Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
Crown • $24 • ISBN 9780385348997
Published January 14, 2014
New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, follows a garbage man turned assassin-for-hire known simply as Spademan, and he makes for quite an intriguing anti-hero. As one of the few remaining residents in a near-future, post-bomb New York City, Spademan finds himself at a crossroads when he decides not to follow through with the assassination of a wealthy evangelist's young daughter.
Here, Spademan introduces himself in the first pages of this edgy, noir-soaked thriller:
I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.
I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.
And that’s it.
A reporter buddy once told me that in newspapers, when you leave out some important piece of information at the beginning of a story, they call it burying the lede.
So I just want to make sure I don’t bury the lede.
Though it wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve buried.
It might sound hard but it’s all too easy now. This isn’t the same city anymore. Half-asleep and half-emptied-out, especially this time of morning. Light up over the Hudson. The cobblestones. At least I have it to myself.
These buildings used to be warehouses. Now they’re castles. Tribeca, a made-up name for a made-up kingdom. Full of sleeping princes and princesses, holed up on the highest floors. Arms full of tubes. Heads full of who knows. And they’re not about to come down here, not at this hour, on the streets, with the carcasses, with the last of the hoi polloi.
What are you reading this week?
The first in an anticipated seven book series, The Bone Season is a fast-paced, suspenseful novel set in a divergent future where the struggles of one teen could affect the survival of her world.
It's 2059, and the major British cities are under the control of the Scion. Paige Mahoney works in Scion London, and because she is a clairvoyant, also known as a voyeur, her every breath is an act of treason. Paige is captured and imprisoned by an otherworldly race which abuses the power of voyeurs for their army. In a world unlike our own, Paige will have to learn to control her powers in order to escape.
Be sure to read our full review here and check out the book trailer below from Bloomsbury.
Will you be reading The Bone Season?
Throughout her murder trial, Noa P. Singleton never spoke a single word in her own defense. Ten years later, Noa is six months away from her execution when she is visited by her victim's mother, who offers to change Noa's sentence to life in prison in exchange for only one thing, but that is the one thing that Noa will never do: tell her story.
In her debut novel, Elizabeth Silver has created an emotionally striking story that will cause readers to reflect on their own decisions. An engrossing rumination on the search for truth, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton will leave readers looking deep within at their own truths and deceptions.
For more about the literary psychological thriller, check out our full review and watch the book trailer below from Headline Books.
See what else is going on during Private Eye July!
On a trip to Nantucket in 1996, Amy Brill was intrigued by the story of a 19th-century young Quaker girl named Maria Mitchell, who pursued a life of math and science even though university training was not open to her.
Inspired by Mitchell, Amy Brill's debut novel The Movement of Stars chronicles the 19th-century life of Hannah Gardner Price. Much like Mitchell, Hannah scans the skies each night in hopes of discovering a comet, which would allow her to win the scientific acclaim that has so far eluded her as a woman.
Interwoven with Hannah's struggle to be recognized as an astronomer is her love affair with Isaac Martin, a young man whom she takes on as a student before developing a deeper relationship that threatens her standing in the community and changes her beliefs about work and love.
Read Amy Brill's behind-the-book essay where she explains how she crafted fiction from Maria Mitchell's remarkable life story. "To get to the heart of that girl, on the roof, searching the night sky for something that would change her life, I was going to have to invent her, and the people around her as well: friends and foes, her loved ones and her beloved, " Brill explains.
Will you read The Movement of Stars? What are you reading today?
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670026005
Published March 21, 2013
In vignette-style chapters, our unnamed narrator wrestles with the misery of writing and his strange relationships to both his friends and to fiction. He never gains any sort of depth, and neither do his supporting players. He does makes small transformations, but his trajectory moves from one unfortunately typical personality to the next—first naive, then intolerably pretentious, etc. It toys with some Fitzgeraldian themes (rich people) with characters that feel a little Fear and Loathing or Withnail and I—but its postmodern stab doesn't really land.
