It’s not often that a book cover really captures the essence of the words contained within, but J. Robert Lennon’s collection See You in Paradise is complemented perfectly by its paradisal suburb set against a split pea soup sky. Lennon’s stories share a theme of familial dissolution, which makes the pop art a choice of scrumptious irony. It's always easiest to smile and embrace delusions of complacency.
See You in Paradise's opening story "Portal" is a clever spin on the concepts of growing up and growing apart and sets the tone for the book. A young brother-sister duo discovers a portal in the woods behind the family house and rushes to tell mom and dad. After a cautious inspection, the family decides to venture through together and reappears on the other side of town. Portal trips quickly become a familial ritual, until one goes awry and has lasting consequences for everyone. "Zombie Dan" is what happens when scientists develop a revivification process for the rich, but haven't quite perfected their techniques. Each newly restored corpse exhibits unintended complications; in Dan's case, he develops mind-reading powers after reminiscing with former friends and uses his new powers to exhume buried truths. "The Wraith" is the story of a manic woman who is able to separate her negative energies into a sullen, lifeless copy of herself, which she does before each workday. Her husband works from home and is left alone with his husk-wife until curiosity eventually gets the best of him, and their relationship is forever altered.
Lennon's stories depict the repressed tragedies of suburbia in a witty, imaginative manner, which makes the slightly melancholy mood feel more like reverie than depression. Readers who enjoy See You in Paradise should also check out Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.
Following the journey of the heroine in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks gives the sensation of jumping down a confusing yet richly stylized rabbit hole. Holly Sykes is not only a strong-willed English teenager who loves her Talking Heads LP, she’s also a hypersensitive psychic phenomena. At age 15, she rebels against her callous mother by running away for a weekend. This typical rite of passage causes a terrible loss to the family and Holly herself. And so the jostling expedition begins through space, sanity, and many years.
Throughout her life, Holly develops complex relationships with a series of eccentric characters who also narrate this intricate tale, including an arrogant college student, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003 and an aging egocentric literary writer. Reality begins to distort as Holly’s psychic strength attracts two separate groups of mystics with supernatural powers and questionable intents. The plot’s jagged terrain has the unhinged feeling of sewn together novellas, and seeing the seemingly free-flowing threads come together is a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
By definition, a wallflower is someone who yearns to stay out of focus and is content with experiencing the world from a vantage point far removed from social commotion. Wallflowers are typically observant people who possess the uncanny ability to find beauty in unique places. Eliza Robertson's debut collection Wallflowers places a series of introverted characters in situations with the potential to reveal more than their individual livelihoods.
Unified by central themes of longing and loss, Robertson's characters all wish for a way to forget the past or escape the present. In "Here Be Dragons," a geographic surveyor sees shades of his late fiancée in every corner of the remote locations he visits. She haunts him not in the convenient visages of doppelgängers, but in the complicated forms of reverie associated with people, places, things and experiences amidst savage and newly loveless lands. "Slimebank Taxonomy" thrusts readers into the empty life of a young mother living with her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law does not shoulder the added burden gracefully as she diverts attention from her own child to care for the new baby. The young mother realizes this, yet remains powerless to rear her newborn; instead, she finds solace in dredging drowned animals from a nearby swamp and cleaning their bodies. "Roadnotes" tells the story of a woman who leaves her job to drive through the Northeast on an autumnal leaf-viewing tour. Conveyed in the form of a series of letters addressed to her brother, readers see glimpses into her true motivations for her journey as she laments the loss of her mother, despite her rough childhood.
Robertson's debut collection shimmers with beauty enhanced by flecks of melancholy, with hints of hope where it seems toughest to find. With stories less about the wallflowers that populate them and more about the collective souls of humanity, Wallflowers is not to be missed by literary fiction enthusiasts. Fans of the rustic Canadian backdrop and the accompanying aloneness might also enjoy D. W. Wilson's collection Once You Break a Knuckle.
Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 is a jungle; readers require courage and a literary machete to traverse this five-part psychological horror story. Told through the mediums of a manifesto left in the wake of a heinous murder spree, a first-hand account of the police investigation into the atrocities, and a disjointed recollection stitching the pieces together with plenty of room for the viscera to seep out, 300,000,000 is filled with rare glimpses of toxic and transcendent ravings.
