Religion is a motivating force in the lives of millions of people, for good or for ill. In these three books, characters’ religious beliefs spur the action, influence major life decisions—or leave them with at least a shred of dignity under dire circumstances.
The first thing you may think when reading the opening pages of Stephen L. Carter’s engrossing Back Channel is, “What in the devil is going on here?” It’s 1962 and we’re at the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy is in a townhouse with a 19-year-old African-American girl, but not for the reason you think. It seems that this young lady is the key to stopping the world from becoming a glowing, radioactive ember in the darkness of space. You can’t be blamed if your first reaction is bemusement.
Let’s not mince words: George and Irene are weirdos. George is a teacher of astronomy who has visions of ancient gods and goddesses. Irene is an astrophysicist who discovers tiny, purple black holes and doesn’t believe in love or anything else that can’t be measured with very precise instruments. George, on the other hand, longs for love like a consumptive Victorian heroine. They’re both from Toledo and, according to the powers that be, are supposed to end up together. The question Lydia Netzer’s second novel asks is ‘How?’
Someone is setting fire to the houses of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, in Sue Miller’s latest novel, but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that Francesca “Frankie” Rowley has returned from a long sojourn in Africa as an aid worker and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Besides, the thing that lights her fire is Bud Jacobs, the local newspaper editor whose life is just as up in the air as hers is. The two launch a passionate affair even as everyone else’s summer home is being torched.
Literature is replete with unreliable narrators, but you’ve never encountered an unreliable narrator like the one in Emma Healey’s mournful and luminous debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing. Maud Horsham isn’t remotely evil. She’s not pathologically dishonest, nor does she have some deep, dark secret to hide. Her unreliability comes simply from the fact that she’s elderly and her memory is failing fast. On top of this, she’s absolutely sure that her friend Elizabeth is missing.
Not quite as creepy as the Overlook Hotel, but with its own history of unpleasantness, the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York dominates the pages of Kate Racculia’s quirky new novel, Bellweather Rhapsody. Here, the really Bad Thing happened in Room 712, some 15 years before the main action of the book, which takes place in 1997. While the tragedy does haunt the hotel, it is in a realistic and not supernatural way, right down to the monster blizzard that socks everyone in for the weekend.
It’s good to know that a female protagonist doesn’t have to be “nice” in order to be compelling. In Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, returning Iraqi war vet Lauren Clay is anything but nice. Indeed, the reader might be tempted, at first, to call her hateful. But as you read on, it dawns on you that the Lauren who enlisted as a soldier because of the fat signing bonus that would keep the wolves away from the door of her impoverished family isn’t the Lauren who has returned. The word that kept going through this reviewer’s head was “revenant.”
If you’re very observant and know a little something about the wilder shores of human genetics, then you may be able to figure out the big mystery of Carol Cassella’s new novel by, oh, page 260 or so. Oh yes, the title also gives one a hint as to what’s going on with one of the book’s well-drawn characters. But we should start at the beginning.
Moses Ebewesit Odidi Oganda is killed in the prologue of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s first novel, Dust. From there on, everything falls to pieces.
We’re in 2007 Kenya, though the country has been tormented ever since the Brits decided to graft it onto their Empire. Add to this the Mau Mau uprisings, myriad political assassinations and the mandatory forgetting of the disappearances and torture of thousands of men, women and children. As one of the characters contemplates in this grief-stricken book, the three languages spoken in Kenya are “English, Kiswahili and Silence.”
In Richard Power’s latest novel, Orfeo, the last great problem for Peter Els begins when his old, beloved dog kicks the bucket. The poor dog’s death is messy—killed by his ex-wife, in his amateur biology lab. It’s present-day America, and a layperson messing with Petri dishes of weird bacteria is a no-no. Before Els knows it, men in hazmat suits come and confiscate some of his stuff. He goes out for his morning run, and when he comes back folks from what looks like Homeland Security have come to confiscate the rest of it. In response, Els does what he’s been doing most of his life—he runs.