This week, the new Martin Amis novel, a small town murder mystery, and Nick Hornby's reading list. Plus, a literary horror novel set in a mental hospital where the patients believe the devil is hiding.
The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen, trans. from the Danish by K.E. Semmel (Dutton) – Denmark’s leading crime fiction author outdoes his outstanding debut, Keeper of Lost Causes, with this twisty-turny look at ruthless people seduced by violence. Department Q—the handler of cold cases—receives a file about the 1987 murder of a young brother and sister in a summer cottage. At the time suspicion fell on six boarding-school friends, but the police could find no evidence. Now, Morck and his misfit assistants discover that the blood lust of those same students, now wealthy leaders of society, has not abated.
Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis (Knopf) - If there’s a more depraved human being than the title character of Martin Amis’s savagely funny new novel, you do not want to meet him. Crackling with brilliant prose and scathing style, this novel plays like a gleefully twisted Great Expectations—Lionel is a vicious criminal who wins the lottery, takes in his nephew (who is only six years younger), becomes a tabloid sensation, and starts a phony relationship with a woman famous for being famous. Trust us, you don't want to miss this playful and suspenseful book—it’s Amis at his best.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster (Holt) – Auster’s quietly moving meditation on death and life chronicles the momentous and the mundane. From the vantage point of the winter preceding his 64th birthday, Auster lets his body and its sensations guide his memories. There is no set chronology; time and place bleed from one year to another, between childhood and adulthood. This is the exquisitely wrought catalogue of a man’s history through his body, a body that has felt pain and pleasure because “[the] body always knows what the mind doesn’t know.”
Nine Months by Paula Bomer (Soho) – This alarmingly genuine debut novel is one woman’s interior account of her experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Content with her kind and supportive husband, Dick, and her two young boys who are finally old enough to allow her to think about painting again, Sonia is plagued by the fear that the life she is living is smaller than the life she once imagined for herself. When she finds out she’s pregnant for a third time, these feelings of being trapped by her own nest are exacerbated, and Sonia is driven to one final journey of self-discovery. Sonia’s inner and outer turmoil is graphically rendered, and the book is characterized by raw emotion and humanity. Read Bomer's "Books I Love."
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (Harper) - The implacable hand of fate, and the efforts of a quiet, reclusive man to reclaim two young sisters from their harrowing past, are the major forces at play in this immensely affecting first novel. Talmedge tends his fruit orchards in the Pacific Northwest during the early years of the 20th century, but his quiet occupation is disrupted when two sisters flee their brothel, seeking refuge. Coplin relates the story with appropriate restraint, given Talmadge’s reserved personality, and yet manages to evoke a world where the effects of two dramatic losses play out within a strikingly beautiful natural landscape.
The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig (Riverhead) - After living half his life in Phoenix, Ariz., with his aunt, 12-year-old Russell “Rusty” Harry comes back to the tiny town of Gros Ventre to live with his father, Tom, the owner of a popular saloon. Rusty’s mother has been gone since she and Tom “split the blanket” 12 years ago. Rusty entertains himself in the cavernous back room, which Tom operates like a pawnshop, taking in all manner of miscellany so sheepherders, ranchers, and others can pay for their drinks. When a local cafe comes under new ownership, 12-year-old Zoe Constantine shows up and soon becomes Rusty’s partner in crime in the backroom, listening to the bar through an air vent. Doig gives us a poignant saga of a boy becoming a man alongside a town and a bygone way of life inching into the modern era. Check out a profile of Doig.
Sharp: A Memoir by David Fitzpatrick (Morrow) - Haunted by demons of mental illness that plagued his ancestors, a young man barely out of college finds release from inner torment in cutting himself, leading to 17 years of being a “professional mental patient.” In this mesmeric, dire memoir of his agonizing journey through hell and back, Fitzpatrick takes extraordinary care in re-creating the cerebral maelstrom that brought on the first breakdown at age 23. A combination of low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression over a breakup with a girlfriend precipitated the first cutting incident, leading to the first of many incarcerations in the psychiatric wing of hospitals, shock treatments, “psychotropic cocktails” that increasingly bloated his body, and intensive therapy with idiosyncratic doctors. This dark, affecting human story covers Fitzpatrick's entire life but ends with him “recapturing his mind.” Read an essay from Fitzpatrick about how he turned his life into a memoir.
