South Korea is claiming a seat at the world’s literary table with the February release of female novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Londoner Deborah Smith. The novel was originally published in 2007 in South Korea as three separate novellas. The Vegetarian unites these related stories, which all center around Yeong-hye, a young woman described by those close to her as plain and unremarkable. That is, until she becomes tormented by recurring dreams of unspeakable horrors — dreams she associates with eating meat.
Her husband, the narrator of the first part of the novel, is alarmed when he finds her frantically throwing away the animal contents of their refrigerator. He immediately reminds her of the monetary costs, to no avail. Yeong-hye not only avoids all animal products but eats little at all and begins to rapidly lose weight. Her health declines but the dreams continue. Others scoff at her newfound vegan diet, while her blustering, domineering father decides to force-feed her during a family dinner to disastrous, far-reaching results.
The second part of the novel takes us forward in time, and this time the narrator is the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister, who is a successful and driven businesswoman and mother. The brother-in-law is an artist who has yet to find an audience for his work. He is obsessed with Yeong-hye, determined to use her as the centerpiece of an artistic, sexually graphic film conceived with her in mind. This middle portion of The Vegetarian takes the quiet yet alarmingly dark tone of the beginning and adds a brooding, hypnotic eroticism. What is it about Yeong-hye that bewitches him and causes him to risk everything? Is he driven by art, or merely lust?
The final part of The Vegetarian is told by the sister, whose life has been upended by both Yeong-hye’s actions and her stubborn convictions. Yeong-hye’s mental health is rapidly declining, or so it seems. Is there something much bigger lurking beneath her usual, seemingly placid exterior? Her rejection of the human world takes her to a startling place.
The Vegetarian is calm, cool, unflinchingly dark and unsettling. Readers looking for an intellectual and philosophical challenge will enjoy working out the rich symbolism for themselves, making this an excellent choice for book clubs with a literary bent.
Northern Alaska in winter…your dream destination? Probably not, but it is the perfect setting for Rosamund Lupton’s latest thriller The Quality of Silence. A fast-paced, bone-chilling tale about a mother and daughter who trek through northern Alaska to find her missing husband that includes a wild ride in a hijacked tractor trailer to the Arctic Circle (complete with menacing stalkers), threats of hypothermia, a blizzard and fear at every turn.
What would you do if you were told your husband was killed in a fire at a remote northern Alaskan village? Would you hijack a tractor trailer to drive through Alaska’s most treacherous landscape with your 10-year-old deaf daughter? Believing her husband Matt is alive and alone in the desolate, frozen tundra, Yasmin is determined to find him despite the bitter cold, constant darkness and barely passable snow-covered roads. But her and her daughter, Ruby, must also outrun the truck keeping pace behind them, and then there are the cryptic emails from an unknown sender. Who is following them? Who is sending the emails? And why? Unrelenting fear presses down on Yasmin and Ruby not only from outside factors but from the silence they experience as well. Will they conquer their fears? Will they find Matt? Will they survive?
Grab a cozy blanket and something warm to drink, for Lupton’s description of northern Alaska will make you shiver, both from cold and fright. You will urgently read this icy page-turner to find out what happens to Matt, Yasmin and Ruby. After warming up, go to Lupton's website for photos of her recent trip to Alaska. Interesting, believe me! Still want more Lupton? Then check out her other moving and suspenseful novels, Sister and Afterwards. Both great reads!
The mother-daughter relationship is complicated at its best, damaging at its worst. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout deftly tells the tale of one such complex relationship in her latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. This beautifully written story is filled with hope, pain, love and understanding.
Life has come to a halt for Lucy Barton, a young married mother living in 1980s Manhattan. Succumbing to an unknown infection after routine surgery, she must convalesce in the hospital for nine weeks. Despondent and lonely, she wants nothing more than to get back to her family and her life as a writer in the West Village. To stave off loneliness, her husband flies in her estranged mother from the Midwest for a five-day visit. To say these two are not close is an understatement — they haven't seen each other in years and are barely on speaking terms. How and why did they become so distant? As Lucy tells of her mother’s visit, she also flashes back to her poverty-stricken childhood and forward to the future when her daughters are grown. We learn of her childhood, her college years and of her life in Manhattan. She attempts to forge a stronger bond with her mother during the visit, but she also hopes to get answers. Why did her mother not come to her wedding? Is she proud of her? Lucy soon realizes that as she learns more about her mother, she better understands herself.