What this book does have going for it are some interesting ruminations on the scope and purpose of storytelling, as well as the role of the storyteller. Ultimately, in the Leopard world, storytelling is just a series of lies and plagiarism:
I'd been pondering my chosen vocation—to write fiction and to slant the truth—to tell lies, for a living. But I wasn't good enough at it. No one believed me. And then my mind wandered back to little Deshawn, sitting at his desk avoiding the roaches, filling in those little Scantron bubbles with his yellow number-two pencil. He'd said that taking tests was like evolution in action—only instead of the brightest and most capable students suriving, it seemed that victory fell to those who could scam the test, learn the rhythms of the answers, the tenor of trick questions, take educated guesses, and budget their time. The teachers had stopped teaching science and English and started teaching them how to pass the test. Was it gaming the system? Or was it an evolutionary necessity?
The real novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real. You hold your breath as Raskolnikov approaches his neighbor with a raised ax. You weep when no one comes to Gatsby's funeral. And when you realize you are being so well fooled, you love the author all the more for it. Up in front of my students each day as Professor Timothy Wallace, I discovered the thrill of getting away with the manufacturing of reality. I had a way not only to pay the bills, but to become a better purveyor of make-believe. I had put myself into an evolutionary situation wherein my failure to deceive would result in disaster. Wherein I'd be forced to risk everything. Where I'd be rewarded for my successes at dishonesty. And the reward was that I barely though of my old life anymore.
The writing is vivid, and the characters, while flat, don't bore. For readers who like to consider the construction of fiction, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards could make a good fit as a study of what does and does not work.
What are you reading today?
I am so excited to share news of The Plum Tree with readers of The Book Case. This is a historical novel by debut author Ellen Marie Wiseman, a first-generation German American who was inspired by her mother's experiences in Germany during World War II. The book is on sale now.
In the novel, Christine lives in a German village and works for the Bauermans, a wealthy Jewish family. She falls in love with son Isaac Bauerman—but their lives are complicated in very painful ways when Isaac is arrested and sent to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany. But Christine is desperate to be with him as she's left on the home front.
Ellen's publicist shared with me why the author had to tell this story:
Ellen grew up listening to her German relatives tell tales of poverty, hunger, bombings, and constant fear—a time when the country was made up of women, children and the elderly struggling to stay alive while the men were drafted and sent off to fight. In writing the book, Ellen’s hope was to put a face on the countless destitute German women and children who lived and died under Hitler's regime, most often as victims of their government’s actions.
Here, you can see how the author's family history inspired the book. These are her own family photos and the captions and explanations are in her voice.
This photo was taken to send to Opa while he was off fighting on the Eastern Front. At one point during the four years Opa was gone, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. For two years my mother and her family had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day. Opa and his stories were the inspiration behind Christine’s father in The Plum Tree.
For years, Oma rang the bells every day to call the farmers in from the fields for Mittag Essen (the midday meal); every evening for prayer; and every Sunday morning for church service. During the war, the army took the bells down to be melted into bullets, a bomb hit the steeple, and the congregation, afraid to assemble without fear of being labeled traitors, met secretly in their homes. In The Plum Tree, this is the church were Christine attempts to expose an SS camp guard during the first service after the war was over.
My aunt’s face is bandaged because she tried to swallow fire after watching a fire-eater at a carnival. In The Plum Tree, Christine remembers her sister, Maria, doing the same thing.
My mother is wearing one of her best dresses; the rest were made from printed cotton sheets. The tall door behind them led to the goats’ indoor enclosure, which shared a wall with my great-grandparents’ first floor bedroom. The neighbor’s house (to the right of the tall door) shares a roof with my mother’s childhood home. This is the setting for Christine’s home in The Plum Tree.
In M.L. Stedman's debut novel The Light Between Oceans, a husband and wife are faced with a choice: to keep an abandoned baby as their own or to go to the local authorities to find the truth, ruining their chance at parenthood. Intriguingly, the author does not lobby for a right or wrong answer and instead explores the consequences of their life-altering decision.
In a Q&A with BookPage, Stedman explains:
I don’t think there are any “bad guys” in the book, just some poor choices made on the basis of imperfect information or perspective (i.e. the lot of the standard-issue human)... I didn’t want there to be any “safe place” in the book where the reader could relax and say, “I’m completely sure of what the right thing to do is here.”
The book trailer, narrated by Stedman, speaks further about the questions of right and wrong the author is asking:
Will you check out The Light Between Oceans? What would you do in the couple's situation?
