This week: Amie Barrodale delivers one of the best short story collections of 2016, and Ben H. Winters's masterful combination of "Invisible Man" and "Blade Runner."
The 10 stories in Barrodale’s stellar debut collection, one of the best of the year, explore the complications of modern relationships. Rejecting uniformity, the collection spans a variety of geographies, life stages, and experiences. An epigraph from Bhutanese lama and writer Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche serves as a valuable key to unlocking the delights of the book: “There is successful miscommunication, and unsuccessful miscommunication. And when you have unsuccessful miscommunication, you are having a good time.” In “William Wei,” the story’s namesake narrator describes a series of phone calls with an enigmatic woman named Koko that lead him to pursue her in person, only to be left puzzled by the experience. Set in Northern California, “The Imp” is a troubling tale related by an aging, mentally unstable man whose mistrust leads him to commit irreversible acts toward his wife. No less disturbing is “The Commission,” in which an immigrant saleswoman describes her encounters with an off-putting customer in a Japanese antique shop. Comical and bizarre, “Frank Advice for Fat Women” examines the conflicting interests of a New York psychologist as he juggles ongoing dialogues with a privileged young female patient and her controlling mother.
Bennett's debut is a fascinating slim volume that eschews traditional narrative conventions to offer 20 mostly linked sections—it's impossible to classify them strictly as chapters or stories—narrated by a nameless woman living in a small cottage in rural Ireland. The sections vary in length, with some as short as a few sentences, and each offers the reader insight into the rather quiet life of Bennett's narrator. Instead of telling straightforward stories, she wanders in a stream of consciousness manner from one ordeal to the next: lamenting the broken knobs on her kitchen's mini-stove leads to an explanation of a novel about the last woman on Earth; deliberating over the best breakfast meals digresses into a story about gardening. The reader lives in the narrator's head, learning tangentially through her words about her failed attempt at a doctorate, her romantic life, and her unwavering fear of strangers. Yet, despite these revelations, the empty spaces of the narrator's life, left for the reader to fill in, are what make the book captivating. Never do we glean her name, or occupation, or appearance. She is a physical blank slate, there for the reader's imagination to round out. Bennett has achieved something strange, unique, and undeniably wonderful.
Celebrated short-form fantasist Ford (The Physiognomy) seamlessly blends subtle psychological horror with a mix of literary history, folklore, and SF in this collection of 13 short stories, all focused on the struggles, sorrows, and terrors of daily life. Some stories are told in the modern era; others are set in unspecified periods. Each tale gently twists perceptions, diving down into the ordinary and coming back out with a thoughtful nugget of the extraordinary. “The Blameless” opens the collection with a humorously scathing indictment of modern parenting, treating a teenager’s exorcism with the same tender care as one would any religious coming-of-age ceremony. “Rocket Ship to Hell” begins by lampooning pulp-era SF writers and progresses through an intriguing psychological twist, complete with an oblique X-Files reference. “Mount Chary Galore” is a bone-chilling story of three young children in a more innocent, more difficult time, and their encounter with the local wise woman.
“Is Donald Duck a child or hormonal teenager or an immature adult? Or is he all of those things at the same time, like I probably am?” These questions come from the memorable heroine of Booker-finalist Levy’s (Swimming Home) novel: 25-year-old Sofia, who instead of pursuing her anthropology Ph.D. works in a coffee shop in London and spends much of her time caring for her sick and complaining mother, Rose. The two have traveled to arid Almería on Spain’s southern coast to visit the renowned but unorthodox Dr. Gomez, a fitting choice, since Rose’s ailment is baffling to everyone, including Sofia. While in Almería, Sofia experiences an awakening: she meets the alluring Ingrid, gets stung by jellyfish, and becomes bolder in the face of her mother’s oppressiveness. There is light mystery in the beautiful locale involving some potentially dangerous characters, and the story might be best described as The Magus as written by Lorrie Moore. But it’s Sofia’s frantic, vulnerable voice that makes this novel a singular read.
