Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg's debut novel is as dreamlike and as filled with potential horrors as one of his movies: Photographers Naomi and Nathan are lovers and competitors, but Cronenberg establishes early on that their two plotlines will not meet for a long time. Naomi has become obsessed with a "juicy French philosophical sex-killing murder-suicide cannibal thing"—a Marxist philosopher is found dead and mutilated in her French apartment, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Nathan is in Budapest, consumed with a "controversial Hungarian breast-cancer radioactive seed implant treatment thing," and after sleeping with one of unlicensed surgeon Dr. Zoltán Molnár's patients, he contracts a rare STD that sends him to Toronto in search of the man who first discovered the disease.
Consumed has a blurb from Viggo Mortensen (though they're clearly pretty good friends) and mentions a Gauloise in the second paragraph (of course). It's also hard to ignore the publicity materials throwing around names like Kafka and Borges, and words like "definitive heir," though film critics have been saying as much for years.
With all this in mind—as well as remembering my dislike for Cronenberg's most recent film, the limo thriller Cosmopolis, based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo—I approach Consumed with equal parts delight and healthy skepticism.
Read on for an introduction to Dr. Zoltán Molnár, a character that seems ideal for Cronenberg's style of exploratory, psychological storytelling and body horror:
And now, in a very smooth segue—which Nathan thought of as particularly Hungarian—Dr. Molnár said, "Have you met our patient, Nathan? She's from Slovenia. Une belle Slave." Molnár peeked over the cloth barrier and spoke to the disconnected head with disarmingly conversational brio. "Dunja? Have you met Nathan? You signed a release form for him, and now he's here with us in the operating theater. Why don't you say hello?"
At first Nathan thought that the good doctor was teasing him; Molnár had emphasized the element of playfulness in his unique brand of surgery, and chatting with an unconscious patient would certainly qualify as Molnáresque. But to Nathan's surprise Dunja's eyes began to stutter open, she began working her tongue and lips as though she were thirsty, she took a quick little breath that was almost like a yawn.
"Ah, there she is," said Molnár. "My precious one. Hello, darling." Nathan took a step backward in his slippery paper booties in order not to impede the strange, intimate flow between patient and doctor. Could she and her surgeon be having an affair? Could this really be written off as Hungarian bedside manner? Molnár touched his latex-bound fingertips to his masked mouth, then pressed the filtered kiss to Dunja's lips. She giggled, then slipped away dreamily, then came back. "Talk to Nathan," said Molnár, withdrawing with a bow. He had things to do.
Dunja struggled to focus on Nathan, a process so electromechanical that it seemed photographic. And then she said, "Oh, yes, take pictures of me like this. It's cruel, but I want you to do that. Zoltán is very naughty. A naughty doctor. He came to interview me, and we spent quite a bit of time together in my hometown, which is"—another druggy giggle—"somewhere in Slovenia. I can't remember it."
"Ljubljana," Molnár called out from the foot of the table, where he was sorting through instruments with his colleagues.
"Thank you, naughty doctor. You know, it's your fault I can't remember anything. You love to drug me."
Nathan began to photograph Dunja's face. She turned toward the camera like a sunflower.
Will you pick up Consumed when it's available this September? What are you reading today?
Few other contemporary writers meld history and espionage quite like David Downing. Following the finale in his John Russell/Station series, which was set during World War II, Downing takes readers a bit further back in time with his exceptionally well-researched new spy thriller, Jack of Spies. The first in a new series set in 1914, this story goes beyond its World War I backdrop to explore events such as the Irish Republican movement, the Indian independence movement and much more.
Readers meet globe-trotting car salesman / British agent Jack McColl, who has just begun working for the fledgling Royal Navy intelligence. The spying gig gets complicated quickly, and not just because the world is on the brink of war. McColl is stationed in China, where he is attempting to obtain information on the Germans and the Chinese. Fleeing for his life, McColl ends up on a journey around the world, from Shanghai to San Francisco. Along the way, he falls in love with a striking American journalist, which only serves to complicate things. This is a fascinating introduction to the birth of British spy culture.
Read on for an excerpt:
Hurrying across the yard and down the alley, he emerged onto Prinz Heinrich Strasse and into a bitter wind. The sky was lightening, and a Chinese man was working his way down the street, dousing the ornate gas lamps. The side of the station building was visible up ahead, but no smoke was rising above it—if Hsu Ch'ing-lan was right about the time of departure, he'd have at least forty-five minutes to wait.
Which was obviously out of the question. He might as well give himself up as sit in the station for that long.
Perhaps he could hide somewhere close by and then surreptitiously board the train at the moment of departure.