Strout illustrates both the power and far reaching consequences of the mother-daughter relationship. You will empathize and perhaps even identify with Lucy Barton and her mother, feeling their raw emotion in spades. Check out Strout’s other works for more moving stories about relationships. My favorites are Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. Both great reads...and rereads!
Do you love a can’t-put-down thriller filled with lies, secrets and schemes galore? Yes? Then get your hands on a copy of Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar. Clever, engrossing and shocking is this tale of an octogenarian lifelong liar working on his last con. A page-turner that will haunt your thoughts long after you read the last word.
We meet Roy as he is preparing to embark on his last con. His mark is Betty, a sweet, trusting widow with a sizeable nest egg. They meet via online dating, arranged by Roy and the con is set in motion. Gain her trust. Move in with her. Have her “invest” with him in a phony high-yielding venture, leaving him with her investment. Easy, right? After all, Roy has been doing this his entire life. But what made Roy a good liar? Working backwards from adulthood to childhood, Searle brilliantly doles out details of Roy’s life, continually building suspense. You will devour each page, wanting to know Roy’s innermost secrets. But you will also need to know if Roy gets his mark. And what happens to Betty? The twists will shock and awe you!
Fans of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice will enjoy Searle’s debut offering. The Good Liar also makes for an exceptional book club selection. Multidimensional characters, surprising twists and a good versus evil theme will definitely spark lively discussions. In fact, I was desperate to discuss this book with someone. So grab two copies of The Good Liar today, one for you and one for a friend, and get ready to be entertained and shocked! No lie!
Vulnerable, shimmering and desirable. Oh, to be a soul in David Mitchell's disturbing and fun new novel Slade House. Here horror meets plain old weirdness in a Faustian-like brew, stirred up by creepy twin siblings, Norah and Jonah Grayer. The two house residents must refuel in order to “live” out their immortal existence. But it's their energy of choice that is the stunner for those who enter their seductive property through their garden’s small iron black door.
Spanning 36 years starting in 1979, the story’s epicenter is the enigmatic haunted mansion that only appears once every nine years. One by one, Mitchell’s five “engifted” narrators are tricked by the twins into visiting the house, allured by a theatrical setting that conjures up images they want to believe in, images that make their lacking lives better. They end up in a precarious situation, trapped and doomed, while the unthinkable happens.
Mitchell, whose previous novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks received critical acclaim, started this latest work out of a series of tweets. It is a narrative that hints of larger life questions for which there are no answers. And while Mitchell deftly nods to his heftier previous works and the universe therein, it is not necessary to start there. In fact, Mitchell’s latest effort is a nimble and accessible stand-alone. It may be the perfect introduction to this author’s thought-provoking, imaginatively clever writing whose style blends mind-control and the supernatural with the essence of time, beguiling it might be. Mitchell fans have come to expect nothing less while newcomers will hopefully get what all the fuss is about.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus prophesizes apocalypse by desertification. When part of the United States is engulfed by sand and declared uninhabitable, it becomes a refuge for those looking to escape from the lives they’ve made for themselves. To some, threats of dehydration and starvation are worth the risk to avoid returning to civilization.
Luz and Ray are surviving: after drought choked the West Coast and sand spread to the seas, it’s all anyone can do. California has shrunk into itself as golden kestrels encroached and devoured the landscape. Most have fled to military refuge zones to the north and east, but for some, that is a less desirable option than wandering the wasteland as a newly branded “Mojav.” After rescuing Ig, a malnourished child born into a gang of abusive Mojavs, Luz and Ray depart from the derelict McMansion they’ve been squatting in, hoping to find an old contact who can expunge their pasts and allow them passage into sanctuary.
