Allegra Goodman

July 11, 2014

IntuitionI picked this novel up because I’d heard that it offered a realistic portrayal of scientific research. So often in popular entertainment we’re given an exaggerated vision of how science is actually done—there’s either the mad scientist unscrupulously tinkering with nature to satisfy a god complex, or the hero who saves the day with a “scientific” solution that amounts to waving a magic wand. Intuition examines the ways ambition, personality,  and politics can influence research, but avoids painting its characters, and the effects of human fallibility on science, with broad strokes.

Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass run a cancer research lab at the fictional Philpott Institute. For years their contrasting personalities (Marion circumspect and precise, Sandy bombastic and charming) have harmonized in a close working relationship. When one of their postdocs, Cliff Bannaker, begins demonstrating dramatic success in his work administering experimental cancer treatments to mice, Sandy wants to announce and publish the results before they’ve been fully verified to attract publicity and badly needed funding for the lab. Marion’s reluctance to engage the media prematurely begins to create cracks in their partnership. Further controversy ensues when Cliff’s fellow postdoc (and ex), Robin Decker, begins to suspect his results were falsified. How can Robin—not to mention her colleagues—be certain that her suspicions are not colored by personal resentment? Is she willing to pursue those suspicions at the possible cost of her professional future and her friendships?

Scientific discovery and controversy are usually reported in the news with all the subtlety of a banner headline.  (In the novel, the announcement and disputation of Cliff’s results are sensationalized and distorted by the media and grandstanding politicians). In contrast, Intuition tells a story in which both research and human drama proceed as they often do in life: turning points are quiet, revelation is gradual. Yet this is a highly engaging novel. Each of Allegra Goodman’s characters is memorable and relatable despite their flaws, and her sharp observations of them make those small moments resonate with great emotional power. I definitely plan to check out more from this excellent author.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

July 7, 2014

Geek LoveTo save their traveling carnival, Al and “Crystal Lil” Binewski experiment with drugs and radioactivity during Lil’s pregnancies to chemically breed their children into their own “freaks”. They do not see the harm in doing this. Mrs. Binewski compares her children to beautiful hybrid roses. As a result, Olympia Binewski, a bald albino hunchback dwarf, and her equally unique siblings are forced to go through life as carnival attractions, both admired and abhorred by society.

Five children make up the Binewski Fabulon. Arturo (the Aqua Boy) is missing limbs. Through manipulation, Arturo creates a cult following of people who have their own limbs removed so that they too will be special. Elly and Iphy are Siamese twins who are naive and pretty. The baby of the family is Chick, who appears normal, but has telekinetic powers. Geek Love is told from Olympia’s viewpoint.

The book’s graphic scenes and dark humor may not be for everyone. This National Book Award finalist, while tragic, is also very humorous and the plot is so fantastical that the book is a treat to read.  Katherine Dunn’s thoughtful and humanistic view of life outside of society’s accepted norm will leave readers thinking that there just may be a little freak in all of us. Those who liked Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman or fans of author Chuck Palahniuk may like this book.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

April 24, 2014

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriThe two brothers in The Lowland are so close that people often mistake them for twins. They do everything together and they are similar in appearance, yet they have always had different temperaments. Subhash, the elder brother, is the more serious one, and Udayan is more bold and idealistic. When they reach college age, these differences become more apparent. Subhash works hard and jumps at the chance to further his education in America. Udayan is less focused on academics and becomes involved in the radical leftist movement at the university in Calcutta. The movement begins with students who want to eliminate poverty in India, but eventually becomes outlawed when it is infiltrated by guerrilla communist groups.

While Subhash is in Boston, Udayan falls in love and marries young, moving with his bride back to their parent’s home. Everyone believes Udayan has left his radical days behind, but one day Subhash receives an urgent request to come back to India because of a tragedy in the family.

What happens next will change the course of Subhash’s life, as well as the lives his parents and Udayan’s bride. Lahiri’s lyrical writing gives a wonderful picture of family life in Calcutta and of the student movement of the 1960s. The book then follows the family through the rest of their lives to show what happened to them after Udayan’s death. I enjoyed this approach because I am often left wondering what happened to characters I become so involved with after the book ends. Fans of Lahiri’s other book, The Namesake, will not be disappointed.

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Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

April 11, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna TrollopeThere’s a growing trend for the estates of famous deceased authors to commission new “continuation” titles based on the settings and characters the authors created, sort of like officially sanctioned fan fiction.  One good example is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a new Sherlock Holmes novel approved by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. Agatha Christie’s estate has also recently authorized more Hercule Poirot mysteries.  Publisher HarperCollins is going one step further with its Austen Project, asking some of today’s best-selling British authors to re-imagine Jane Austen’s works with close retellings of her books set in the current time period.  The first of these out of the gate is Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility.

Trollope’s book, like the classic, focuses on the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and their mother.  Mr. Dashwood expires before the book even begins, but from a modern ailment – severe asthma – not from a hunting accident. His estate passes to his son from his first marriage, not due to entailment laws, but because he never actually legally married the girls’ mother, a modern twist. Left homeless, they snap up the offer of a cottage in the countryside free of rent from a wealthy cousin, John Middleton.  The story proceeds with the same characters and plot points as the original, but with modern “sensibilities.”

Much of the charm of Austen’s books lies in the customs and manners of the time period when they are set and her own unique style in making fun of them and her character’s many foibles.  Trollope’s book is also witty and satirical in its own way.  It’s interesting to see how much of the humor and how many of the romantic predicaments are timeless and translate well to today.

The Austen Project has scheduled all of Jane Austen’s books for this treatment.  Next up is Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld.

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The Guts by Roddy Doyle

March 24, 2014

Jimmy Rabbitte Jr., the protagonist of The Commitments, reappears in Roddy Doyle’s new novel, The Guts. In The Commitments, Jimmy Jr. was the 21-year-old firebrand manager of the hardest working Soul band in working-class Dublin. Now forty-seven with the demands and responsibilities of family life, the novel begins with Jimmy announcing to his father Jimmy Sr. that he has bowel cancer. What follows is how Jimmy Jr. navigates disease, family crises, job pressures, a bleak economic landscape, and a reunion with an old flame from his past. Lest this description make The Guts sound like a total downer, be advised that Doyle is a master of levity and wicked humor in the face of a bad situation. His dialogue is a joy to behold, profane and lively and full of energy like this exchange:

—Usin’ her feminine charms, yeah?
—Yeah. Spot on.
—She’s wastin’ her time, said Jimmy’s da.
—Norman, said Jimmy’s da.—Did yeh not notice?
—He’s gay…
—The Norman in there, yeah.
—He’s gay?
—Since when?
—Like, he’s old, said Jimmy.

Also tying the two books together is Jimmy’s love affair with music and the ways in which we use music to bridge relationships in our lives. Throughout The Guts, Jimmy uses music to renew bonds with his children and friends and his quest for the perfect Irish song is a particularly satisfying storyline. The culminating scenes at an Irish outdoor music festival are lovely and low-key though Doyle is ever-wary of sentiment turning into saccharine. If you’re still looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s with some Irish fiction, The Guts won’t do you wrong.

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