The possibility sustained him until he reached the corner across from the station and leaned his head around for a view of the forecourt. There were several uniformed Germans in evidence, and one was looking straight at him. "Halt!" the man shouted.
McColl's first instinct, which he regretted a moment later, was to turn and run. Better a few months in jail than a bullet in the back, he thought as Prinz Heinrich Strasse stretched out before him, looking too much like a shooting range for comfort. But it was a bit late now to take a chance on his pursuers' levelheadedness. He swerved off between two buildings and down the dark alley that divided them. He reckoned he had a fifty-meter start and must have run almost that far when a crossroads presented itself. Sparing a second to look back, he found the alley behind him still empty. But as he swung right, he heard shouts in the distance, which seemed to come from up ahead.
What are you reading today?
Canadian author Stephen Galloway takes a magical tack in his follow-up to his poignant debut, The Cellist of Sarajevo. The Confabulist is the story of an ordinary man, Martin Strauss, who in his waning years feels compelled to tell the truth about his connection to Harry Houdini, the most famous magician of all time. As Martin recalls it in the prologue, he didn't just kill Houdini—he killed him twice. But how? That question keeps the reader turning the pages as the fascinating world of magic and spiritualism that took center stage around the turn of the 20th century unfolds.
Unless the magician has actual supernatural powers, unless what he does alters the workings of the known universe, then all we witness is a man pretending to be a magician. Everything else is an illusion.
This is what has always captivated me about magic—the idea that we can create something that seems both real and impossible. That we could be two things at once without fully knowing which is material and which is reflection.
What are you reading this week?
Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series—immortalized on screen as the HBO series "True Blood"—concluded in May of 2012. Like most epic, beloved series, it had a finale that was somewhat controversial, but it also left fans eager to see what Harris would turn her hand to next.
Turns out, she's moving to Texas. Midnight Crossroad is the first in a trilogy set in a the small town of Midnight, Texas, which is shaken up by the arrival of psychic Manfred Bermardo, whom longtime Harris fans will remember from the Harper Connelly mysteries. Skinny, pale and pierced, Manfred is the sort of person who might stand out in a place like midnight, but what really worries the people of Midnight is his profession. After all, a small town is the perfect place to start over if you have a past . . . and you can't hide secrets from a psychic.
Fiji's lips tightened. "Listen, I know you're not a computer person, but Google his name, okay? You know how to Google, don't you?
"I just put my lipst together and blow?" Bobo said.
Fiji caught the reference, but she wasn't in the mood for jollity. "Bobo, he's the real deal." She wriggled uneasily in her hard wooden rocker. "He'll know stuff."
"You saying I have secrets he might reveal?" Bobo was still smiling, but the fun had gone out of his eyes. He combed his longish blond hair back with both hands.
"We all have secrets," Fiji said.
"Even you, Feej?"
She shrugged. "A few."
"You think I do, too?" He regarded her steadily.
She met his eyes. "I know you do. Otherwise, why would you be here?"
What are you reading this week?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read an interview with Charlaine Harris about book 10 in the Southern Vampire series.
Erin McCahan's second novel for teen readers, Love and Other Foreign Words, would've been an easy favorite for my 12-year-old self. It stars an over-analytical, brilliant 17-year-old named Josie who can't keep her hilarious and too-astute commentary (and enormous vocabulary) to herself—and thank goodness she can't. The precocious teen approaches the world around her as an outsider, observing and translating the communication styles of others. The pattern and familiarty of language—from math to the "language of beautiful girls"—make sense to her, unlike the language of romantic love, an area where Josie's brillance offers no insight. So when her older sister Kate plans to marry the insufferable Geoff, Josie is determined to break them up.
Naturally, this doesn't go as planned, and Josie ends up learning a bit more about love than she expected. Read on for an excerpt, when she first starts considering the possibility of falling in love and makes a list of her potential guy's necessary critera:
"Okay. He has to be older than I am. And taller. Preferably handsome but not so gorgeous that he knows it. And smart in a way that makes me just want to sit and listen to him talk."
"About what?" she asks.
"Just—everything interesting. We have to be able to have marathon conversations. But we also need to be comfortable being quiet together." He will appreciate the value of self-possessed silence and practice it judiciously, I want to add, but don't.
"He should play some instrument too," I say. "Preferable guitar or piano, but I wouldn't mind a woodwind. Bagpipes would be my first choice, but percussion is out of the questions."
"Bag—? Josie," Sophie says.
"Well, he has to be able to do things I can't do that don't drive me crazy so that I stay interested."
"Like walking a straight line without falling over?" Stu asks.
