Michael Magras

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While a child’s disappearance can shock a community into coming together, it’s also the kind of event that can reveal fissures among residents, heighten conflicts within families and prompt reevaluations of relationships. Fiona McFarlane explores these possibilities and more in her leisurely novel The Sun Walks Down.

In 1883, the potential tragedy of a 6-year-old boy’s disappearance strikes the town of Fairly in “the arid middle of South Australia.” This Outback region is known for dust storms, hilly ranges that were “laid down, long ago and slowly, in layers of rock,” and a sun so red and fierce that the boy in question fears “the gods must be angry.” The boy is Denny Wallace. His mother, Mary, deaf since age 22, sends him out with a sack to gather bark and twigs while his five sisters attend a wedding and his father, Mathew, plants parsnips. But Denny gets lost in a dust storm and doesn’t return home.

The bulk of McFarlane’s novel focuses on the efforts of the townspeople to help the Wallaces look for their son and the stories of the family members left behind as the search continues. This includes Minna Baumann and Mounted Constable Robert Manning, whose wedding was attended by Denny’s sisters; 15-year-old Cissy Wallace, Denny’s oldest sister, who doesn’t understand why the other women won’t join the search party and who secretly falls in love with Robert; Bess and Karl Rapp, Swedish artists fascinated by the reds in “this disastrous South Australian sky”; and Mr. Daniels, a courtly vicar prone to fainting spells.

The Sun Walks Down should be read not for narrative action but rather for the minutely observed relationships among its characters, as Denny’s disappearance is less of a mystery than it is a plot device that allows McFarlane to explore her themes. She does this beautifully, such as when she depicts the relations between white people and Australia’s native Aboriginal people, the wayward behavior that can come from an excess of ambition, and the question of who does and does not constitute a British subject.

“Don’t you like people to be happy?” Denny’s sister Joy asks Cissy. “Happiness won’t find Denny,” Cissy replies. As McFarlane makes clear in this fine work, the quest for contentment can be as elusive as a 6-year-old lost in a dust storm. 

As Fiona McFarlane makes clear in this fine novel, the quest for contentment can be as elusive as a child lost in a dust storm.
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In Act 1 of Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth questions his plan to commit regicide against King Duncan, saying, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’other.” Vaulting ambition and the willful blindness that can accompany it form the tragedy of Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s third novel and the follow-up to her 2013 Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries.

The Birnam Wood of the title refers not to the Scottish town of the play but to an activist collective in New Zealand whose members harvest crops planted “without permission on public or unattended lands.” The group’s founder, Mira Bunting, has an idealistic goal: “radical, widespread, and lasting social change” that shows “how arbitrary and absurdly prejudicial the entire concept of land ownership” is. But there’s a problem: The collective has trouble breaking even.

A possible solution arrives in the form of a natural disaster, when earthquakes lead to a landslide, causing the closure of the Korowai Pass and cutting off the small fictional town of Thorndike. Not far from the site of the landslide is a farm owned by the soon-to-be-knighted Owen Darvish. Paradoxically, Owen’s pest control service has partnered with American tech corporation Autonomo on a conservation project to rescue endemic species from extinction. Mira’s plan: buy the farm for Birnam Wood.

In both of her novels, Catton has shown that she’s an expert at building tension from an intricate plot. One of the complicating factors in Birnam Wood is Autonomo co-founder Robert Lemoine, “a serial entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, and, apparently, a billionaire.” He wants to build a bunker on the farm and store precious cargo that would make him, “by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who had ever lived.” When he catches Mira on the property, he suggests they join forces, but in true Shakespearean fashion, Robert’s intent may not be what he claims.

