This week, the plot to poison the world's greatest wine, a "Gone Girl" with heart, and Amy Bloom's latest.
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead) - The Ukrainian Jewish family featured in this hilarious debut leaves Odessa for Brooklyn in 1991. They include renowned doctor Robert Nasmertov; his daughter, Marina; who finds work cleaning houses for wealthy American Jews; and her nine-year-old daughter, Frida. However, Robert’s son, Pasha, a brilliant poet but a totally incapable human being, never emigrates, visiting his family only occasionally. In 2008, the adult Frida goes to see him and discovers that he has become “more alienated and excluded in his native city than his family in their new land.” Akhtiorskaya’s take on how family members manipulate and fail each other is spot-on.
Roberto Bolano’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews (Columbia Univ.) - In this superb volume of criticism, poet Andrews, the English translator of 10 of Bolano's books, deftly analyzes the complex themes and narrative layers of Bolano's fictional universe. Although not primarily a study of reception nor a biography, Andrews excels at explaining the anomalous causes of Bolano's rapid rise to fame in North America. He pinpoints Nazi Literature in the Americas as Bolano's "incubator" for future characters and stories. The personal writing system that Bolano used to produce much of his fiction is shown to be a simple yet rigorous method of "expansion, circulating characters, metarepresentation, and overinterpretation." Andrews arranges his critique thematically, with chapters on "Aimlessness," "Duels and Brawls," "Evil Agencies," and "A Sense of What Matters." An indispensable guide to navigating the rich world of Bolano's fiction.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (Random) - Two teenaged half-sisters make their way through WWII-era America in Bloom’s imaginative romp. After being left on her father’s Ohio doorstep by her absconding mother, 11-year-old Eva meets Iris, the older half-sister she never knew she had. They escape to Hollywood, where Iris hopes to become a movie star. But they wind up on Long Island, where the girls and their father, Edgar, find employment in the home of the nouveau riche Torelli family. Over the course of the story, Edgar develops a relationship with a black jazz singer named Clara Williams, Iris falls in love with the Torellis’ cook, Reenie Heitmann, and Eva learns to read the tarot and sets herself up as a psychic. Joining the lively cast is Francisco Diego, a Hollywood makeup artist; Gus, Reenie’s German husband, who is deported; and Danny, an orphan who is ultimately raised by Eva.
The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin (St. Martin’s) - Goodwin’s second novel travels the difficult protocols of Victorian-era fox hunting, as well as the even more complicated protocols of love and marriage in the era, especially for an intelligent young woman with a fortune. England, 1875: Charlotte Baird is the eligible heiress to “the Lennox Fortune.” Her lovely, reckless mother was her father’s second wife, and she died young in a hunting accident, leaving her fortune to Charlotte. Charlotte’s brother, Fred, is engaged to Augusta Crewe, an ambitious woman from a good family who’d rather settle for Fred than stay unmarried (and she covets the Lennox diamonds). Charlotte is more interested in photography—especially composing unusual portraits and developing the plates and prints herself. When Bay Middleton, an expert horseman and friend of Fred, arrives for hunting season at Melton, Augusta’s family home, he and Charlotte form an unlikely alliance that turns into love. An enchanting page-turner.
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf) - All his tours of duty can’t prepare British army Sgt. Lester Ferris, a veteran of the War in Afghanistan, for life on an island facing certain ecological destruction, in Harkaway’s poignant morality tale, equally fueled by emotion and adrenaline. Though the fictional island of Mancreu, located somewhere in the Arabian sea, is no longer officially under the thumb of the British government—the Brits ceded control to an international peacekeeping force—Ferris is appointed brevet-consul, a largely ceremonial post that’s supposedly a last stop for him before he can leave army life behind for good. Mancreu is anything but an island paradise. Long exposed to harsh mining involving the island’s volcano, it’s a ticking time bomb, with the residents waiting for the next in a string of toxic events, known as “Clouds.” The sergeant’s only real friend, and surrogate son, is a comic-book-loving, Internet-slang-spouting teenage boy he calls Robin (think Batman), who helps him navigate Mancreu’s social and political intricacies.