In Kennedy’s engrossing and entertaining debut, a 17-year-old Russian physicist must help NASA stop an asteroid that is hurtling toward Earth. Yuri Strelnikov arrives in the U.S. with only three weeks until BR1019 is expected to hit, but his age and his specialty (antimatter) make it hard for him to get his scientific colleagues to take him seriously. When he meets Dovie Collum, an artistic and quick-witted high-school student, and her unusual, loving family, Yuri gains a few new reasons to figure out how to avert global disaster. Yuri is delightfully droll, and Dovie awakes in him a zest for life as well as a sense of family he has never known. Dovie and her family inspire Yuri to think outside of the box, even if it means going against his colleagues in order to save the planet. The science Kennedy weaves throughout the story is fascinating and accessible, and Yuri and Dovie’s gentle romance is pitch-perfect. This novel is made to savor—readers will want to catch every nuance of Kennedy’s multidimensional characters.
With furious prose and a Faulknerian eye for character, Pollock (The Devil All the Time) populates his second novel with dozens of memorable people who embody America’s headlong leap toward the future in the early 20th century. In 1917, everything changes for the Jewett brothers—Cane, the capable one; Cob, the “slow” one; and Chimney, the hothead—upon their father’s sudden ascension to the “heavenly table.” With the exploits of their pulp fiction hero Bloody Bill Bucket fresh in their minds, the brothers embark on a violent journey north, escaping the backbreaking, fetid swamps on the Georgia-Alabama border and their lives under the thumb of sadistic landowner Maj. Thaddeus Tardweller. In southern Ohio, aging farmer Ellsworth Fiddler and his wife wait for their prodigal son to return home after a brief absence, during which he may or may not have enlisted in the United States Army to fight in Europe. Facing inexorable change—automobiles, airplanes, the machinery of war and agriculture—Ellsworth and others who frequent the local mercantile are “in agreement that the world now seemed head over heels in love with what tycoons and politicians kept referring to as ‘progress.’ ” But the Fiddlers cannot fathom how their lives will be transformed when the Jewetts ride into town on a crime spree that has made them the most wanted men in the country. Pollock knocks it out of the park.
Sharif defies power, silence, and categorization in this stunning suite of poems and lyric sequences that examine the toll of war and the language of war on persons and tongues. Drawing upon the lexicon of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Sharif produces a document of her Iranian family history, her personal life, and a shared cultural history intertwined with war and surveillance: “Daily I sit/ with the language/ they’ve made// of our language// to NEUTRALIZE/ the CAPABILITY of LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS/ like you.” Elegies for her Amoo (uncle), who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War, share space with lists of war atrocities and the banalities of military life, lyric poems about her immigrant family’s experiences of surveillance, excoriations of Israeli apartheid and war crimes, and redacted letters to a detainee. In form, content, and execution, Sharif’s debut is arguably the most noteworthy book of poetry yet about recent U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the greater Middle East.
Hollywood-obsessed Dara Palmer wants to be an actor, but she doesn’t look like any of the “honey vanilla waffles” that she idolizes. Ethnically Cambodian, this chatty British fifth-grader begins to wonder whether she isn’t getting acting parts because of her looks—because it surely couldn’t be for lack of talent, could it? As Dara, which means star in Khmer, tries to move past losing the starring role in the big school production, she also begins to sort out the fact that her “outsidey bit” doesn’t match her mental image of a movie star. As quirky Dara, lover of teaspoons and hater of noodles, struggles with her identity as an adoptee and her rocky relationship with her younger sister (also adopted, but white), she finds the help of a teacher she didn’t think she needed. And as Dara’s acting skills grow, so do her understanding of herself and her empathy for those around her. Like Shevah’s Dream On, Amber, this entertaining insight into the mind of an adopted child, snappily narrated and exuberantly illustrated, is sure to win readers over, one teaspoonful at a time.
Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher) bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. In East London during the summer of 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his younger brother, Nattie, attended a heralded cricket match on their own, telling neighbors that their mother was in Liverpool visiting family. In fact, Emily Coombes was already lying dead in her bed behind a closed door, having been fatally stabbed by Robert. Horrifically, her corpse remained undetected for well over a week while the brothers acted as if nothing were amiss. Upon arrest, Robert claimed he acted after his mother had beaten Nattie, and before she could do the same to him. The resulting trial focused on the question of Robert’s mental state, whether he was really the wicked boy of the book’s title, and how the penny dreadfuls he was so fond of may have warped his mind. Summerscale’s dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end.