Catton brilliantly weaves other characters and plot elements into the mix, among them Tony Gallo, a former collective member and would-be journalist who rails against capitalism, wants to write “a searing indictment of the super-rich” and is keen to expose Robert for who he is. Tony is too broadly drawn, and Catton sometimes over-explains the plot, but Birnam Wood is still a powerful portrait of the uncomfortable relationship between capitalism and idealism, and the compromises and trade-offs one might accept in pursuit of a goal. As some of Catton’s characters learn, vaulting ambition can be admirable, but if one o’erleaps and falls, the landing is anything but smooth.

Correction, March 7, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect that Birnam Wood is Catton’s third novel and The Luminaries is her second.

Vaulting ambition and the willful blindness that can accompany it form the tragedy of Birnam Wood, Eleanor Catton’s third novel and the follow-up to her 2013 Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries.
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Some people feel like outsiders every day of their lives. One such person is Harley Sekyere, a 21-year-old gay Black man in England who comes from an unsupportive household, felt at sea at college and has no idea where to turn. That’s a situation plenty of people will relate to. And it’s the premise of Small Joys, Elvin James Mensah’s sympathetic debut novel.

It’s 2005, shortly after terrorists coordinated a series of subway and bus bombings that devastated London. Harley had grand plans to graduate from university with a degree in music journalism but dropped out. Bereft of any other constructive goals, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression, he makes a drastic decision: Back home in the town of Dartford, southeast of London, he wanders into the woods with a small X-ACTO knife.

He catches a break. Muddy, a straight white man “holding a pair of binoculars,” approaches Harley, sees that he’s bleeding and stops him from proceeding further. Fortuitously, Muddy is more than just a devoted bird-watcher who happened to walk by. He’s also about to become Harley’s roommate.

Mensah then introduces other characters who become part of Harley’s support network. They include Chelsea, a young white woman whose father owns the apartment building where Harley and Muddy live. She’s a friend of Harley’s and helps him reclaim his old job at the cinema where she works. Also in the mix are Finlay, Muddy’s best mate, whom Chelsea is dating; and Noria, a Black woman who’s dating Muddy and is obsessed with styling Harley’s hair.

The center of all of this is Harley, of whom Mensah writes with great affection. He offers unforgettable details, such as when he notes that Harley is so self-conscious that he sometimes stores food in his cheeks “to create the illusion [he] was eating quicker than [he] actually was.” Harley’s lack of assurance, he says, comes from “anxiety and queerness and failure.” It also comes from his homophobic father, a religious man hoping to convert his son; his relationship with an abusive older man; and his burgeoning feelings for Muddy.

Small Joys is simpler and more predictable than the books to which it is already being compared, among them works by Brandon Taylor and Bryan Washington. The raw emotions in Mensah’s book, however, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

The raw emotions in Small Joys will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Elvin James Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.
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Few delights bring as much comfort as good food, so imagine how cheering a good cup of coffee and a fresh donut would have been to soldiers on the front lines in World War II. But also imagine how women recruited to serve food to soldiers might view the value of their contribution when they see the life-and-death sacrifices those men had to make. That’s one of the animating conflicts in the heartfelt novel Good Night, Irene from Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea.

In October 1943, 25-year-old Irene Woodward leaves New York City to become a “recreation worker” for the American Red Cross. She is escaping her planned marriage to the son of a political family, an arrangement she’d accepted only because her family wanted the connections. Marriage, however, was not for Irene, especially not to a political scion who left bruises on her arm.

Irene volunteers at one of the Red Cross’ Clubmobiles, serving those cups of coffee and donuts. Among the pejoratively named “Donut Dollies”—one of many examples of unabashed sexism the women face—she meets Dorothy Dunford, who has fled Indianapolis for comparable reasons.

Urrea briskly dramatizes the women’s boot camp and eventual passage to Liverpool, England, the first of many stops where they serve refreshments to flirting soldiers. Such respites, however, are tragically brief, which Irene and Dorothy learn when bullets strike the roof of their train. That’s just the first of many direct encounters with the reality of war, and things get considerably grislier as the novel takes its protagonists through major conflicts from the D-Day invasion to the Battle of the Bulge. 