"Yeah. Like that," I agree, pointing at Stu and shaming a smile.
"Stop listening to us," Sophie orders him. "Just go back to driving."
"You realize I haven't stopped driving," he says.
"Be quiet," she says. To me, she asks, "What else?"
There's more. There's lots more.
He will never ask me to eat gray, slimy, gelatinous food nor will he tousle my hair. Not that he could tousle it since I wear it daily in a neat and tidy ponytail, but there are times—showering, blow-drying—when my hair is, in fact, tousle-able. I'd prefer it if he just never touches my head or touches it only with my permission, which I will grant on special occasions such as Arbor Day, poor, neglected holiday that it is, but never on my birthday.
What are you reading this week?
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann (translated by Barbara J. Haveland)
Other Press • $15.95 • ISBN 9781590516676
published April 8, 2014
Norwegian author Linn Ullmann's The Cold Song was a hit with readers and critics when it was first published in Norway in 2011. Lucky for us, an English edition (translated by Barbara J. Haveland) has just arrived stateside. Set in an elegant house on the coast of Norway, the novel takes a peek into the lives of married couple Siri and Jon, and their family. Siri is a super-busy and successful chef with her own restaurant to run. Jon is a novelist struggling with his current book.
The Cold Song doesn't so much unfold as it revolves, around the sudden disappearance of Milla, the young and beautiful summer nanny hired to take care of Siri and Jon's two children. The real "meat" of the novel rests in its keen and unflinching exposure of the inner lives of its characters, revealed in brief spurts of narrative that shift back and forth in time. The result is riveting. Here's an excerpt:
Jon Dreyer had fooled everyone.
He was in the attic room at Mailund, that dilapidated white turn-of-the-century house, where the Dreyer-Brodal family spent their summers. He was looking at Milla.
The room was small and bright and dusty with a view of the meadow and the woods and of Milla picking flowers with his children. His wife, she of the asymmetric back (a little kink in her waist, that's all), owned a restaurant in the center of town, in the old bakery. Siri was her name.
Siri was at work.
He was at work too.
His work was right here. He had his desk, his computer, this is where he was left in peace. He had a book to finish.
But he was looking at Milla.
Will you be adding The Cold Song to your TBR list? What are you reading this week?
What do you get when you mix the claustrophobia of Room with the psychological suspense of Before I Go to Sleep and a dash of The Road? Perhaps something that approximates Isla Morley's suspenseful second novel, Above. On her way home from the annual Horse Thieves Picnic, 16-year-old Blythe is kidnapped by Dobbs Hordin, the mild-mannered librarian in their small town of Eudora, Kansas. Dobbs tells Blythe he's doing this for her own good: The world is about to end, and his underground bunker is the only safe place. Is he lying to her? Or is he truly a prophet?
With the shallowest of breaths, I ask, "How long have you been planning this?"
This is when he's supposed to say, "Planned what? I haven't planned anything." This is when he's supposed to say, "Don't be crazy—I'm not going to keep you."
This is what he says: "The part regarding you, about two years, give or take. All the rest, eighteen years."
"How long . . .?"
"Well, I just told you."
I shake my head. "How long are you going to keep me here?"
He shrugs, looks away.
It must be asked. "Forever?"
The monster sucks me all the way down to the bottom of the silo. It is a long way down, just as Dobbs said, but I still manage to hear every last word. "We are the Remnant, Blythe. After the End, you and I will rise up together. You and me—we will one day seed the new world."
What are you reading this week?
My Wish List by Grégoire Delacourt
Penguin • $15 • ISBN 9780143124658
On sale March 25
Whether you actually play or not, you have probably imagined, just once, how your life could change if you won the lottery. It's also common to wonder, at midlife, how the life you have built measures up to the life you dreamed about when you were just starting out. French novelist Grégoire Delacourt takes this premise for his new novel, My Wish List, which was a #1 bestseller in France. His heroine, Jocelyne, owns a fabric shop and is happy with her 21-year marriage and her two children. But she can't help but think about how her life falls short of the life she imagined when she was in school.
Then Jocelyne wins 18 million euros in the lottery, and has the ability to make any dream come true. Faced with the reality of changing her life, she starts to wonder: Does she really want to?
Being rich means seeing all that's ugly and having the arrogance to think you can change things. All you have to do is pay for it.
But I'm not as rich as all that. I just happen to have a cheque for eighteen million five hundred and forty-seven thousand, three hundred and one euros and twenty-eight centimes, folded eight times and hidden inside a shoe. All I have is the temptation. A possible new life. A new house. A new TV set. Lots of new things.
