A beehive is a place of order, control, maybe even oppression. In Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, Flora 717 is a sterile worker bee from the lowest caste of an orchard hive. Like her sisters, she is bound by the motto to accept, obey and serve. But during a period of famine and environmental crisis, Flora is asked to take on new tasks: first, feeding the newborns in the hive’s nursery and then becoming a forager, flying freely in search of pollen and nectar. Her size and strength make her a formidable worker, and she proves to be a quick learner.
Every now and then, a reader stumbles across a debut novelist and thinks to herself: What took you so long? Bret Anthony Johnston—current Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 following the publication of his 2004 short story collection—is such an author. His first novel is so spellbinding, so moving, that one’s only complaint is that we had to wait 10 years to read it.
Writer Kaui Hart Hemmings had a lot to live up to with her second novel: Her best-selling, polished debut, The Descendants, was made into an Oscar-winning film starring George Clooney. With The Possibilities, she delivers on her early promise while making a striking departure setting-wise, moving from the tropical islands of her native Hawaii to the snowy mountains of Colorado.
Joshua Ferris, who previously examined the culture of the contemporary workplace (Then We Came to the End) and family life (The Unnamed) turns his attention to social media in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. At first, the novel seems to be a satiric look at the way Facebook and Twitter could be used to hijack a person’s identity. But as the main character heads toward an existential crisis, it is clear that Ferris is also exploring how technology both connects us and reinforces our isolation.
Our author can’t seem to make up her mind on a fairly important issue: Is she “Mary Rickert” or just plain “M. Rickert”? Under the abbreviated M., she has published a set of haunting short stories considered to be among the very best of fantasy. With The Memory Garden, her first novel, she makes her bid to enter the literary mainstream, enlarging her name and her imaginative landscape in one grand stroke.
In The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson unfurls a wide, whimsical net that readers will relish being caught up in. Things go from just bad to comically worse to enjoyably ridiculous in this tongue-in-cheek tale. From South Africa to Sweden, from latrine cleanup to atom bomb cover-up, from pillows to presidents and potato farms, Jonasson’s wittily constructed web intertwines historical figures and facts with the exploits of a decidedly less plausible (but more entertaining) cast of characters.
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, May 2014
Paris may be known as the City of Light, but in Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, it serves as the backdrop for some of the darkest events of human history—and for an exhilarating new novel from writer Francine Prose.
Chestnut Street in Dublin, Ireland, is shaped like a horseshoe, with a “big bit of grass in the middle beside some chestnut trees,” and “thirty small houses in a semicircle.” These houses are inhabited by scores of fascinating human beings, however ordinary, who figure in these stories by Maeve Binchy, written between novels. Now, after her death in 2012 at 72, they are finally being published.
Sicilian wax sculptor Gaetano Zumbo left his hometown of Siracusa, Italy, at age 19, amid rumors of betrayal and patricide. On the run from his past, he made his way across Italy and changed his name to Zummo, all the while earning acclaim for his wax sculptures of human bodies. He eventually stopped in Florence to join the Medici court at the request of the Grand Duke himself, Cosimo III, whose unreciprocated love for his wife has left him tortured—and leads him to make a strange request of the celebrated sculptor.
Simon Wroe is a former chef, so it’s no surprise that he set his debut novel in a kitchen. What is surprising about Chop Chop, though, is how little Wroe lets this fiendish little book get bogged down in the details of its setting. It’s very much about the chaotic life of a kitchen, but this darkly comic narrative covers so much more, and the result is addictively entertaining.