Interspersed among scenes of combat are personal stories involving Irene, Dorothy and the service people they encounter, including an American pilot nicknamed Handyman, with whom Irene falls in love. Although such romantic moments are lackluster, the combat sequences are a thrill to read. Urrea writes memorable descriptions of war that strike the reader with devastating immediacy, such as when soldiers flirt with Irene one moment and die bleeding in the street seconds later. Good Night, Irene is strongest when Urrea shows the toll that war exacts from everyone involved. “It can’t be about killing,” Dorothy says to Irene. “It has to be about living. Saving even one life.” As Urrea reminds us, few things bring as much reassurance as people in wartime who understand the true meaning of valor.

As Luis Alberto Urrea reminds us, few things bring as much reassurance as people in wartime who understand the true meaning of valor.
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T.C. Boyle has never been afraid to torment his characters or draw from real life, and he does both in Blue Skies, putting his cast through just about every climate-related calamity to make the contours of the crisis so prominent that no one could miss them.

He begins this bicoastal adventure—the action toggles between Florida and California—with, of all things, jewelry. But it’s “living jewelry,” a Burmese python purchased by influencer Cat to wear around her neck. Boyle, the unparalleled stylist, describes Cat’s thought process in gorgeous prose: She thinks snakes are beautiful, “as if somebody had dipped a brush in acrylics and traced the lines that radiated in a widening V from their mouths to draw reticulate patterns across their backs and down their sides.”

Plenty of descriptions as unforgettable as that one follow as Boyle introduces multiple characters and complications, from the self-inflicted to the unforeseen. Cat’s ambition is to gain online followers and show off her Florida beachfront home. She lives there with her Tesla-driving fiancé, Todd, whose job involves drinking and partying to promote a rum brand. To Cat’s chagrin, it also involves a lot of time away from home.

Across the country in California are other members of Cat’s family. Her brother, Cooper, is an entomologist, disparaged as “Bug Boy” by classmates when he was growing up but who now conducts field research to study ticks and other arachnids. Their mother, Ottilie, is so deeply impacted by Cooper’s warnings about harming the planet that she begins cooking with crickets, making everything from cricket cobbler to cricket-infused cookies and brownies.

The disappearance of Cat’s snake is only the mildest of calamities to befall this group. Ever the maximalist, Boyle inflicts one disaster after another to show the perils of climate change. If anything, there’s too much incident. Fewer would have made his point more effective.

But wealth is better than poverty, and Boyle doles out ample riches. The pace never lets up, and he blends many other timely themes into his narrative, from aversion to parenthood to the ruthlessness of the media. Blue Skies may not be top-flight Boyle, but it’s Boyle at his most urgent. “What good was beachfront property if there was no beach?” Ottilie asks. As Boyle warns us, take the planet for granted, and don’t be surprised if, like a snake, its luxuries slither away.

Ever the maximalist, T.C. Boyle inflicts one disaster after another to show the perils of climate change in his novel Blue Skies.
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Few conditions feel more dystopian than toiling away at a dead-end job. But imagine performing menial chores in a massive, vacant research facility so remote that a helicopter is required to get there. Plus, outdoor conditions are so fierce that anyone who steps outside is likely to develop a mysterious “snow sickness.” This is the situation accepted by three people in Sean Adams’ new novel.

Adams has dialed down the dystopian quotient from his first satirical novel, The Heap, but that element is still very much present in The Thing in the Snow. The Northern Institute has lost its funding, and its original purpose has been withheld from its new caretakers: supervisor Hart and assistants Gibbs and Cline. All they know, as Adams describes in engagingly cryptic passages, is that something happened, and authorities concluded it was cheaper to keep the facility open than to shut it down.

Hart takes his supervisory duties seriously. In dry prose reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s unreliable narrators, Hart relates his quotidian tasks: sharing “coffee and light socialization” with his subordinates and assigning the week’s trivial chores, which include testing the stability of the chairs, checking out the doors and so on. In his off hours, Hart reads novels about Jack French, a man who finds himself in dire situations “demanding the kind of exceptional leadership only he can provide.”