Gretch Gravey is 300,000,000’s patient zero of homeland terror, supplicating and drugging teenage metal heads in his city to transform them into thralls of murder. He releases his ever-expanding army of brainwashed husks into the suburbs to kidnap people and bring them back to his house to be killed and buried in a sub-basement crypt. Gravey’s ultimate goal is the utter decimation of America by its own pudgy hands, and his successes are unhindered despite his eventual incarceration. Investigating police officer E.N. Flood feels himself being consumed by Gravey’s residual evil and attempts to chronicle his descent into madness in his notes, which are actively redacted by other members of the force who have succumbed to Gravey’s will.
As if Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Damned were chewed up and spat out in a bilious, meaty mass, 300,000,000 is disgusting and schizophrenic, yet somehow delicious in its depravity. Readers who enjoy wandering through their pitch-black houses when it’s so late that it’s actually early will be tickled by the way Blake Butler makes them question their sanity.
Promising young voices in modern literary fiction are hard to come by, which makes Justin Taylor a man who deserves more recognition. In his newest collection Flings: Stories, Taylor confronts the awkward truths of adult life in stories centered around people who share a collective desire to be genuinely good, despite their misguided tendencies.
Both the titular story “Flings” and its continuation “After Ellen” follow people who are ensnared in the directionless, bleak traps of uncertainty that riddle our mid-20s. As friends, they live hollow lives in which they careen through dead-end jobs and relationships while waiting for what they perceive to be their real adult lives to begin. In the meantime, they’re left celebrating their miseries with compassion in their own beautifully tragic ways.
The more light-hearted "Sungold” stars Brian, a 30-something manager and bookkeeper at an organic pizza place. After nearly suffering heatstroke while wearing a questionably shaped purple mushroom costume in front of the restaurant, he gets busted cooking the books by a girl who happens to be there looking for a job. Her name is Appolinaria Pavlovna Sungold (seriously), and she knows what's up; she promises her silence in exchange for regular shift hours and a percentage of Brian's stolen funds. Brian hires her on the spot as both an act of self-preservation and an act of defiance towards the store owner, who only hires attractive college girls who enjoy fashioning the collars of their tie-dyed uniforms into deep, dangerous Vs.
Taylor’s prose is brilliant, humorous and unwavering. His characters are marvels; both uniquely individual and equally empathetic, and united by their searches for things to fill the voids in their lives.
Lines between dream and the reality of an isolated existence become hazy in acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s newest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel.
In high school, Tsukuru was included in a tight-knit group of friends. Although they were inseparable, spending their free time volunteering and studying together, Tsukuru felt deficient in their presence. Ao, Aka, Kuro and Shiro are each shown with a distinctly vibrant essence. In comparison, Tsukuru felt colorless, yet satisfied to be a part of such a special assemblage. This circle remained unbroken until Tsukuru was ejected from the group during his second year of college. At first, he thinks his friends must be missing his messages but after countless awkward brushoffs from their families, the banishment is clear.
Not having the faintest clue as to why, Tsukuru thrusts himself into an existential depression which wears down both body and spirit. Plagued by fear of actually being a nonentity, he is reduced to an inert husk. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we are taken on an enigmatic journey as an older Tsukuru sets out to discover the truth behind his exile. He soon encounters ghosts from the past, new acquaintances and lovers in an oscillating series of hallucination, memory and restless fantasy. Only Murakami, a master of magical realism, could conjure such pensive yet uneasy visions.
Stuck. That's what Nora Webster is since her beloved husband Maurice died. With four children, the 40-year-old widow is mindful of the hole in their lives while trying to eke out their existence in the small Irish town where everyone knows your business. Set 40 years ago amidst Ireland’s religious unrest, Colm Tóibín’s newest novel, Nora Webster, is a quiet and eloquent study of the power of transformative grief and the new way of living that only Nora and her family can define.
Protective and no nonsense, Nora knows it's now her role to run a household that includes two growing boys and two daughters on the brink of adulthood. Through the careful, keen observations of family and friends, we get to know and sympathize with Tóibín's stubborn and private protagonist. While people swirl around her, Nora can only ponder the course her life has taken, the decisions she has made, the actions she has regretted. She is not the only one grieving. All the while her children, especially her boys, Conor and Donal, wait with unmet needs. When she does unwittingly nudge toward a passion that stirs her, contentment is slow to insert itself.
