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The Zone of Interest

Martin Amis. Knopf, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-35349-6

An absolute soul-crusher of a book, the brilliant latest from Amis (Lionel Asbo: State of England) is an astoundingly bleak love story, as it were, set in a German concentration camp, which Thomsen, one of the book’s three narrators, refers to as Kat Zet. Thomsen, the nephew of Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, has a vague role as a liaison at Buna Werke, where the Germans are attempting to synthesize oil for the war effort using slave labor. He sets his sights on Hannah Doll, wife of camp commandant Paul, who is the second of three narrators as well as a drunk whose position is under threat. As Thomsen gets closer with Hannah, both of them, horrified at what’s going on, conspire to undermine Paul—Hannah at home and Thomsen around the camp. Paul, meanwhile, follows up his suspicions about his wife and Thomsen by involving Szmul, the book’s third narrator and a Jew who disposes of the corpses in the gas chamber, in a revenge plot. Amis took on the Holocaust obliquely in Time’s Arrow. Here he goes at it straight, and the result is devastating. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Distant Father

Antonio Skarmeta, trans. from the Spanish by John Cullen. Other Press, $15.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-59051-625-6

The disillusioned yet hopeful narrator of Skarmeta’s (The Postman) slim and subtle novel is Jacques, a 21-year-old school teacher and literary translator based in the village of Contulmo in southern Chile. Two years after his father suddenly abandons him and his mother, Jacques befriends the miller, Cristian, who was close to his dad. When Jacques isn’t spending time with his devastated mother or Cristian, he works on translations of French poems and Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le metro, with ambitions of making a name for himself in print. Jacques takes a trip to Angol to sleep with prostitutes and bumps into his estranged father, Pierre, who now runs a movie theater and has a baby. Upon Jacques’s return to Contulmo, his outspoken student Augusto Gutiérrez convinces him to attend his 15th birthday party and promises to set Jacques up with his older sister on the condition that he take him along to visit the brothels the next time he goes to Angol. At the party, Jacques learns a secret about his father’s baby, which inspires him to put a “plot” into action. Skarmeta treats his characters with a tender hand and, with impressive economy, balances dark humor with a sober and realistic portrait of a stagnant culture whose people are always longing for something better. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Betrayers

David Bezmozgis. Little, Brown, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-316-28433-2

Bezmozgis’s second novel (after The Free World) is a beautifully written exploration of the role fate can play in the finer distinctions between a heroic life and a villainous one. Baruch Kotler is a Soviet Jewish dissident who, after he is freed from prison, becomes a celebrated Israeli politician. When scandal forces Kotler to flee Israel for the Crimea with his mistress, Leora, a coincidence leads him to the door of Chaim Tankilevich, the man whose testimony led to Kotler’s imprisonment in a Russian jail 39 years ago. With all the makings of a standard revenge tale and told in Bezmogis’s trademark direct prose, the story resists oversimplification. Kotler and Tankilevich, now advanced in years, both suffered after Kotler’s trial, and, though the trial is well behind them, both are now desperate in different ways. As the two men struggle with their past, Kotler contends with the scandal he fled, the family he left behind, and his son, Benzion, who aspires to be a dissident despite his now age-tempered father’s advice against it. Though the action is fixed largely in one location, Bezmozgis’s novel feels vast, its pages heavy with the complicated debts we owe one another, which are impossible to leave behind. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Goodhouse

Peyton Marshall. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-16562-8

James, the narrator of Marshall’s dystopian debut, is a student at Goodhouse: the part-school/part-penitentiary of the future, responsible for the reeducation of children who carry a genetic marker predisposing them to crime. At age 17, James is still innocent, but when he steals a barrette from a young girl’s room on an outreach day, the discovery of his first crime sets in motion a complex string of overlapping plots with James near their center. Among the threats to James is the Zeros: militant activists bent on cleansing the world of the criminally predisposed by whatever means necessary, their threat around every corner. Bethany, the teen whose barrette James stole, insists on pushing her way into his life, though her love could get James killed. Dr. Cleveland, Bethany’s enigmatic father, may be James’s only ally among the Goodhouse staff. Or he may be a terrorist. It depends on whether James’s prescription-tainted, increasingly unreliable perspective can be trusted. Marshall’s novel moves well, and the adolescent James is convincingly off-balance throughout. The result is a genre-bending thriller with a literary voice that at times trades heart for velocity but ultimately pleases. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber. Random/Hogarth, $28 (512p) ISBN 978-0-553-41884-2

Faber’s (The Crimson Petal and the White) novel could at first be mistaken for another period piece, as a Christian missionary named Peter bids farewell to his devoted wife, Beatrice, and departs on a mission in foreign lands. Only gradually does the reader discover that the book is set in the far future, where half of what survives is owned by a shadowy company called USIC and that it is not the inhabitants of a mere continent whose souls Peter aims to save, but those of a whole new planet, known as Oasis. He finds willing converts in the alien Oasans—they are eager to learn each new lesson from the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things—but his relations with his fellow human colonists are far rockier. What’s worse, Beatrice writes to Peter with grim reports of life back on Earth, where a series of calamities seems to signal the coming apocalypse; more devastating is her confession that she is pregnant with their child in an environment suddenly less hospitable to life than Oasis. Peter will come to question both the finer points of Scripture and his faith as he chooses between the old world and the new. Faber’s story isn’t eventful enough to support its length, and Beatice and Peter’s correspondence grows tiresome. But the book wears its strong premise and mixture of Biblical and SF tropes extremely well. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Wallcreeper

Nell Zink. Dorothy, a Publishing Project (SPD, dist.), $16 ISBN 978-0-9897607-1-3

