This week: new Elizabeth Gilbert, new Jeanette Winterson, new Jeffrey Deaver. Plus: the sequel to one of PW's Best Books of 2009.
Personae by Sergio De La Pava (Univ. of Chicago) - De La Pava’s (A Naked Singularity) shape-shifting latest is, in part, an upbeat existentialist comedy. We meet Detective Helen Tame (in a chapter titled “Our Heroine and Her Work,” no less) as she investigates a crime scene, before diving into the writings Tame discovers at the victim’s house. Notebook scribblings include pronouncements against “filling [writing] with allusive arcana for dimwit professors.” A short story and a play follow. Game readers should have as much fun with this clever experiment as the author seems to have had inventing it.
The October List: A Novel in Reverse by Jeffrey Deaver (Grand Central) - Thriller Award–winner Deaver delivers a clever, demanding stand-alone that moves backward in time over the span of a three-day weekend, from Sunday evening to early Friday morning. In the first chapter, office manager Gabriela McKenzie, whose six-year-old daughter, Sarah, has been kidnapped, waits in her Manhattan apartment for news from fund manager Daniel Reardon, who’s attempting to deal with kidnapper Joseph Astor. Gabriela must not only pay a $500,000 ransom but also fork over the mysterious “October List,” which belongs to her former boss Charles Prescott, the head of Prescott Investments.
Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (FSG) - From April 2007 to April 2008, Finkel, a MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, spent a total of eight months embedded in eastern Iraq with the young infantrymen of the 2-16 as their battalion fought desperately to survive and to make Bush’s troop surge a success. In 2009’s The Good Soldiers (one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year), he chronicled their harrowing day-to-day experiences—as their trust in the Iraqi people eroded, their nerves and comrades were shot, and IED after IED exploded. In this incredibly moving sequel, Finkel reconnects with some of the men of the 2-16—now home on American soil—and brings their struggles powerfully to life.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking) - The story begins with Henry Whittaker, at first poor on the fringes of England’s Kew Gardens, but in the end the richest man in Philadelphia. In more detail, the story follows Henry’s daughter, Alma. Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma’s case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose.
The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (Europa) - With his parents dead, young Jean-Marie d’Aumont is found eating beetles on a dung heap and sent to a school for the “sons of destitute nobles” in Enlightenment-era France. He likes school fine, but he didn’t mind the beetles either (brown are sour, black tasty), and as far as he’s concerned, the most notable part of his rescue is the piece of Roquefort cheese he’s given. Along with the beetles, the Roquefort sets d’Aumont on the way to a career as gastronome, sensualist, and taster, a man who can determine what a woman’s eaten recently by rolling a drop of her breast milk on his tongue.
The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel E. Lieberman (Pantheon) - In thoroughly enjoyable and edifying prose, Lieberman, professor of human evolution at Harvard, leads a fascinating journey through human evolution. He comprehensively explains how evolutionary forces have shaped the human species as we know it, from the move to bipedalism, and the changes in body parts—from hands to feet and spine—that such a change entailed, to the creation of agrarian societies, and much more.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (FSG/Faber) - A widow contends with loneliness and the subtle indignities of old age in McFarlane’s rich and suspenseful debut. At 75, Ruth Field lives alone in the Australian seaside home she once shared with her husband, Harry. Hers is a structured and solitary existence, punctuated by obligatory calls from her adult sons and the occasional sounds of an imagined jungle tiger strolling through her parlor at night. One morning, the commanding Frida Young arrives, claiming to have been sent by the government as a personal aide. This book is at once a beautifully imagined portrait of isolation and an unsettling psychological thriller.
Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian (Carolrhoda Lab) - As the title suggests, debut author Mesrobian takes aim at big topics, but what she’s most interested in is the aftermath. Used to being the new guy, 17-year-old Evan may not be much at making friends, but he’s great at finding “left-of-normal” girls to sleep with. When he gets involved with Colette, who’s been labeled a slut by her ex—Evan’s jockish jerk of a boarding school roommate—things go very wrong. Mesrobian talks about hookup culture in a way that is character-based, not agenda-driven, and showcases a teenager who grows and changes without becoming unrecognizable or saintly.
Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan by Mark I. Pinsky (John F. Blair) - This compulsively page-turning true crime narrative has it all: smart prose, a now-obscure unsolved murder that was notorious at the time, and an investigative journalist trying to pick up the trail. In 1970, the nude and hog-tied body of Nancy Morgan was found in a car in a Madison County, N.C., forest after she’d gone missing. Morgan had been working for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in the area for under a year, in an idealistic attempt to help people in the impoverished area. The initial police investigation was “a study in confusion and barely controlled jurisdictional chaos,” and local corruption (the county’s Democratic boss was said to have made Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley look like Bambi) only made matters worse.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Simon & Schuster) - Read-out-loud laughter begins by page two in Simsion’s debut novel about a 39-year-old genetics professor with Asperger’s—but utterly unaware of it—looking to solve his Wife Problem. Don Tillman cannot find love; episodes like the Apricot Ice Cream Disaster prevent so much as a second date with a woman. His devised solution is the Wife Project: dating only those who “match” his idiosyncratic standards as determined by an exacting questionnaire. His plans take a backseat when he meets Rosie, a bartender who wants him to help her determine her birth father’s identity.
Blackout by Robison Wells (HarperTeen) – Wells knows how to snare readers’ attention and hold them spellbound. In this unnerving thriller, he ingeniously connects the stories of four teens—all afflicted with a bizarre virus that has given them powers ranging from super-strength and invisibility to mind control—who live in an America under siege by terrorists intent on taking out the country’s landmarks, power grids, and populace. The catch? The terrorists are also teenagers infected with the same virus.
Mr. Wuffles! By David Wiesner (Clarion) - Mr. Wuffles, a handsome black cat with white paws and an arrogant air, couldn’t care less about the many toys purchased for his amusement. But he homes in on a metal object (imagine two doll-size colanders soldered shut), imperiling the tiny green aliens inside. Mr. Wuffles bats their spaceship about playfully, damaging it, and in a daring move, the aliens break for safety under the radiator.
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (Grove) - To open The Daylight Gate is to be thrust into an England most Americans will have trouble believing ever existed. It’s a wild, superstitious place where the king (James I, Protestant son of the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots) has minions who prosecute (and, arguably, persecute) people suspected of witchcraft or Catholicism. Winterson starts with the historical record—the 1612 Lancashire Witch Trial really happened—and adds poetry, possibility, Shakespeare, Elizabethan Magus John Dee, a sexy priest on the run, a lifelong love between two women, and best of all, her version of real-life accused witch Alice Nutter.