During their journey across an ever-evolving frontier of shifting sands, Luz and Ray struggle to suppress nostalgia as they teach Ig about what their world has become. After losing the main road when the sand swallows the tire tracks, Ray leaves Luz and Ig to find gasoline for the car and fades from man to apparition on the horizon and alters the course of their new lives.
Readers who enjoyed Watkins’ short story collection Battleborn: Stories will recognize her beautiful prose style and wonderfully creative imaginings. Perhaps the best part of Gold Fame Citrus is the extended description of the desert itself, likening its fluid motions to those of the oceans.
Watkin’s new novel about a frighteningly realistic, drought-stricken California is so clearly and crisply described that readers are immediately sucked into this unnerving story. The writing is as blindingly brilliant as the landscape. The book is at once beautiful and brutal.
Californians are portrayed as a group of people always searching for something better, buried gold for the taking, legendary status or even year-round citrus. The dunes destroy that California, and most flee. However, some continue to be drawn by an almost supernatural magnetism to the wasteland left behind. These “Mojavs” carve out an existence, forming strange new communities with few and fluctuating rules.
Watkin’s characters are made more tangible by their flaws and readers can’t resist the urge to protect them from themselves as well as their ruthless environment.
When Ray has to strike out and look for help, Luz and Ig are rescued by a seemingly peaceful society existing in refuge on the very edge of the habitable world. The leader of this group becomes an increasingly menacing character, and the group sheltering Luz and Ig begins to look more and more like a cult. This is an interesting twist in the story given Watkin’s own personal history. The father she never really knew was Charles Manson’s trusted assistant, often in charge of recruiting young women. Though she didn’t really know him, she does explore the topic of cults in her first collection of short stories, Battleborn. Readers will also enjoy Margaret Atwood’s new apocalyptic novel The Heart Goes Last.
“Finding your soulmate” takes on disastrous meaning as repercussions echo through the centuries in Susan Barker’s The Incarnations.
Wang Jun’s life as a Beijing taxi driver is dictated by the monotony of routine, until the day he finds in his taxi cab a letter addressed to him. The letter comes from an anonymous sender calling themselves Wang’s “soulmate.” This person has been searching for Wang to tell him that they are two souls that have been reincarnated together into different, yet connected, lives for a thousand years. More letters follow, all appearing mysteriously, all recounting the events in these past lives ranging from the time of the Tang Dynasty to Chairman Mao’s regime, all detailing in blunt and brutal language how their past lives ended in betrayal and violence.
Wang is disturbed by the letters and becomes determined to find out who is stalking him and stop them once and for all. But can he successfully determine who is behind the letters? Is the mysterious letter writer someone he knows or are they a total stranger? And if he succeeds in finding his soulmate, what will the consequences of his actions be?
The Incarnations is a novel of interwoven narrative layers, from the letters written to Wang to the five past lives described in detail by the soulmate narrator, with Wang’s quest the thread tying them all together. Mixing historical fiction with aspects of magical realism, Barker captures snapshots of Chinese history in brilliant and ruthless clarity as she blends them into Wang’s search and into each account of the past lives.
A caveat:The Incarnations is also a violent novel. Barker candidly details the acts of violence – physical, sexual and psychological – each incarnation experiences or inflicts. But it is a thought-provoking story about obsession, loyalty and betrayal as well, raising questions about humanity’s fallibility and the cyclical nature of time. Without giving too much away, this book makes you reconsider what reincarnation may involve and makes you wonder about the people in your own life. Readers who enjoy exploring the darker side of history or humanity, or who appreciate books that are a bit of a mind twist should check out this book.
A lame orphan, an incompetent grifter and London’s Blitz might comprise a fairly grim story. Instead, author Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart: A Novel is darkly comedic and heartwarming as it focuses on the incongruous pairing of a posh city child and his conniving country mouse foster parent.