Zink’s debut novel is a weird, funny, sad, and sharp story of growing up. Opening with a car accident in which young married couple Tiffany and Stephen hit a wallcreeper (a bird that Stephen, a fanatical birder, adopts as a pet and names Rudolf), causing Tiffany to miscarry, the bulk of the novel follows the couple’s push-and-pull years in Europe. Stephen, a stubborn and secretive pharmaceutical researcher stationed in Berne, makes enough money to support both of them; and Tiffany, who was bored at her last real job as a secretary, makes no bones about not wanting to work. In many ways, Tiffany and Stephen are the perfect match: they are both capricious, unfaithful (Stephen even sleeps with Tiffany’s “bikini barista” sister, with Tiffany’s blessing), and unsure of themselves. Their marriage is really just a loose agreement, and they spend most of the story drifting around each other: Stephen suffers an inner crisis and moves to Albania to study birds, while Tiffany, who’s never had to work hard, passes her days alone on the Elbe tearing down levees to flood a forest in need of water. “I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake,” she says. Written in short, fragmentary sections, Zink masterfully captures the slippery nature of human intimacy, the ways in which relationships both thrive on emotional gray areas and jump from one black-and-white area to another (jealousy and indifference; blame and forgiveness; listlessness and wonder). This is the introduction of an exciting new voice. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Virtue Falls

Christina Dodd. St. Martin's, $25.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-02841-9

In the predictable first of a new suspense series, bestseller Dodd (Lady in Black) tracks West Coast turmoil of all sorts. For starters, a serial killer who delights in murdering young women and mutilating their children is loose in California. Meanwhile, an earthquake hits the town of Virtue Falls, Wash., with an attendant tsunami and aftershocks. The geologist on the scene, Elizabeth Banner, has crime in her background. Her father was put away decades ago for fatally stabbing her mother, Misty, with a pair of scissors. But did he? Papa Banner has always maintained his innocence, and odd similarities between Misty's death and the serial killer's m.o. raise the terrifying possibility that the Banner killer might still be at large. Steamy romance between Elizabeth and her ex, as well as charming minor characters, such as an amiable retired physician, help alleviate the tedium of this novel, whose conclusion one can see hundreds of pages before the end. 100,000 first printing. Agent: Mel Berger, William Morris Endeavor. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Broken Hours

Jacqueline Baker. HarperCollins Canada, $26.99 (309p) ISBN 978-1-44342-566-7

The spectral life of a horror legend is examined in this dark, tenebrous novel. In Providence, 1936, Arthor Crandle, in dire need of employment and suffering from a troubled marriage finds a job as a live-in personal assistant to an unnamed employer. His new boss communicates only through phone and letters signed with the moniker "Ech-Pi," his physical presence almost nonexistent. Crandle types his stories and correspondences from which he gleans his real name: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Occupying an apartment in the large house is Flossie Kush, a vivacious, aspiring actress whose mysterious presence seems to enliven the gloom of the Lovecraft home. Disturbed by visions of a phantom girl, a monstrous tentacle on the shore, and an employer who seems barely human, Crandle is compelled to solve the mystery behind the "malevolence" of his new home on Sixty-Six College Street. Baker (The Horseman's Graves) writes with the conviction of a fan, adeptly evoking the shadowy melancholy of Lovecraft's world while always keeping the narrative's momentum moving. While lacking in the intensity of Lovecraft's own work, the novel creates an atmosphere of haunted New England menace that sinks subtly into the skin. Agent: Anne McDermid & Associates. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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My October

Claire Holden Rothman. Penguin Canada, $22 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-14-318867-4

For Hugo Lévesque, life in Montreal in 2001 is not easy. He is the son of the famous francophone author Luc Lévesque, considered the voice of his generation of francophone Quebeckers who dream of Quebec as an independent nation. But Hugo's mother is anglophone, and he struggles with fitting into Quebec society. He speaks both of Canada's official languages but quickly realizes only one is considered acceptable in Montreal and especially in his father's view. In an effort to find where he belongs, Hugo attempts to make a connection with his maternal grandfather. "In Montreal, he used English as a weapon. But here, in his grandfather's home, it was just a language," he finds. After bringing a gun to school and showing pride in his English heritage, Hugo is suspended from school and forced to complete a project about violence. While researching, he discovers his family's connections to the FLQ crisis of October 1970. Rothman (The Heart Specialist) expertly weaves the intimate story of this family with the political history of Quebec. This novel about power, language and acceptance should resonate with those who have felt torn between languages and cultures, as well as those who have felt like outsiders in their own city or country. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Journey by Moonlight

Anatal Szerb, trans. from the Hungarian by Len Rix. New York Review Books, $16.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-59017-773-0

In this 1937 masterpiece from the late Hungarian novelist Szerb, businessman Mihaly takes his new bride Erzsi to Italy on their honeymoon, but from their first night in Venice, when Mihaly gets lost wandering the back alleys, their plans for an orderly vacation are thwarted by fate. With each chapter, mysterious characters from the past appear, strange letters are received, and locales shift from the merely exotic to the fantastical. It emerges that in Mihaly's youth, he had an intense friendship with wealthy brother and sister Tamas and Eva. The shadow of this passionate entanglement hangs over Mihaly's adult life; Italy turns out to be full of clues relating to Tamas's death, and Eva seems to literally be around every corner (at one point spying on Mihaly though holes cut in a tapestry). The romanticism crossed with middle-European emotional claustrophobia and the surreal suggests a love child of Stendhal and Kafka. The wonderfully assured shifts in tone and substance from chapter to chapter are clearly the work of a master. This is an important translation that will hopefully spur the rediscovery of a major talent. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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