Darkly comic, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell brings a loose retelling of Hamlet into modern-day London and positions the tragic “prince” in utero, a witness to the murder machinations at play between his mother and her lover as they plot to kill his father.
Nutshell is definitely clever, in concept and execution, with fine writing throughout, though the novel bows under the weight of that heady cleverness. The plot hinges on one unsurprising act, and the story leaves no real emotional impact. While it is unlikely that there has ever been a more erudite or insightful womb-bound being, the other characters, blandly conniving caricatures, cannot live up to the narrative technique.
If you’re an avid reader of The New Yorker, a number of the short stories in Tessa Hadley’s recently-released Bad Dreams and Other Stories will be familiar to you. Personally, I can’t keep up with the stacks of New Yorker magazines that mock me around our house, so most of the stories were new to me.
Hadley’s stories are skillfully composed around a particular narrative tension. As if living in a bad dream, many of her characters face potential or inferred danger, with possibly shady characters in uncomfortable situations. A teenage girl in “An Abduction” is picked up by a car of boisterous drunk boys who want to take her for a ride. It seems only natural to think girl, that is just not a good idea. In “Under the Sign of the Moon,” an older woman with cancer, on the train to see her daughter, meets an overly friendly, albeit slightly off young man who won’t stop trying to engage her in conversation. Ugh, is he the pervert we suspect he might be? In “One Saturday Morning” a young girl, left at home to practice piano while her family goes grocery shopping, lets in a family friend, a man. They occupy the house together, moving quietly in separate rooms but deeply aware of each other, waiting for her family to return. Maybe I’ve been listening to too much My Favorite Murder, but something in that scenario sets off where’s he going to stash the body alarm bells. Within each story, however, is a measure of surprise; the possibility of danger doesn’t always signal a real threat, and Hadley’s characters luckily manage to walk away unscathed.
In Woman No. 17 Edan Lepucki, author of the dystopian debut California (on my to-read list), captures the hazy aura of summertime in Los Angeles. The plot revolves around Lady, a complicated mother of two sons, a teenager and a toddler, and S, the nanny she hires to take care of her toddler and live in the pool cottage behind her house. Lady is on a break from her husband and S, who fancies herself an artist, is determined to make some kind of mark on the world. Things get messy.
Though the back cover touts this book as a “sinister, sexy noir,” I just found it sadly tiresome. Lady and S are narcissists, emotionally damaged by their own mothers’ demons and inadequacies, and bent on disrupting whatever calm settles around them. While Lepucki is clearly a gifted writer and I’m looking forward to reading California, I was happy to leave this liquor-soaked, self-obsessed world of “posh” LA behind.
Wow. This book kept me up past midnight, furiously flipping page after page towards the bloody end and listening intently to the creaks and noises in my silent house with wide open eyes.
Beth Lewis’ The Wolf Road is intense and unflinching, terrifying and great. Looking for a well-written and suspenseful beach read? Well, here you go. (Maybe don’t read it in the forest in the dark by yourself.)
Like Nettie Lonesome, the heroine in Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, Lewis’ Elka is a strong young female protagonist fighting for survival and connection in a cruel, dangerous world. After a huge storm, Elka is taken in by Trapper, a quiet hunter harboring a secret. When Elka discovers the truth about Trapper, she escapes into the wilderness to survive. But will she survive with Trapper nipping at her heels?
The setting is post-apocalyptic, but not overtly so. The remote Canadian wilderness Elka escapes into is alive with trees and wildlife, but crater lakes formed by Russian bombs leak chemicals into the Earth, and mentions of old wars and bombs that destroyed large swaths of North America are peppered throughout the book and inform the fierce survivalist nature of the characters.
Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is light and funny, a quick read after my last book, The Name of the Wind.
Set in Delhi and New York, the story follows the newly rich Mr. and Mrs. Jha as they move from the housing complex where they’ve lived for years in East Delhi to the exclusive part of the city where everyone belongs to the Luxury Recreation Club and the neighbors constantly attempt to one-up each other. We’re also privy to the failings of their son who is secretly dating a white woman while at university in America, and their lonely widowed neighbor, the beautiful Mrs. Ray, as she searches for companionship.
Basu is a great writer of dialogue. The conversations between the characters are hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy, and cleverly reveal the desires, expectations, fears, and inadequacies of the characters themselves.
Debut novel The Leavers by Lisa Ko tackles the Chinese immigrant experience in America from the perspectives of Deming Guo and his undocumented mother Peilan/Polly.
When Polly disappears one day, leaving eleven-year-old Deming in New York without explanation, money, or hope, her friends are forced to put him up for adoption. He is adopted by two white academics and renamed Daniel. Deming/Daniel’s adopted parents are well-meaning but emotionally clueless and culturally ignorant, unwilling or unable to recognize Deming’s old life, his fragile emotional state, and the unresolved loss of his birth mother.
Most of the relationships in this book are borderline uncomfortable and fraught, the characters hold each other at arm’s length and are divided by miscommunications and unspoken assumptions; they are unable to truly connect. While I understand the way this emotional divide gives voice to the immigrant experience, shows a cultural identity and character arc in flux, and explores a “them” and “us” dynamic, I ultimately felt sadly indifferent about the characters, couldn’t fully comprehend their decisions, and was left feeling lackluster about the story by the end of the book.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman is a master storyteller. His novels, full of idiosyncratic characters and expertly-crafted dialogue, are heartwarming and entertaining, hypnotizing and transporting.
Where A Man Called Ove, which I read and loved back in January, centers on old cantankerous Ove and his fraught relationship with the world, the main character in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is Elsa, age 7. Her best and only friend is her quirky grandmother who weaves a world of fairy tales for Elsa, regularly stirs up trouble, and who dies suddenly leaving Elsa a task: to deliver apology letters to the folks she’s wronged and left behind. Backman’s characters leap off the page, they come to life fully flawed and perfectly odd, in a wonderful story that is funny and poignant, and rich with imagination. Another great read.
The dystopian world in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes is set to music. In this indeterminate future London, where the written word is a lost code and metal is a precious commodity, Smaill’s characters walk lento and run presto, they sing directions, recognize strangers by their song, and they attune their ears daily to the Chimes, the beautiful music played across London that erases memories and keeps the inhabitants in line.
The novel follows young Simon, recently arrived in London after the death of his parents, with a bag of objectmemories and a message in the form of a song from his mother to a woman named Netty. As the days pass and the Chimes create gaps in his perception and fog his past, he must find a way to remember his purpose, deliver his message, and retain his memories if he is to survive the stifling by those in charge, a set of Oxford elites known as The Order.
After reading and loving V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series over the last few months, I’ve been on the hunt for entertaining, well-written fantasy, which is why I picked up The Chimes. While I liked the novel, I wished for less musical prose and more world-building; there were sections where I couldn’t envision the scene fully because the musicality of the writing muddled the plot and overshadowed the visual elements of the setting.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.
As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.
On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.