Meet Mrs. Vee Sedge: resident of rural St. Albans, lives with her indolent adult son and disabled mother who writes motivational letters to Winston Churchill regarding homefront morale and offering friendly advice (“I saw your picture in the paper last week and I hope you don’t mind me saying that I wonder if you’re getting enough fresh air.”) Vee is so desperate for money that she’s taken out a life insurance policy on an elderly neighbor, who foils Vee’s plans by failing to die, and she goes door to door collecting money for the war effort which she keeps for herself. When Vee sees Noel limping through her village as part of a parade of children evacuated from London to evade Hitler’s bombs, she volunteers to care for the little boy, not out of patriotic duty, but as a prop to a con.
Noel is the child who never fits in. Precocious, pale and unathletic, he is also bereft since the death of his beloved godmother. Farmed out to the putative safety of the Sedge’s shabby quarters, Noel perks up when he realizes he can be the brains behind Vee’s ill-conceived swindles. World War II’s privations were harsh and Evans frames the duo’s petty frauds in a landscape where the common folk of England must scheme to survive. Nominated for a Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, Crooked Heart’s clever writing, multifaceted characters and thoughtful story make this an engaging read and a winning book club pick.
Nikesh Shukla’s second novel Meatspace is what happens when the fractals of a man’s loneliness are traced through social media and reassembled into a spectre of depression. Tweets, status updates and blog posts are the 2015 equivalent of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, and the characters in Meatspace are all very expressive. Cut through the gristly irony and melodrama, and the remaining sinew shows readers how Shukla’s cast of aimless authors are feeling at any given moment of their days — except when they’re on the Tube.
Kitab Balasubramanyam was fired from his job in London for writing a novel in a secret Google doc instead of earning his pay. Now he’s holed up in a bachelor pad with his brother Aziz and a fridge full of chutney that his ex-girlfriend Rach left behind. Every minute of every day he’s online, randomly liking his relatives’ status updates and photos on Facebook or deleting and rephrasing a tweet to sound more authorial as he checks the nonexistent sales figures of his now-published book. Living off his mother’s life insurance policy is only going to get him so far, so he’s trying to make the author thing work out by doing readings at local pubs, which is going as fantastically as it sounds.
Dawdling in the bar bathroom after his latest stint at the mic, Kitab Balasubramanyam meets another guy who is also floating through life: Kitab Balasubramanyam. A second Indian guy at the same exact London pub book reading with the same exact name. Weirdness ensues.
Every chapter starts with a glimpse at Kitab’s browser history and is permeated with hashtags and blog posts and stored tweet drafts, all of which jigsaw together to illustrate how not-okay he is. Meatspace is brimming with pop culture references so relevant it’s like Nikesh Shukla has found a way to make ninja edits to the print copies, as if it wasn’t already impressive enough.
Jonathan Evison’s new novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! introduces our heroine Harriet on the day she is born, and through shifting narration and flashbacks, tells us of her life story. Using the format of the popular 1950s game show This Is Your Life, we meet all the characters and memories that have shaped Harriet’s existence. By all appearances, she has played it safe: a husband, housework, children and a couple of close friends. So when she discovers that her late husband bid on and won an Alaskan cruise at a silent auction, she decides to go ahead and have the adventure on her own at age 78.
On the cruise, she gets much more than she bargained for: the reappearing ghost of her husband, her estranged daughter showing up to share her cabin and a letter that reveals that so many parts of her life were never what they seemed to be.
The lighthearted and shifting narration isn’t just a fun ride of a novel (at parts, it really is), it is a complex and deeply moving look at a flawed, earnest character finally trying to come to terms with what has been her life. Even though one chapter is set in present day and the next may be set in 1954, Harriet is very much a product of her age. She gives up on her dream of being a lawyer to settle down with her husband, Bernard. She spends all her time and energy on the house and their children. She becomes Bernard’s sole caregiver as he battles Alzheimer’s at the end of his life. She makes many mistakes in the process. Through the replay of the good times (which are few) and the not-so-good times (which are many), it is impressive that Harriet is still searching for a positive outcome.
At its heart, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a novel about relationships and the choices we make to keep those relationships going, especially our relationship with ourselves. A great choice for book clubs, this novel will resonate with fans of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.