This week, a heartfelt caper from an Arrested Development writer and a book on everything you ever wanted to know about sleep. Also, a spectacular short story collection that's equal parts Shirley Jackson, Raymond Carver, and Lorrie Moore.
Shake Off by Mischa Hiller (Little, Brown/Mulholland) - Set at the end of the cold war, Hiller’s beautifully written second novel (after 2010’s Sabra Zoo) chronicles the education of a spy. PLO agent Michel Khoury, who lives in a modest London bedsit but spent his first 15 years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, works for spymaster Abu Leila, who uses him mainly as a courier to shuttle documents from London to East Berlin and back. Now Leila wants his protégé to set up a meeting that will “change the course of history.” Meanwhile, Michel falls for his next-door neighbor, a playful young Englishwoman named Helen, despite a lifetime of keeping strict control over his emotions. Literary fiction fans will appreciate the sensitive, realistic portrayal of Michel and Helen’s love affair; everyone will appreciate the closing twist.
The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam (Random/Hogarth) – This masterfully paced exploration of a world convulsed by war follows Percival Chen, an affluent Chinese English instructor in late 1960s Saigon who is determined to escape the politics of war-torn Vietnam. He instructs his son, Dai Jai, to remain faithful only to their Chinese heritage, not realizing that even this allegiance has become a deadly liability. Obeying his father’s edict, Dai Jai is arrested by Vietnamese authorities, and Percival exhausts his shady connections in his attempts to rescue Dai Jai from the brutality of the police. Meanwhile, Percival falls in love with Jacqueline—a mixed-race prostitute with ulterior motives—despite the objections of his loyal friend Mak, a man embroiled in his own mysterious affairs. Lam marshals his characters with humor, suspense, and tenderness as the fall of Saigon looms—he depicts a world caught in an implacable cycle of violence, leavened only by the grace of a father’s love. Read an essay from Lam about turning his grandparents' story into a novel.
And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman (Morrow) - The consequences of long-buried secrets involving misogyny, motherhood, and morality play out in this excellent stand-alone set in suburban Maryland from Edgar-winner Lippman (The Most Dangerous Thing). Introduced in the novella “Scratch a Woman,” Heloise Lewis is a survivor who rose from the ashes of her past to run a profitable call-girl service, occasionally meeting special clients herself. To her neighbors, she’s a young widow and a devoted mother who never misses her son Scott’s ball games at his middle school. To the IRS, she’s a lobbyist with several women on her payroll and a medical plan. But Heloise’s carefully constructed life is falling apart because Val Deluca, her son’s father, who also was her former pimp, may be released from prison. Lippman delivers an intense character study about a strong, complex woman whose love for her son compels her to make some desperate choices.
Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall (Norton) - This fabulous book is likely to address any and all questions you might have about sleep, although, given the state of research in the field, the answers may not be definitive. The range of topics is enormous, from the evolutionary reasons for sleep to the best type of mattress—oddly enough, studies suggest that high quality sleep is equally possible on an unpadded concrete floor as on a high-tech air mattress. Equally surprising, sleeping pills yield no higher quality sleep than a placebo. What they apparently do is retard the formation of short-term memory so people taking sleeping pills simply don’t remember all the times they wake up. There’s plenty of practical information, like how to overcome insomnia without drugs, how to combat snoring, and how to encourage young children to get to sleep.
The St. Zita Society by Ruth Rendell (Scribner) – Three-time Edgar winner Rendell writes a novel that radiates tension, sweeping along as the clandestine gets exposed, and a killer and an accomplice brainstorm about stashing a body. The plot follows one posh block of London, and the deadly ways in which the residents’ lives intertwine. While delineating a dozen or so characters, Rendell makes each sufficiently viable to intrigue her audience and clash with one another. Check out our profile of Rendell, the author of 70 books.
After Eli by Rebecca Rupp (Candlewick) - Daniel, a wry and thoughtful narrator, looks back on the summer when he was 14, three years after his older brother, Eli, died in Iraq at age 22. Rupp skillfully weaves Daniel’s memories of larger-than-life Eli and his lingering anger about his death with Daniel’s day-to-day challenges, including his dysfunctional family (Daniel repeatedly clashes with his father, and his mother is all but catatonic, continuing to mourn Eli); his frustrations with his popular but conventional friends; his attraction to Isabelle, a gorgeous and free-spirited newcomer to town; and his nascent friendship with school outcast Walter. Throughout, Daniel adds to his “Book of the Dead,” in which he documents famous and infamous deaths that seem tragic, senseless, or cruel.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown) - Semple (a writer for Arrested Development) centers this novel around eighth-grader Bee: the daughter of Microsoft genius Elgin Branch and Bernadette Fox, a once-famous architect who has become a recluse in her Seattle home. Bee has a simple request: a family cruise to Antarctica as a reward for her good grades. Her parents acquiesce, but not without trepidation. Bernadette’s social anxiety has become so overwhelming that she’s employed a personal assistant from Delhi Virtual Assistants Intl. (who makes “$0.75 USD/hr.”). A day before the trip, Bernadette disappears, and Bee gathers clues to find out where she went. The result is a compelling composite of a woman’s life and the way she’s viewed by the many people who share it. A satisfying caper full of heart. Check out a Q&A with Semple.
We’re Flying by Peter Stamm, trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann (Other Press) - The characters in Stamm’s generous new collection engage right away via their seeming transparency. No sense of author omniscience separates the reader from protagonists coping with issues large (the death of a spouse) or small (a bandage put on too tight). Often, issues begin as small annoyances that develop menacingly. In the title story, a day-care worker becomes increasingly frustrated when she’s forced to stay with a young charge whose affluent parent fails to pick him up. In the surprising “Children of God,” a young clergyman struggling to gain a foothold in his new rural parish encounters a pregnant woman who claims that she’s a virgin. Stamm connects so closely to the psyches of these individuals that his style becomes mutable, variously suggesting the eerie claustrophobia of Shirley Jackson, the brittle edge of Raymond Carver, and even the warmth of Lorrie Moore.
Syndrome E by Franck Thilliez, trans. from the French by Mark Polizzotti (Viking) - Spare evocative prose propels French author Thilliez’s stellar U.S. debut. When French film buff Ludovic Sénéchal goes blind after viewing an old short he picked up at an estate sale in Lille, Belgium, he calls ex-girlfriend Lucie Henebelle, a police lieutenant in Lille. Lucie, who’s preoccupied with the illness of one of her daughters, views the mysterious film without losing her vision, though she’s shaken by its violent, disturbing images. Meanwhile, Chief Insp. Franck Sharko of the Paris Violent Crimes unit, who lost his wife and daughter five years earlier “in horrible circumstances,” must sort out how five bodies, each missing the top of its skull, ended up buried in a riverbank in a small town near Le Havre. The way Thrilliez connects these two threads is just the beginning of the enjoyment for readers, who will likely devour this crackerjack story in one sitting.