More Baths, Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family and Time Itself by Nick Hornby (McSweeney’s) - This collection of Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns from May 2010 to December 2011 encompasses a broad range of topics, both literary and not. It’s amazing how Hornby’s enthusiasm for an obscure book (such as Andrew Brown’s Fishing in Utopia) on an even more obscure topic (fishing in Sweden doesn’t have obvious broad spectrum appeal) can segue so smoothly into musings on the artistic experience and the genius of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. In addition to providing readers with a wonderfully eclectic to-read list, Hornby reminds everyone how important it is to revel in the written word. Check out a Q&A with Hornby.
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller (Minotaur) – This outstanding novel begins with 17-year-old Carla Elkins waiting for her divorced mother, Bell Elkins, Raythune County's prosecuting attorney, at the Salty Dawg, a chain restaurant in Acker's Gap, W.Va., when three old men are shot dead at a nearby table. Carla catches only a glimpse of the killer at the Salty Dawg's entrance before he flees. Bell, who's been crusading with the local sheriff against the growing illegal traffic in prescription drugs and the violence it spawns, investigates the triple slaying, as does rebellious Carla. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Keller paints an unforgettable cast of characters against a beautifully drawn environment.
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau) – The setting of this genuinely unsettling novel is New Hyde hospital, a cash-strapped mental institution in Queens where the patients—and you never know who’s actually crazy and who’s not—believe the Devil is living behind a silver door at the end of an empty hallway. A combination of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dante’s Inferno, LaValle’s expertly written novel will leave you wondering about its many memorable characters and lingering over questions about fear, horror, madness, suffering, friendship, and love.
From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra (FSG) - Indian-British historian and international affairs commentator Mishra (Temptations of the West) looks at how, between about 1870 and 1940, “some of the most intelligent and sensitive people in the East responded to the encroachments of the West (both physical and intellectual) on their societies.” In particular, he focuses on Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, intellectuals and political activists. Well-researched and crisply written, this scintillating work will help American readers understand the political and intellectual roots of Islamism and other non- and anti-Western thought in Asia today.
Diaries by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, intro. by Christopher Hitchens (Norton) – Beginning in the early years of his career, George Orwell’s diaries show his records of the mundane (how much dried milk poor mothers get, how much beer they serve their children), but his pen comes alive when times get hard. The highlight of these diaries is the years of WWII. The characteristic Orwell voice is there—the intense clarity, the obsessive need to get some sort of honest rendering of reality. And though it may be difficult for beginners, it is a pleasure to be around Orwell’s mind and his perfectly clear prose style. Read an essay from Davison about the difficulties in publishing George Orwell's complete works.
Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld (FSG) - Rosenfeld painstakingly recreates the dramatic—and unsettling—history of how J. Edgar Hoover worked closely with then California governor Ronald Reagan to undermine student dissent, arrest and expel members of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, and fire the University of California’s liberal president, Clark Kerr. Rosenfeld’s vivid narrative focuses on three men: Kerr, who played a key role in guaranteeing all Californians access to higher education; Mario Savio, the charismatic student activist who led the Free Speech movement; and the ambitious Reagan, who was a more active FBI informer in his Hollywood days than previously known. This is narrative nonfiction at its best. Check out our Q&A with Rosenfeld.
The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors (Walker) – A delightful spin on classic fairy tales—part “The Ugly Duckling” and part “Rumpelstiltskin”—this YA centers on Emmeline Thistle, left to die as a baby in the village of Root because of her curled foot. Raised by the local cows, she gains a strong connection to animals, and soon meets a dairyman’s son, Owen Oak. With Owen, she discovers the magical ability of churning cream into chocolate, a delicacy long gone from the kingdom of Anglund. This is an exhilarating, romantic, and frequently funny story of self-discovery.