A recurring Man Booker Prize finalist, Tóibín is the author of six previous novels including the provocative Testament of Mary. Here he offers up the richest of character portraits in Nora and her family while smoothly glancing the social, religious and political issues of the day. Complicated and contemplative, reflective and fluent, Tóibín probes Nora's mind with a subtle psychological deftness until we, too, feel as intimate with her as those in her orbit. It is confident, undramatic prose that takes us to Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s birthplace, and to the solitary effort of learning to live again. Fans of this highly regarded contemporary writer will not have to wait too long for his next book; On Elizabeth Bishop is due out next April.
Nature preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir is considered the father of the United States National Parks system, thanks to his influence over President Teddy Roosevelt. Muir’s philosophy permeates author Garth Stein’s newest novel, A Sudden Light, which pits the Riddell family members against each other alongside the backdrop of a fortune built of trees.
The year is 1990. Thirteen-year-old Trevor Riddell’s parents are bankrupt, their marriage crumbling under the strain. In a last ditch effort to lure back his wife, Trevor’s dad Jones hauls Trevor to the Pacific Northwest where demoralized Jones hopes to reunite with his estranged sister and their father while tapping into his family’s enormous wealth. Trevor finds himself on the Riddell’s vast estate populated with old growth woods, living in a decaying timber mansion and becoming acquainted with his disconcertingly sexy aunt and a grandfather succumbing to dementia. Grandpa Samuel hears his dead wife dancing in the ballroom at night; Jones and Aunt Serena’s conversations have a disturbing subtext which leaves Trevor unsettled. As Trevor begins to explore the manor, he uncovers (with a little help from a long dead uncle) evidence of a tragic family history which reaches back to his great-great grandfather, Elijah, a lumber baron, businessman and eventual philanthropist.
Stein is the author of the bestselling book The Art of Racing in the Rain, in which the story is told from the perspective of a dog. In A Sudden Light, trees and the notion of preserving undeveloped land are mute characters whose looming presence shape the Riddells’ fate over generations. Stein has surely written another book club favorite with this modern gothic coming-of-age story.
Spending childhood nested in the same neighborhood can have a profound effect on how one grows up and views the rest of the world. When stories of the past share a consistent backdrop, memories become more cohesive and captivating, as they have in Mark Chiusano's debut collection, Marine Park. Nearly all of his stories take place in the neighborhood surrounding the run-down, isolated Marine Park in New York City.
Half of Chiusano's tales follow two brothers: Jamison, who narrates the duo's adventures, and his younger brother Lorris. Jamison seems like the fictional embodiment of Chiusano in his youth; he dredges up old emotions with such elegance that it feels autobiographical. Throughout their endeavors, Lorris overcomes rooted introversion to develop a social life more vigorous than his older brother’s. All Jamison feels he’s capable of doing is watching with brotherly pride and envy.
Chiusano's other stories volley between humorous and serious motifs. The amusing "Vincent and Aurora" is the recounting of a retired mobster who agrees to help with one last job to combat the stagnation of aging. "Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away" laments the woes of unrequited love between two scientists working in a secret military base during World War II. "For You" is the wondrous second-person account of a man's visit to an unfamiliar bar and his conversations with strangers about wait-staff gratuity and lifelong dreams.
Short story and fiction enthusiasts of all varieties will find something to enjoy in Marine Park. Lorris and Jamison are both highly relatable, and Chiusano's more imaginative offerings are entertaining and just as finely crafted.
Daniel Kelly needs to be the fastest, the strongest and the best. The other members of his swim team call him Barracuda, also the title of Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel. Daniel’s goal is to swim freestyle in the Olympic Games. He is half-Greek and half-Australian and comes from modest roots, but his mother insists he attend an exclusive school where he can be coached by a gifted trainer. Daniel quickly realizes he does not fit in at his new posh school. The boys that come from money are quick to tease. He shields himself from the insults and uses the anger to push through the water even faster. His ever-present drive to succeed deafens him to the instructions of his coach, and Daniel soon finds that his dream of Olympic gold leads to nothing. Consumed by hatred for himself and his modest beginnings, Daniel lashes out, and this incident will have repercussions that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Like Daniel, Christos Tsiolkas grew up in Australia, the son of Greek immigrant parents. His previous novels have won awards in the South Pacific region, including his previous novel The Slap that won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He shows skill again with Barracuda, a detailed literary masterpiece that only an accomplished writer can deliver. Daniel Kelly is a deeply flawed protagonist, struggling with life and trying to find his place in the world. It is a novel of incredible loss, but also of hope and ultimately redemption. Kelly’s story will resonate with the reader long after reading the final pages. This beautifully written novel should be savored by many a reader and would make a perfect title to discuss with a book group.