The Institute and its surrounding tundra have many eerie qualities, among them an object buried deep in the snow, “something dark [that] glints in the little light that makes it through.” Other distractions are equally perplexing, such as lights that flicker as if in a pattern. Hart feels “a slight static tingle in [his] beard” that “aligns itself with the pulse of the light.” Then one of the chairs shatters.

Adding to the strange ambience is the Institute’s last remaining researcher, the “condescending, pretentious, and often outright batty” Gilroy. All he’ll say about his research is that it can “predict the future of cold,” but Hart suspects Gilroy is holding secrets he won’t share.

The Thing in the Snow gets repetitive at times, but Adams succeeds at building tension while exploring the lengths to which people will go to retain power, the narcissism often embodied by those in leadership positions and the effect of monotony on a person’s memory. Inexplicable phenomena can be devastating to the mind, but as this perceptive novel and any undervalued employee can attest, tedium is just as destructive.

Sean Adams has dialed down the dystopian quotient from his first satirical novel, The Heap, but that element is still very much present in The Thing in the Snow.
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Ask a mathematician about the distinction between zero and nothing, and prepare for a clear answer: Zero, they’ll say, is a numerical value. Nothing, to put it simply, is a concept that represents an absence or something of no importance. At some point, everyone encounters people or power structures that make them feel like nothing. But what if “nothing” were a tangible entity that could be weaponized against perceived enemies? That’s the wickedly clever conceit Percival Everett plays with in Dr. No.

The novel’s title, a deliberate reference to Ian Fleming’s 1958 James Bond novel that became a 1962 film, tips off readers that a goof on the secret agent story awaits them. As fans of Everett’s previous work know, hijinks are always in the service of serious themes, usually related to race in America. In this case, they involve two men: a “slightly racially ambiguous” billionaire who yearns to be a Bond villain and a Black professor whose specialty, quite literally, is nothing.

The professor calls himself Wala Kitu, the Tagalog and Swahili terms, respectively, for nothing. He teaches mathematics at Brown University and has spent his career “contemplating and searching for nothing. . . . I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it,” because “to experience the power of nothing would be to understand everything; to harness the power of nothing would be to negate all that is.” 

Someone with nefarious intentions might want to harness that power, too. One such criminal is John Milton Bradley Sill, who gives Wala $3 million to help him enact a plan: Break into the vault at Fort Knox and steal a shoebox that contains a special kind of nothing, then purloin a similarly destructive kind of nothing from the Naval Observatory. Sill intends to use these tools against those who “have never given anything to us,” meaning Black people. “It’s time,” Sill says, “we gave nothing back.”

That’s the sort of twisted logic that readers find throughout Dr. No, along with clever references and character names, including Wala’s one-legged bulldog, Trigo (short for trigonometry), and his colleague Eigen Vector, a straight-laced sort who’s excited about helping a supervillain, because, as she says, she wants to do “bang, bang, stabby, stabby, spy stuff.” 

The result is a memorable work that has fun with spy-novel tropes while also addressing the treatment of Black people in America. Dr. No takes a while to get going, but there’s plenty of classic Everett sophistication to delight his fans. “Nothing matters,” Wala says. In more ways than one, this brilliant novel demonstrates how true that can be.

What if “nothing” were a tangible entity that could be used against perceived enemies? That’s the wickedly clever conceit Percival Everett plays with in his novel Dr. No.
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Sooner or later, every thoughtful person who cares about making a difference is likely to wonder whether younger generations will view them as a dinosaur, stuck in the past, tethered to an outdated worldview. While they’re being thoughtful, they could also spare a moment to consider the plight of other species, or to investigate the effect of their behavior on others. Lydia Millet has addressed these questions before, and she does so again in her novel Dinosaurs.

