This week, George Saunders returns, a boy who floats, a girl haunted by her best friend, and a bone-chilling suspense novel.
The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, Illus. by Oliver Jeffers (Knopf) - Like Boyne and Jeffers’s Noah Barleywater Runs Away, this tale follows the journeys of an eight-year-old boy. Much to the dismay of his well-mannered, painfully normal parents, Barnaby floats in midair. Barnaby's parents try quarantining him inside the house and weighing him down with sandbags, but one day his frustrated mother simply releases him into the sky. As Barnaby travels the globe, he meets people of all ages who have followed their dreams, stayed true to themselves, and embraced what makes them unique, from the elderly women (hinted to be a couple) who rescue him in a hot-air balloon to a famous Toronto art critic scarred by fire. It's a fun and thought-provoking story of self-discovery, and the humor and gentleness with which Boyne delivers his message make it both unforgettable and delightful.
I, Hogarth by Michael Dean (Overlook) - Dean's biographical novel takes on the life of 18th century artist William Hogarth, who became famous for inventing a “moral” storytelling series of paintings and engravings he called Progresses (including the Rake’s Progress and the Harlot’s Progress). As it turns out, Hogarth--a likable self-promoter and self-described "pug" of a man--makes for highly diverting company. It helps that he knew everyone and went everywhere, and that Dean is good at showing his foibles and his artistic process. Hogarth's eye for human frailty and nose for news, coupled with his way with line, made him the perfect artist for the first half of the 18th century—a time when high and low mingled at the theater, the debtor's prison, and the brothel. If the BBC hasn't already optioned this, it should get a move on: Hogarth's life, as Dean portrays it, is an educational but sexily pleasurable costume drama waiting to happen.
Just One Day by Gayle Forman (Dutton) - This story—about the romance between Allyson, a recent high school grad, and Willem, a handsome Dutch actor she meets during a whirlwind tour of Europe—is built around uncertainty and a kind of loss that's more akin to an open wound. Upon meeting, the two take an impulsive trip to Paris, but Willem disappears and Allyson is left stranded. Back in the U.S., Allyson is unable to wipe Willem from her mind, and her carefully planned future takes unexpected turns. In a romance that never quite answers the question "Whatever happened to Willem?" Forman explores how travel can lead to surprises and a redefinition of self. Offering mystery, drama, and an evocative portrait of unrequited love, this open-ended novel will leave fans eagerly anticipating the companion story—written from Willem's perspective—due in fall 2013.
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead) - It’s rare that a debut author is also a seasoned storyteller, but this is the case with Gonzales, whose first book is a deeply imaginative collection of short stories. With commendable skill, Gonzales seamlessly blends the real and the fantastic, resulting in a fun and provocative collection that readers will want to devour. The mixture of the mundane and the surreal is hardly new, but Gonzales carries it off with a fresh voice. A quiet pathos spans the collection, and a well-timed glibness injects these stories with an undercurrent of dark humor. A surprising, delightful, and slyly didactic debut.
The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon (Morrow) - At the start of this haunting work of literary suspense from bestseller McMahon, Vermont architect Reggie Dufrane receives a startling phone call—her idolized mother, Vera, who was snatched by the notorious serial killer known as Neptune when Reggie was 13, has been found alive. Grippingly plotted, this intricate, character-driven story seamlessly shifts time as McMahon explores such favorite themes as dark familial secrets, flawed relationships, and the potentially destructive power of sex, all anchored in a vividly evoked suburban Connecticut landscape. You won’t soon forget Reggie, fierce yet fragile, but likely to stick with you even longer is the central conundrum of the extent to which our pasts enslave us and how much we can set ourselves free.
Road Trip by Gary Paulsen and Jim Paulsen (Random/Lamb) - A devoted raconteur of dog stories, Gary Paulsen (Notes from the Dog) along with his sculptor son, Jim, pull from a family tradition of adopting shelter dogs for their absorbing first collaboration. The authors score on all fronts: they set an entertainingly frenzied pace, provide twists aplenty, create true dialogue that blends humor and pathos, and bring together a close-knit ensemble. Ben’s testy yet loving relationship with his father is particularly well done, a testament to this father-son duo’s ability to work together.
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Random) - The 10 stories here—six of which ran in the New Yorker—might make readers won over by earlier, irony-laced absurdities like "Sea Oak" or corporate nightmares like "CommComm" question whether they know Saunders as well as they think they do. Indeed, those expecting purely zany escapism will be humbled by the pathos on display in stories like "Home," where a soldier returns to his humble origins. "Victory Lap" features a disarming case of child kidnapping, and "The Semplica Girl Diaries" is a heartbreaking chronicle of two months of changeable fortune in the life of a lower-middle-class paterfamilias of modest expectation ("graduate college, win Pam, get job, make babies, forget feeling of special destiny"). Eventually, a suspicion creeps in that, behind Saunders's comic talents, he might be the most compassionate writer working today.
Spectacle by Susan Steinberg (Graywolf) - This book could be called "linked short stories," but unlike other collections that attempt this, the whole here is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. Narrated entirely by women whose voices merge, divide, recur, and dissipate into one another, it feels like a solid statement, novelistic in scope and ambition. Steinberg is a maestro of stylistic innovation, conducting orbits of narrative and motif, coaxing meaning and music from each line. Steinberg subverts the feminist critique of women identified only by their male-counterparts and delivers a multifaceted female protagonist who whispers her secrets, shouts her confusions, and rends her relationships to find some meaning in the wreckage. With its literary inventions and sharp storytelling, this is a masterpiece of contemporary short fiction.
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff (Razorbill) - In her chilling third novel, Yovanoff combines supernatural horrors with others that are all too human. Hannah Wagnor is deeply depressed, unable to handle the recent death, by anorexia, of her best friend, Lillian. However, Lillian is still around: she's haunting Hannah—at once a consolation and a burden—still Hannah's friend, but making it impossible for Hannah to accept her death. And when a string of murders--the victims all girls--rocks Hannah's town, Hannah, pushed on by Lillian, becomes obsessed with the crimes. Yovanoff gives keen insight into friendship, sisterhood, and the stresses involved in being a teenage girl, in a painful but satisfying story that shows off the author's gifts for writing dark contemporary fantasy.