I recently interviewed author Jon Steele about his debut novel, The Watchers. It's a smart, literary thriller with a supernatural twist. Set in Lausanne, Switzerland, the story centers on Marc Rochat, the bell ringer of the cathedral in Lausanne who is drawn in to a series of murders in the city. I asked Steele about his experience of visiting the real-life cathedral for the first time, when he came in contact with the bell ringer.
Steele went on to write hundreds of words on this haunting meeting, a story that I've excerpted here. Below, you can read about the man who rings the bells marking the time in Lausanne--and how he inspired an exciting new trilogy.
For more on The Watchers and Jon Steele--who is also an award-winning cameraman and has written a memoir about working in combat zones--read this Q&A on BookPage.com.
The bell ringer of Lausanne
guest post by Jon Steele
First time I saw the cathedral. Spring of 2001. I was a news cameraman/editor for ITN [Independent Television News]. I’d been working the Intifada on the West Bank and Gaza for six straight months. I was pretty well shot. I went to Lausanne for R&R, stayed at the Lausanne Palace. I didn’t leave the hotel, but I saw the cathedral from my room. It didn’t look like much. More like a grey lump of falling-down rock than a cathedral.
Wasn’t till a couple years later, after I quit TV news. Long story. I was in Baghdad the day the war started. I’d been living there four months. I decided journalism had lost its mind. Tens of thousands of innocent people were about to die. This war was bullshit, and TV was helping Bush and Blair sell it. I wanted no part of it. After 20-some years of covering the sharper end of news, I put my camera on the ground and quit. I wanted no part of this one. I drove out of Iraq as American bombs fell.
I went to the south of France, hid out in a small village for a year. No TV, no radio, no phone. I took long walks in quiet places and wondered, “OK, now what do I do?”
I wrote a novel called Saddamistan: A Story of Love and War. It was my take on what went down in Baghdad leading up to the war. (It’s still in my desk drawer.) After a year of that, I passed through Lausanne again, checked back into the Lausanne Palace.
One night, me and a mate had dinner on the town. Driving back to the hotel, he pointed to the cathedral. There was a light moving around the belfry. My mate told me it was le guet, the guy who spent his nights in the belfry and called the hour over Lausanne. Once upon a time, all cathedrals had such a man in the belfry, to watch for fires and invaders. One by one they disappeared, except for Lausanne. There’s been a man in the belfry, circling the tower with a lantern and calling the hour, from the day the cathedral was consecrated in the 13th century.
I ended up at the foot of the belfry tower, that very night, bottle of wine in hand. Here’s how it works. You go to the cathedral, stand there and call up, “Renato!” Then this shadow of a figure appears at the railings. He lowers down a key on a 300-foot piece of string. You take the key, Renato pulls up the string. You unlock the tower door, go in, lock the door behind you. You wind your way up the stone steps. It’s dark, the air is close. Then you feel the fresh, night air drifting down, you round the steps one more time and you’re standing on the lower balcony of the belfry. Then this little guy in a black floppy hat, carrying a lantern, steps from the shadows of Clémance (the execution bell) . . . and he says, “Hello, it’s only me.”
That’s how I met Renato Haüsler, le guet de la cathedrale de Lausanne. He’s got a funny shaped room between the bells; it looks like something out of a Tim Burton film. It’s where Renato sleeps. There’s a small bed, a small desk. The room is lit with candles. Renato has candles on the brain. He gave me a tour of the belfry. I met all the bells. The biggest is Marie-Madeleine. She rings the hour. There are five more bells in the upper belfry. Renato took us up to say hello. Along the way he told me about the thousand-year-old timbers of the carpentry, the gigantic tinker toy arrangement of ancient timbers from the primeval forests of Lausanne that house the bells. We went back to his room, had a glass and he told me about his vision. He wanted to light the nave of the cathedral with thousands of candles so people could see the place for what it was.
There was a winching sound and the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life exploded through the belfry. It was Marie-Madeleine; she was calling the hour. The entire belfry trembled. Renato re-lit the candle in his lantern. Told me to follow him. He walked to the east balcony, waited for Marie’s voice to fade. He held his lantern into the night and called, “C’est le guet! Il a sonne douze, il a sonne douze!” (“This is the watcher! It is 12 o’clock, it is 12 o’clock!”) He did the same to the north, west and south. And facing south, there was Lake Geneva, the lights of Évian on the far shore, the shadows of the Alps rising to the stars.