Gil is a 45-year-old bachelor whose soft-spoken manner belies a life of extremes. He’s filthy rich, but the reason for his inherited wealth, as the novel slowly reveals, is not one that anybody would desire. A sense of noblesse oblige leads Gil, who has never had to work, to accept a series of volunteer jobs, such as helping out at a center for refugee families.

It’s the late 2010s, and Gil is tired of his Manhattan life, where he “had nowhere to be and no one who needed him.” He moves to Phoenix, which he does by walking there over five months. Next door to his Arizona property is a house whose side is made entirely of glass, affording him a clear view of the neighbors: financier Ted, psychotherapist Ardis and their two children, Tom and Clem.

Millet blends the stories of Gil’s friendship with the family next door, particularly with younger child Tom, with tales of acquaintances from Gil’s past. Among them are Van Alsten, a gleefully foulmouthed friend from New York days whose formerly carefree life has changed in profound ways; Lane, a scheming ex-girlfriend who dumped Gil for a cyclist; and a man connected to Gil’s inheritance who unexpectedly emerges after decades of no contact.

Other present-day events further complicate Gil’s life, from the relationships he forms through his volunteer work at a women’s shelter he’s funding, to the mystery of who is killing birds late at night outside his home.

A couple of later scenes go on too long, but even if, like Millet’s other works, this novel is like a delicious meal that doesn’t quite fill you up, it’s still a feast worth tucking into. Millet makes critical points about American aggression, destructive attitudes toward wildlife and the American concept of freedom, “that sacred cow that was always invoked as an excuse for bad behavior.” Dinosaurs is a bracing if subtle reminder that, in the absence of changes to old-fashioned ways, some people are just one good volcanic eruption from going the way of the dinosaur.

Dinosaurs is a bracing if subtle reminder that, in the absence of changes to old-fashioned ways, some people are just one good volcanic eruption from going the way of the dinosaur.
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Some people never learn, or so history would suggest. One doesn’t have to look hard to find repeated patterns that can cause lingering trauma, from interpersonal cruelties to larger events such as wars and other human-made disasters. This is just the sort of material that Ian McEwan—that eloquent virtuoso at mining life’s barbarities—likes to exploit for narrative effect, and he does so yet again in Lessons, a scathing novel about the ways brutality, intentional or otherwise, can shape a life.

The life at the center of this exceptional work is that of Roland Baines. At the start of the novel, it’s the late 1950s, when Roland is n 11. His parents, a tough-love father who was an infantryman in Scotland and a mother who betrayed her first husband, have sent him 2,000 miles away from their home in North Africa to attend boarding school in England.

Among Roland’s formative experiences are the overtures, musical as well as physical, of a piano teacher in her 20s. “This was insomniac memory, not a dream,” Roland says of his adult recollections of those days, among them the time she pinched his bare thigh after he made a mistake while performing a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, leaving a “secret oval mark.”

Young Roland’s relationship with his teacher progresses in unsettling ways, but an equally disfiguring scar appears later. His wife, Alissa, whom he met in 1977 after enrolling in her German language class, abandons him and their 7-month-old son because, as she puts it (with shades of Doris Lessing), motherhood “would’ve sunk me” and kept her from becoming “the greatest novelist of her generation.”

McEwan’s novel moves back and forth in time to record the salient events of Roland’s life: adapting to single parenthood, eking out a living as a lounge pianist, learning of his and Alissa’s families’ pasts and more. As McEwan recounts seven decades of Roland’s life, the author places his character’s personal events in a global context and focuses on such international milestones as the Cuban missile crisis, the disaster at Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lessons is designed to unsettle, which is nothing new for McEwan. Although some readers may disagree, the novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises, and that everyone is capable of lies, predation and selfishness. The book has moments of warmth that are surprising in a work from McEwan, but there’s plenty of his classic cruelty, too, perpetrated by men and women alike. Lessons may not be optimistic, but as Roland notes, “Only the backward look, the well-researched history could tell peaks and troughs from portals.” Which is another way of saying that, with enough hindsight and sentience, there’s a chance that mistakes can be corrected and lessons learned.