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica (Harlequin Mira) - At the outset of Kubica's powerful debut, free-spirited 24-year-old Mia Dennett, an art teacher at an alternative high school and a member of a well-heeled, well-connected Chicago family, goes missing. As puzzling as Mia's presumed kidnapping initially appears, things turn infinitely stranger after her eventual return, seemingly with no memory of what happened to her or, indeed, of her identity as Mia. Key characters share the narrative in chapters labeled either "Before" or "After," allowing the reader to join shattered mother Eve and sympathetic Det. Gabe Hoffman on their treacherous journey to solve the mystery and truly save Mia. Almost nothing turns out as expected, which, along with the novel's structure and deep Midwestern roots, will encourage comparisons to Gone Girl. Unlike that dazzling duel between what prove to be a pair of sociopaths, this Girl has heart—which makes it all the more devastating when the author breaks it.
Ghost Month by Ed Lin (Soho Crime) - For a guy who scoffs at the ghosts revered by so many of his fellow Taiwanese, droll everyman Jing-nan, a night-market food stall manager, ironically finds himself spending much of his time chasing one as he investigates the murder of his childhood sweetheart, Julia Huang, in this darkly comic thriller from Lin (One Red Bastard). Baffled by what the ambitious valedictorian of his Taipei high school class was doing as a skimpily clad “betel-nut beauty” hawking betel nut to truckers on a remote highway, much less by who would want to kill her, Jing-nan keeps asking questions, despite risks to his own safety.
This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy (Harper Perennial) - With her obscenely suspenseful latest, Murphy (The Call, named one of PW’s best books of 2011), who is known for her stylistic experimentation, tries out a second-person perspective and a continual “this is” structure that takes some getting used to, but that works thanks to the fact that the author breaks up the book into 48 short chapters. “You” are Annie, a New England mom driving your two daughters to and from swim meets, married to an emotionally aloof husband whose encyclopedic mind and frequent recitations of factual tidbits drive you crazy. But you, the novel’s protagonist, don’t know everything that you, the reader, know—for instance, only the reader knows the identity of a serial killer scoping out potential next victims on the swim team. Therefore the book’s real tension centers on which of the characters will uncover the killer first, making this inverted murder mystery a “whogotit” rather than a whodunit.
Knockout Games by G. Neri (Carolrhoda Lab) - A 15-year-old gets mixed up in dangerous activities in this gritty urban drama, partially inspired by real events. After Erica’s parents split up and her mother takes her to live in St. Louis, Erica feels like a fish out of water, part of a small white minority in her new school. Her only refuge is the video camera her father gave her. Then Erica meets Kalvin, the so-called Knockout King, is swept up by his dangerous charm, and starts filming the activities of his “TKO” club, a gang of middle-schoolers who assault random passersby with the intention of knocking them out: “One hit or quit.” As events spiral out of control, with people getting hurt and the authorities cracking down, Erica has to choose between her new relationship and friends, and doing the right thing.
Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine by Maximillian Potter (Twelve) - A whodunit with a culprit worthy of a Woody Allen film, Potter’s first book is a rich study of a cinematic crime and bona fide page-turner. Expanding on an article first published in Vanity Fair, Potter ushers readers into the Burgundy cellars of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of France’s most prestigious wineries, and introduces its proprietor, the humble Aubert de Villaine, as he outlines a plot to extort a million Euros from him. The author’s passion for his subject is palpable from the outset, as is his fondness for the troubled Villaine, particularly when he receives the first of three packages containing a detailed map of his winery and an ominous threat: some of the vines have been compromised. The race is on as Villaine receives more menacing missives, and the police attempt to head off the extortionist before centuries-old vines are irrevocably damaged. Even the most devout teetotaler will have a hard time putting this one down.
Driving Honda: Inside the World’s Most Innovative Car Company by Jeffrey Rothfeder (Penguin/Portfolio) - International Business Times editor in chief Rothfeder looks under the hood of Honda, a company with bragging rights including never having posted a loss, a stock price which has doubled since 2008, and factors of industrial performance that surpass the rest of the auto sector. Asserting that Honda is so successful because it “focuses on doing one thing well—making engines that last a long time” and because it constantly “works to perfect this core skill,” Rothfeder studies the company’s history, culture, and principles. In lively fashion, he retraces the steps of visionary founder Soichiri Honda, who, in the wake of WWII, rose from a bike apprentice, to a piston company owner, to the founder of a small motorbike company that evolved into Honda.