The wheels in my head starting spinning.
Last of his kind lives in a bell tower in a grey falling-down lump of a cathedral. He’s strange, he wears a black floppy hat, carries a lantern . . . he’s got candles on the brain.
There was a story. I just had to find it.
Thank you, Jon! Readers: Will you check out The Watchers? It's on sale this week. Read more about it on BookPage.com.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812992977
on sale June 26, 2012
The story is about Julia, a sixth-grader who lives in suburban California. She's preoccupied with fitting in at school, buying her first bra, talking to her crush—and something that has global consequences. Julia wakes up one morning, and the earth has started to rotate at a slower pace. At first, it's just a few minutes added on to every day, but before long, days and nights are twice as long as they used to be. Crops can't grow and gravity is messed up. People are getting sick from sunburns, and electricity isn't consistent. World leaders insist on keeping to a 24-hour schedule, but some "real timers" try to stay awake during sunlight and sleep when it's dark, keeping up with circadian rhythms.
This is a tender and beautiful coming-of-age story with a chilling sci-fi twist—except "the slowing" feels hauntingly plausible. Aimee Bender calls the novel "at once a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy," and I completely agree. Here's an excerpt that describes some of the consequences of "the slowing."
Five thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it's the darkness that haunts us most, that the night is when the human mind is most apt to be disturbed. But dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not the darkness that tampered most with our moods. It was the light.
As the days stretched further, we faced a new phenomenon: Certain clock days began and ended before the sun ever rose—or else began and ended before the sun ever set.
Scientists had long been aware of the negative effects of prolonged daylight on human brain chemistry. Rates of suicide, for example, had always been highest above the Arctic Circle, where self-inflicted gunshot wounds surged every summer, the continuous daylight driving some people mad.
As our days neared forty-eight hours, those of us living in the lower latitudes began to suffer similarly from the relentlessness of light.
Studies soon documented an increase in impulsiveness during the long daylight periods. It had something to do with serotonin; we were all a little crazed. Online gambling increased steadily throughout every stretch of daylight, and there is some evidence that major stock trades were made more often on light days than on dark ones. Rates of murder and other violent crimes also spiked while the sun was in our hemisphere—we discovered very quickly the dangers of the white nights.
We took more risks. Desires were less checked. Temptation was harder to resist. Some of us made decisions we might not otherwise have made.
BookPage contributor Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for more than 20 years. In a guest post, he reflects on his March cover story interview with debut novelist Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife.
By the time I came to ask it, it was a silly question, an embarrassing question.
But I had read Téa Obreht’s abbreviated bio: She had been born in Belgrade in 1985. Her family left in 1992 as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia heated up. They moved to Cyprus, then Egypt and then finally came to the United States when she was 12. That meant she had been in the country just a little over half her life.
I had also read Obreht’s remarkable first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. It is set in an unnamed country in the Balkans after a prolonged civil war. Of the many things that impressed me about the book one of the most prominent was its powerful evocation of place. Not simply in a travelogue sort of way—though the landscape is vividly rendered—but in a deeper, more elusive, more heartfelt way, as though Obreht had captured the very essence or spirit of the place.
So I wondered as I finished the book, did Obreht see herself as an American writer or as a writer in exile?
Then there was our conversation. I learned that the family had moved to Palo Alto, that she went as an undergraduate to the University of Southern California. And there was that lilt of a California 20-something in her voice. Her humor, her intonation—as American as apple pie. So I hesitated.
“Oh, go ahead,” she said.
So I asked Obreht if she felt she was an American writer.
Her response was immediate: “Yes. Definitely.”
And what did that mean?
“Oh gosh, that’s a question,” she said. And after a pause she continued. “The fact that I am able to call myself a writer at all, the fact that I am able to be a writer at all makes me an American writer. To be in an environment where one can without hesitation—without constriction or fear—write about anything—one’s past, one’s projected future, whatever you want—is the luxury of American writers. And in that regard, I am an American writer. And very happy about it.”
What’s that they say about no silly questions?
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.