It is difficult to envision anyone getting Robert F. Kennedy more right than biographer Tye (Satchel) does in this superb book. Tye beautifully captures Kennedy’s contradictions, his emergence from under the hard-to-like father to whom he remained forever loyal, and his growth into a public figure killed by an assassin’s bullet. It’s also hard to imagine another biographer framing the subject any differently: Tye depicts Kennedy’s transformation from a callow, ruthless, hypocritical, “godawful disagreeable” man to his era’s “most nostalgia-wrapped figure” of “transcendent good,” someone who shifted as his nation changed. Tye equitably concedes that Kennedy’s detractors have much reason to be tough on the man, and his clear depiction of Kennedy’s many blemishes is just one of the book’s many fine qualities. Another is its wonderful readability. In the end, Tye’s subject stands forth as an admirable man. Yes, he often failed to level with people, hid his feelings, and pursued vendettas (notably against Lyndon Johnson). But as Tye shows, R.F.K. at the end of his life warranted the faith people put in him and came close to being the person his admirers thought him to be.
A kidnapping propels this stunning crime thriller from Vallgren (The Merman). One day in Stockholm in June 1970, a harried father allows a strange woman to walk his seven-year-old son, Kristoffer Klingberg, up the stairs to reach a train platform, while he rides with his two-year-old son, Joel, in the elevator. When the father reaches the platform, there’s no sign of Kristoffer or the woman. In 2012, Joel, who has become a wealthy businessman, disappears. The police believe Joel left home voluntarily, but his wife, Angelina, has her doubts. Angelina approaches Danny Katz, a former heroin addict who’s now a successful translator, because she believes he’s the right person to find Joel; the two once served together as interpreters in the army. Danny, who needs the money, agrees to search for Joel. As Danny unearths twisted family secrets, he reconnects with tormented public prosecutor Eva Westin, whom he may have assaulted when he was a teen. Rich psychological insights complement the well-executed plot.
Fans of classic fair play who appreciate well-developed characterizations in their whodunits will relish Verdon’s richly atmospheric fifth mystery featuring retired NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney (after 2014’s Peter Pan Must Die). A former police colleague brings Dave back into his previous life by involving him in a bizarre and baffling case. Ethan Gall, the owner of Wolf Lake Lodge in the Adirondacks, hired renowned psychologist Richard Hammond to provide on-site hypnotic therapy at the lodge. After four of Hammond’s patients, including Gall, committed suicide, the doctor was dubbed the “death whisperer” by the press and suspected, by the public and the New York state police, of talking patients into killing themselves. Despite the seriousness of his situation, Hammond refuses to hire an attorney or seek any other help. His sister, Jane, however, asks Dave to work for her to clear her brother’s name. To the detective’s surprise, his wife, Madeleine, who has been ambivalent about his continuing to sleuth, agrees that he should take on the case. Verdon couples the continued nuanced exploration of Dave and Madeleine’s relationship with one of his most sophisticated solutions yet.
In Williams’s hands (The Visiting Privilege), a “story of God” can apparently be almost anything. Her slender new collection includes in its 99 stories pithy flash-fiction pieces about mothers, wives, writers, and dogs, anecdotes from the lives of Tolstoy and Kafka, newspaper clipping–like meditations on O.J. Simpson and Ted Kaczynski, conversational asides (the story “Museum” consists entirely of the line “We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested”), and, finally, actual stories about God—a particularly put-upon, bewildered God who seems to have lost the thread of his creation somewhere along the line. Here, the Holy Ghost is just as likely to alight in a slaughterhouse as to visit a demolition derby or appear to William James or Simone Weil, both of whom have their own brush with transcendence. The best of Williams’s humor, and her wonderful feel for characters, is present in pieces such as “Elephants Never Forget God,” in which James Agee describes a movie he’d like to make, or “Giraffe,” in which an aging gardener suddenly feels the presence of the divine. Somewhere in the neighborhood of Jim Harrison’s Letters to Yesenin, these stories are 100% Williams: funny, unsettling, and mysterious, to be puzzled over and enjoyed across multiple readings.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller from Edgar-winner Winters (The Last Policeman). Victor, an African-American bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals Service, possesses a supreme talent for tracking down runaway slaves in a world in which there was no Civil War and slavery still exists in four Southern states. He’s a master of disguise and dissembling. Victor tracks a runaway slave code-named Jackdaw to Indianapolis, Ind., where he ingratiates himself with Father Barton, a purported leader of an abolitionist organization called Underground Airlines, and succeeds in penetrating the group. But soon thereafter Victor impulsively befriends Martha Flowers, a down-on-her-luck white woman traveling with her young biracial son, Lionel, a kindness that soon jeopardizes Victor’s carefully constructed cover identity. The novel’s closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor.