Sheri Bodoh

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British author Charles Lambert’s latest, The Children’s Home, is like a strange dream in which you can’t quite tell if you’re awake. Morgan, its disfigured, 20-something protagonist, lives isolated in his powerful family’s sprawling home. His estranged sister sent a housekeeper to live with him, and soon after, children began arriving. They appear with no backstory—one, in fact, materializes out of thin air—and Morgan and the housekeeper, Engel, become parents of sorts. The resulting story is a weird, poignant journey reminiscent of Calvino that explores fear, power, revenge and redemption.

When one of the children falls ill, Dr. Crane enters the scene. He befriends the young hermit and becomes a fixture at the house. When government agents arrive inquiring about rumors of “strays” living there, Crane speaks for Morgan, who is afraid to let strangers see his face. As Morgan and Crane observe strange, sometimes frightening, behaviors in the children, eerily related discoveries are made in attic trunks and in Morgan’s grandfather’s books. Eventually, circumstances force Morgan to balance his fear of being seen against his concern for the children’s safety.

Lambert’s story is addictive, although readers looking for concrete answers to its riddles may be disappointed. But while the book leaves many mysteries intact, its potent, often brutal, images have a lasting power. Things feel just a notch off in this world, like a walk through a quietly disturbing dream. It stays with you after, like that dream, trying to tell you something gravely important.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

British author Charles Lambert’s latest, The Children’s Home, is like a strange dream in which you can’t quite tell if you’re awake. Morgan, its disfigured, 20-something protagonist, lives isolated in his powerful family’s sprawling home. His estranged sister sent a housekeeper to live with him, and soon after, children began arriving. They appear with no backstory—one, in fact, materializes out of thin air—and Morgan and the housekeeper, Engel, become parents of sorts. The resulting story is a weird, poignant journey reminiscent of Calvino that explores fear, power, revenge and redemption.
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O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison’s debut novel is a puzzle with the outside pieces finished. Reading it is like compulsively fitting all those revealing middle pieces together. Annie Black, a happily married 40-something San Francisco businesswoman, delves into her careless youth after her 21-year-old son is injured in a car accident. Spinning a tale of the three drunken months she spent in Europe in 1989, she demonstrates how the past can shape the future.

Disillusioned after her alcoholic father abandons the family for another woman, 19-year-old Annie leaves her meager hometown prospects for Europe, securing an office job in London. There, she quickly develops a drinking problem and, when her married boss, Malcolm, takes a shine to her, she gets entangled in a mess of midlife crises and misplaced desires. Malcolm’s wife—with his encouragement—is sleeping with charismatic photographer Patrick. Malcolm hopes Annie will become his own romantic companion. Annie, however, falls hopelessly for the selfish but charming Patrick. Things come to a peak over a fateful Christmas in Paris. When an old photograph arrives in Annie’s mailbox in 2011, she learns that ripples from this event have fanned out for two decades, and now they threaten her marriage and her son’s life.

Annie’s ruminations on past sins and the nature of memory are thoughtful, even when the reliability of her narration is suspect. She is often extremely unlikable. But for much of the book, she is also very young. She reminds us of the times we’ve been selfish, the times we’ve been foolish, the selves we think we’ve escaped. Skillfully weaving two plots, Ellison unveils the details of each, piece by tantalizing piece. Hard to put down despite its heavy tone, A Small Indiscretion asks a big question: Should Annie be forgiven? Should we be forgiven? Fans of family-themed literary fiction will find it compelling.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

O. Henry Prize winner Jan Ellison’s debut novel is a puzzle with the outside pieces finished. Reading it is like compulsively fitting all those revealing middle pieces together. Annie Black, a happily married 40-something San Francisco businesswoman, delves into her careless youth after her 21-year-old son is injured in a car accident. Spinning a tale of the three drunken months she spent in Europe in 1989, she demonstrates how the past can shape the future.
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Russian-born Alina Bronsky made a splash with 2011’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, with praise from sources as varied as The Daily Beast and the Financial Times. She’s back with a third novel, Just Call Me Superhero, serving up more biting wit and a no-frills style that readers can eat up in big, satisfying chunks.

It’s been a year since Marek, a 17-year-old from Berlin, was mauled by a Rottweiler. Perpetually hidden behind sunglasses, he avoids mirrors and most people, struggling with their shocked reactions to the sight of his face. It takes a trick by his mother, no-nonsense divorce lawyer Claudia, to get him to a support group, but one look at the beautiful wheelchair-bound Janne keeps him at the meeting. Though he despises his other new cohorts and their leader, dubbed “the Guru,” his longing for the ice-cold Janne keeps him coming back. A trip to the countryside tests his maturity and puts him at odds with the group, but when a family emergency calls him away, he finds he might need those “cripples” more than he realized. Whisked off to the home of his young stepmother and the half-brother he barely knows, Marek faces a gauntlet of challenges to his self-absorption. Through this, he begins his journey to self-acceptance.

A twist ending comes out of left field, but the sum of Just Call Me Superhero is greater than its disparate plot parts: Bronsky’s sharp humor, her deftly painted characters and Marek’s strong narrative voice are all it needs. A painful, tender, very funny bildungsroman void of sentimentality, Bronsky’s book captures contemporary European adolescence in one delicious swoop. Adults and teens should enjoy it equally.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Russian-born Alina Bronsky made a splash with 2011’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, with praise from sources as varied as The Daily Beast and the Financial Times. She’s back with a third novel, Just Call Me Superhero, serving up more biting wit and a no-frills style that readers can eat up in big, satisfying chunks.
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Here’s a book that’ll make you call your aging parents. Fiona McFarlane’s debut, The Night Guest—a quiet, twisting story of an elderly woman and her mysterious “government carer”—is a fright that keeps one guessing not only what will happen next, but what is actually happening.

Ruth Field, an Australian widow whose sons live far away, gets the strange and vivid feeling one night that a tiger is in her house. In the morning, another shows up on Ruth’s isolated beachside doorstep: large, charismatic Frida Young, who claims to be Ruth’s new nurse, assigned by the government. Ruth is wary, but drawn to the exotic woman, who reminds her of her childhood in Fiji with her missionary parents. Producing apparently legitimate papers, Frida insinuates herself into Ruth’s home. But as Ruth grows more comfortable with her “guest,” the question looms: Is Frida there to help or harm?

Meanwhile, memories of Fiji flood Ruth’s consciousness, especially those of her first love, Richard. They haven’t seen each other in 50 years. Ruth invites him to visit. He comes. And now Ruth, whose days have passed unchanged since her husband’s death five years ago, now has a tiger, Frida and Richard to think about—even as it’s becoming harder and harder to think. As Ruth’s mind begins to go, McFarlane piles on the suspense, perfectly capturing the alternating numbness and sneaking fear of disorientation. Ruth’s memories become more poignant as they become confused, and McFarlane examines the power of roots, the nature of perception and the reality of aging. Ruth is a three-dimensional person, not an “old lady” void of feelings and desire—she sets the stage for her most compelling act of all: exposing the terror of dependence. What will Frida do next? What will become of Ruth?

Set almost exclusively inside Ruth’s house, The Night Guest is a claustrophobic cautionary tale that evokes dread, but also detachment. This is because we’ve been placed so expertly inside Ruth’s fogged mind. To make us feel that numb confusion from the inside, as well as tragic sadness as observers, is a graceful feat. McFarlane is a well-rounded one to watch.

Here’s a book that’ll make you call your aging parents. Fiona McFarlane’s debut, The Night Guest—a quiet, twisting story of an elderly woman and her mysterious “government carer”—is a fright that keeps one guessing not only what will happen next, but what is actually happening.

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David Vann’s dark and grisly Goat Mountain detonates right off the bat. A grandfather, father, young son and friend arrive on family land for their annual hunting trip. Immediately spotting a poacher, the father offers the 11-year-old son a closer look at the interloper through his rifle scope.

The boy pulls the trigger.

So falls this group into hell, and Vann, in strikingly beautiful, brutal prose, plunges us into a world where all that might have been right is wrong–where light is dark; up is down. Ever fascinated with the physical and emotional violence in dysfunctional families, Vann returns to this theme, exploring the fallout of such a shocking act. The three men react to the boy’s deed in different, ugly, ways, and the boy’s subsequent isolation is both heartrending and terrifying—an appalling vertigo.

Vann specializes in portraying terrible change—how all can go awry in a blink, the unthinkable come to seem inevitable—but he doesn’t just glance where we don’t want to look; he stares till it becomes unbearable. It’s nearly unendurable to watch this boy cope without guidance, his father flounder in his impossible situation. Goat Mountain may lack its predecessor Dirt’s flawlessly intense momentum, but it grips, its language and fiercely vivid imagery making the heart wince as the hunting party’s weekend goes from horrifying to somehow much, much worse. A mere 200+ pages, it does what many novels never accomplish in hundreds more: create a pulsing, panting world in which every thought feels like life or death.

Since his 2008 debut, Vann has been compared to the likes of Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner and McCarthy—sometimes coming out ahead. It’s not hype. Easily one of the most exciting writers of the past decade, Vann keeps proving with each addition to his small but stunning oeuvre that he is not a fluke. Goat Mountain wrestles with no less than God, morality, the very origin of man and his nature. It comes out alive. Ambitious and potent, both Vann and Goat Mountain amaze.

David Vann’s dark and grisly Goat Mountain detonates right off the bat. A grandfather, father, young son and friend arrive on family land for their annual hunting trip. Immediately spotting a poacher, the father offers the 11-year-old son a closer look at the interloper through his rifle scope. The boy pulls the trigger. So falls […]
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A celebrity in his native Spain, Javier Marías is puzzlingly unknown in the U.S. His novels are considered modern classics. He’s often tipped for the Nobel Prize. And his works have been translated into 42 languages in 52 countries. His latest prize-winning bestseller, The Infatuations, comes to America this month, and those who like their lit cerebral would do well to see what the fuss is about. Philosophical and provoking, a paradox of coolheaded intensity, this novel is, above all, addictive.

María Dolz, frustrated with her job in publishing, finds a small joy each morning in the café where she breakfasts, observing a beautiful couple who seem very much in love. One day they stop appearing, and María learns to her horror that the husband has been murdered. When the wife returns to the café, María offers her condolences—it is the first time she has ever spoken to the woman. The widow invites her to her home, and there she meets Javier Diaz-Varela, the husband’s best friend. María can see that the handsome Diaz-Varela is infatuated with the widow, and yet she becomes infatuated with him herself. They begin an affair. And from there, María finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery she would rather know nothing about—and must try to separate truth from fiction.

Marías’ style is distinctive: The story is told primarily through long internal monologues in which the narrator reflects on what has been said in conversation and even imagines whole conversations between others. Marías does this through long, drawn-out sentences, a sort of hybrid of Italo Calvino and Henry James. This description might horrify some and intrigue others, but the horrified shouldn’t turn away too quickly; somehow, this style manages to compel. Examining what underlies (and undermines) love, truth and justice, the prose never rambles but zeroes in on some of humanity’s most discomfiting characteristics, all of which relate to death and romantic love.

And uncertainty, perhaps the most uncomfortable element of human life, takes center stage. Marías keeps us guessing from beginning to end: about the crime, about the motivations, about what María is hearing from the other characters and what we can believe. A trip through the mind and heart that is somehow both quiet and edge-of-your-seat, The Infatuations fascinates as a whole new breed of psychological thriller.

A celebrity in his native Spain, Javier Marías is puzzlingly unknown in the U.S. His novels are considered modern classics. He’s often tipped for the Nobel Prize. And his works have been translated into 42 languages in 52 countries. His latest prize-winning bestseller, The Infatuations, comes to America this month, and those who like their […]
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In 1946 North Carolina, during a raging winter rainstorm, young Evelyn Roe discovers a man buried in the rich red clay of her farm. Impossibly, he’s alive. She frantically digs him from the muck and thinks he’s a burned, lost soldier. But as she warms him, feeds him, clothes him, his gnarled skin “heals” illogically fast, and he acts like he’s never eaten food, taken a bath or even heard language before. This can’t simply be a man with amnesia.

Riley contemplates the mysteries of those we love in a standout debut.

In fact, he’s not even a man.

Rhonda Riley’s marvelous debut, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, spans 50 years and chronicles the relationship between Evelyn and this guileless being, who goes through more than one strange metamorphosis. Eventually, they marry. They raise five daughters. And in all those years, despite their passion, their happy, ordinary life and their profound bond, Evelyn’s husband never ceases to be a mystery to her.

Richly drawn and tenderly delivered, what’s perhaps loveliest about Riley’s story is that Adam doesn’t know any more about his origins than Evelyn does. And he doesn’t care—he just is. Captivating in his joy and openness, he’s worldly and innocent, not to mention otherworldly, all at the same time. Meanwhile, Riley creates in Evelyn a wonderfully real narrator, a subtle masterpiece. With a loving but unobtrusive voice, Evelyn inspires instant, unnoticed loyalty in the reader, allowing for a complete suspension of disbelief that is a great feat given the book’s premise.

Enhanced by gorgeous depictions of the land Evelyn and Adam love, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope evokes the wonder of being alive, of loving, of finding one’s home. By the end, it feels like you have truly listened in on a life—that these things have occurred somehow, in some realm. Combining terrific writing with mass appeal, this should be one of 2013’s most deserving hits.

In 1946 North Carolina, during a raging winter rainstorm, young Evelyn Roe discovers a man buried in the rich red clay of her farm. Impossibly, he’s alive. She frantically digs him from the muck and thinks he’s a burned, lost soldier. But as she warms him, feeds him, clothes him, his gnarled skin “heals” illogically […]
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A woman awakes knee-deep in the frigid San Francisco Bay, clueless as to how she got there—and who she is. So begins Lucie Walker’s second life in Jennie Shortridge’s heartfelt fifth novel, Love Water Memory, an appealing examination of the puzzle of identity and the enduring power of love.

A handsome, loving fiancé comes to claim Lucie, and, nervous but willing, she returns to the Seattle home she doesn’t remember. Suffering from dissociative fugue, a rare amnesia sparked by trauma, Lucie investigates her former self and finds she doesn’t like it very much: She was controlling, insecure and obsessed with appearances. The new Lucie, ironically, is more at ease in her own skin—strange and alien as it is—than ever before, and she wonders how the unpretentious, sensitive Grady ever loved that woman. Yet he is unnerved by this relaxed new Lucie. It’s too bad, because she’s falling in love with him.

What follows is a series of missed cues as the pair, unsure of each other, stumble toward re-courtship, even as Lucie struggles to jar real memories of her past. But she turns up more than she bargained for, not only about the day she left, but also about her troubled childhood. It may prove more than her already shaky psyche can bear.

Shortridge’s love story is cozy and Lucie’s quest for truth keeps the pages turning, but what may be most compelling about this fast read is Lucie’s psychological rebirth. A clean slate personified, she gets the chance to see her faults, errors and shortcomings with neutral eyes, and then, free of the baggage that formed them, she acts to change them. Readers will wonder if they can do the same in their own lives. An engaging journey, Shortridge’s latest should please her fans and earn her new ones.

A woman awakes knee-deep in the frigid San Francisco Bay, clueless as to how she got there—and who she is. So begins Lucie Walker’s second life in Jennie Shortridge’s heartfelt fifth novel, Love Water Memory, an appealing examination of the puzzle of identity and the enduring power of love. A handsome, loving fiancé comes to […]
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William H. Gass, acclaimed author of The Tunnel, spent 20 years composing his latest, Middle C, and it shows. An exploration of the multiple identities we humans cultivate, it tells the story of displaced Austrian music professor Joseph Skizzen from birth to middle age, probing his fears and faults, his obsessions and his dreams.

Gass’ long-awaited novel is a modern-day classic.

Except he isn’t Austrian. And he isn’t a music professor—not really. Despite the goatee and affected accent, he’s only ever lived in London and Ohio. And he teaches classes, but his credentials are utter fiction. Living with his elderly mother in a declining mansion that the college owns, Joseph’s life is built on fibs—an odd attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps. For before Joey was born, Rudi Skizzen turned his family into makeshift Jews, changed their names and moved them from Austria to Britain to “escape” the Nazis. After the war, he drained their Jewish blood, named them again and promptly abandoned them. Joey Skizzen’s life becomes an attempt to understand his father’s crime against his family, even as he constructs his own fake self. He probes Rudi’s sin, in part, by curating a “museum” of humanity’s crimes against humanity. From his secret perch in the mansion’s attic, surrounded by news clippings of cruelty, he gazes upon his mother’s beautiful garden and tends a stubborn sentence he’s composing (and recomposing) on mankind’s ugliness.

The story travels back and forth between Professor Skizzen’s present and his youth, revealing his quirks, his charms, his own crimes and the tender heart that belies his domineering pessimism. Gass writes in a style readers will either love or hate: If you love wordplay, you will revel here; if you do not, run far, far away. Dense but dexterous, the language is absolutely packed with surprises. Very, very funny, the book is also sad, laying Joey’s almost quaint innocence in bed right alongside the adult Joseph’s darkness. Highly original—it’s doubtful any other teen character this year will bumble his way into a love triangle with rival spinster librarians—Gass’ tome satisfies on multiple levels while leaving certain questions unanswered. A showcase of 88-year-old Gass’ skill, Middle C is literature at its finest.