Although some readers may disagree, Ian McEwan's scathing, unsettling novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises, and that everyone is capable of lies, predation and selfishness.
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Definitions differ, but many people eventually discover the value in approaching life’s challenges with at least a modicum of grace. Grace and its manifestations are at the heart of The Poet’s House, Jean Thompson’s charming novel about a young California woman with a learning disability who figures out her place in life with the help of an unexpected mentor: the acclaimed poet whose garden she tends.

Carla is in her early 20s and working for a landscaping company in Northern California. She didn’t finish college, in part because, as she puts it, “I have one of those brains that doesn’t process words on a page very well.” Her world consists mainly of her job, where she works for a guy who, in one of Thompson’s many beautiful pinpoint details, “was always convinced that his sweaty charms impressed the lady clients.” Carla also maintains relationships with her boyfriend, Aaron, who works in the IT department of a bank, and her mother, who wants Carla to consider a medical career.

Carla has never given any thought to poetry and assumes all poets “wore berets and drank too much.” But then she starts tending the garden of Viridian, a 70-something poet’s poet with only one published book to her name and a considerable air of mystery. Part of the mystery derives from her relationship years earlier with Mathias, “the most famous, brilliant poet of his era.” Many people believe that Mathias destroyed a new cycle of poems before his death by suicide at age 35, but Viridian has a copy of them. The only problem: She won’t tell anyone where the poems are, even though their publication would give her the financial windfall she desperately needs.

Part of the fun of The Poet’s House is in its small details and memorable descriptions, such as when Thompson writes that Viridian’s attire is “equal parts yoga practice and Star Wars costuming.” But the biggest pleasures are Carla’s evolution, the many well-drawn characters and subtle pokes at the competitiveness of the literary world. The novel occasionally takes too long to develop its themes on its way to a tidy conclusion, but this doesn’t distract from its ample joys, not least of which is Carla’s recognition that she is like the finest poems: complex and wondrous, with hidden mysteries and graces that aren’t immediately apparent.

The hero of Jean Thompson’s novel is like the finest poems: complex and wondrous, with hidden mysteries and graces that aren’t immediately apparent.
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Every writer has to start somewhere. Maggie Shipstead’s bestselling 2021 novel, Great Circle, earned a place on the Booker Prize shortlist, but the road to such success is often long. In Shipstead’s case, as she explains in the acknowledgments of You Have a Friend in 10A, her path began with stories written while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University. 

This collection of 10 works of short fiction, all previously published, gives readers the inspiring experience of charting the maturation of one of America’s finest authors. Most impressive is the book’s range of perspectives, from the chilling “La Moretta,” in which a couple on their European honeymoon slowly realizes their marriage may have been a mistake, to “Souterrain,” a tale of a dying Parisian man and his housekeeper’s son, who believes the man to be his father.

In a few pieces, it’s clear that Shipstead was still discovering what her words could do, but the best are exceptional portraits of characters unaware of the effects of their actions. Highlights include “The Cowboy Tango,” in which a Montana man who runs a ranch for tourists becomes smitten with the teenage girl he hired as a wrangler and joins “in the silent chorus of the unloved” when she falls for his divorced nephew; and the story “Acknowledgments” (not to be confused with the author’s own acknowledgments), in which a pompous author uses hilariously Nabokovian sentences like “Let us skip that Rabelaisian era known as adolescence and hop jauntily to my twenty-fifth year.”

In one story, a character reflects that “even a life lived properly, lived better than she was living, could bring so much grief.” The finest stories in You Have a Friend in 10A show that perpetual grief may not necessarily lead to great lives, but it can produce scintillating fiction.

Maggie Shipstead's collection of 10 short stories, all previously published, gives readers the inspiring experience of charting the maturation of one of America's finest authors.

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