William H. Gass, acclaimed author of The Tunnel, spent 20 years composing his latest, Middle C, and it shows. An exploration of the multiple identities we humans cultivate, it tells the story of displaced Austrian music professor Joseph Skizzen from birth to middle age, probing his fears and faults, his obsessions and his dreams. Gass’ long-awaited […]
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Schroder, the heartbreaking tale of a man who kidnaps his 6-year-old daughter, could be O My Darling author Amity Gaige’s breakout work. Starring a doggedly compelling lead character and Gaige’s signature smooth prose, this novel wows with its exacting, subtle grace.

Erik Schroder has not been known by that name since he was 14. An East German immigrant bullied in the tenements of 1980s Boston, he reinvented himself as “Eric Kennedy” in high school. But when his marriage falls apart and he loses his custody rights, the lie on which Eric’s life is built may prove his final undoing. Depressed and desperate for more time with his daughter, he proposes a road trip during a scheduled visit, and the unflappable Meadow is game. So begins a weeklong sally into rural New England that reveals the erratic parenting that made Eric’s ex nervous in the first place. But it also displays the special bond between him and the intelligent Meadow. As the authorities close in, Eric, cornered by his fraudulent identity, must face the fact that he could lose his beloved daughter forever—and, in the process, his entire constructed self.

Written as a confession to his wife, Schroder is Eric’s chronicle of his crimes and a poignant ode to his lost love. He utterly adored Laura—their breakup still stumps him—and Gaige’s elucidation of his bewildered pain is cutting. Meanwhile, he is confused by his own errors as a parent. Is he a bad father? What makes a good parent? His flaws, concurrent with his obvious love for Meadow, make us question our own judgments, decisions and delusions. A lost man, Eric Kennedy is falling apart, the ghosts of his past coming to claim him.

Gaige presents this weighty tale with enigmatic grace: This is a sad story, with multiple layers, carried on sentences light as air. She mixes warmth, lovely tenderness and wit with fear and loathing, nakedness and shame, moving her narrative swiftly to an end that hits like a punch in the gut.

Schroder, like its namesake, is an engrossing paradox. And Gaige is a talent who deserves attention.

Schroder, the heartbreaking tale of a man who kidnaps his 6-year-old daughter, could be O My Darling author Amity Gaige’s breakout work. Starring a doggedly compelling lead character and Gaige’s signature smooth prose, this novel wows with its exacting, subtle grace. Erik Schroder has not been known by that name since he was 14. An […]
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Tracy Chevalier, of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame, shifts her focus from Europe and enigmatic works of art to 1850s Ohio and the Underground Railroad in her latest, The Last Runaway. Jilted by her fiancé, quiet Quaker Honor Bright departs safe England for untamed America, and learns there that living according to one’s principles is easier said than done.

Left suddenly alone on her new continent after a family tragedy, Honor seeks comfort in the meditative routine of her beloved quilting. Her talent for stitching gains her an unlikely friend: the whiskey-swilling, cursing Kentucky export Belle Mills, who, to Honor’s shock, is hiding runaway slaves. Opposed to slavery like other Quakers, Honor silently approves of Belle’s actions, but when she begins helping slaves herself, she is met with resistance from her new community of Friends—despite their passionate abolitionist speeches. Further complicating matters are Honor’s first stirrings of lust: Belle’s brother, Donovan, is coarse, violent and, worst of all, a slave hunter—yet Honor can’t get him out of her head, even as she’s drawn to red-blooded Quaker farmer Jack Haymaker. As Honor moves deeper into the risky world of aiding slaves, she is confronted with several difficult choices.

Evoking 19th-century Ohio life with a quiet lushness, Chevalier seamlessly seeds vivid period details into her writing. Though minor bits test patience—Honor can supposedly hear an eye blink—the conflicts of this young woman’s head and heart will pull readers to the last page. Chevalier questions the difference between bravery and foolishness and explores whether ideology should displace family ties, and her characters are drawn with satisfying shades of gray. Having lived in England for nearly 30 years, the American-born Chevalier calls this novel her “love letter home.” Warm and thoughtful, The Last Runaway gratifyingly probes America’s growing pains.

Tracy Chevalier, of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame, shifts her focus from Europe and enigmatic works of art to 1850s Ohio and the Underground Railroad in her latest, The Last Runaway. Jilted by her fiancé, quiet Quaker Honor Bright departs safe England for untamed America, and learns there that living according to one’s principles […]

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