But nothing really different.
Later, I rejoin my husband in the hotel restaurant. He has ordered a bottle of wine. We drink to each other. Let's hope nothing changes and we go on as we are, he says. Nothing really different.
What are you reading this week?
Ooh, creepy moms and their even creepier children.
It doesn't get more psychological than Laura Kasischke's new thriller, Mind of Winter. Holly Judge wakes on Christmas morning, seized with paranoia and convinced that "something had followed them home from Siberia" when she and her husband adopted their Russian daughter Tatiana 13 years ago.
When Holly's husband leaves the house to pick up his parents from the airport, a snowstorm traps Holly and teenager Tatiana together in the house—just the two of them. As the day progresses, Holly's paranoia skyrockets. Kasischke, a National Books Critics Circle Award-winning poet, slowly draws readers into this twisty, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and readers discover layers upon layers of guilt and denial as reality gives way to the tricks of the mind.
From the opening chapter, it's clear that Holly is not a narrator we can trust. She comes off a little (OK, very) crazy, but we still want to believe that she hasn't completely lost her marbles. She might not be particularly likable, but once you get used to Kasischke's writing style, Mind of Winter is nearly impossible to put down. Read on for an excerpt:
Something had followed them home from Russia!
It was the explanation for so many things!
The cat, crawling off. Her back legs, her tail.
And her husband. The bump on the back of his hand, like a tiny third fist—a homunculus's!—growing. They'd said it was benign, but how could such a thing be benign? They'd said to ignore it, but how? Something was bearing fruit inside her husband, or trying to claw its way out. How were they to ignore it?
(Although, to be fair to Dr. Fujimura, they had learned to ignore it, and it had eventually stopped growing, just as she'd said it would.)
And Aunt Rose. How her language had changed. How she'd begun to speak in a foreign language. How Holly'd had to stop making her calls because she couldn't stand it anymore, and how angry her cousins had been, saying She loved to talk to you. You were her favorite. You abandoned her when she was dying.
And then the hens. Ganging up on the other one, on the hen she'd so stupidly, so cavalierly, named Sally. Six weeks, and then—
Don't think about Sally. Never think of that hen and her horrible name again.
And the water stain over the dining room table in the shape of a shadowy face—although they could never find anywhere that water would have seeped through their skintight, warranty-guaranteed roof. The roof company men had stood around in their filthy boots and stared up at it, refusing to take any blame.
Also, without explanation, the wallpaper had curled away in the bathroom. Just that one edge. You could never do anything to keep it in place. They'd tried every adhesive on the market, but the daisy wallpaper would stick fast for exactly three days and nights before it peeled away again.
Holly needed to write down these things, this evidence! The cat, Aunt Rose, the bump on her husband's hand, the hens, the water stain, the wallpaper—along with the clue provided to her by the dream:
Something had followed them home from Russia.
Who's up for some creepy reading? Anyone else going to check out Mind of Winter?
Jean Hanff Korelitz's You Should Have Known is so full of smoldering suspense that I devoured all 450 pages of it in two sittings. Grace Reinhart Sachs has the perfect life: a thriving career as a psychologist; her first book—a relationship-focused, self-help book called, you guessed it, You Should Have Known—on the verge of publication with lots of pre-pub buzz; Henry, her sweet, intelligent 12-year-old son, who attends an exclusive Manhattan prep school, her own alma mater; a comfortable "classic six" on the Upper East Side, the very apartment she grew up in; and Jonathan, her saintly, charming, pediatric oncologist husband of 18 years.
Of course, we all know that things aren't always what they seem from the outside, but sometimes they aren't what they seem from the inside, either . . . as Grace soon finds out. A violent death sends her community reeling, but the shocking crime is only a prelude to the gut-wrenching, gob-smacking truths about to be exposed in this supremely entertaining page-turner. In this excerpt from the beginning of the book—to whet your appetite—Grace is being photographed for a Vogue article about her forthcoming book:
Grace leaned forward. The lens seemed so close, only inches away. She wondered if she could look through it and see his eye on the other side; she peered deep into it, but there was only the glassy dark surface and the thunderous clicking noise; no one was in there. Then she wondered if she would feel the same if it were Jonathan holding the camera, but she actually couldn't remember a single time when Jonathan had held a camera, Click, let alone a camera this close to her face. She was the default photographer in her family, though with none of the bells and whistles currently on display in her little office, and with none of Ron's evident skill, and with no passion at all for the form. She was the one who took the birthday pictures and the camp visiting-weekend pictures, Click, the photo of Henry asleep in his Beethoven costume, and Click, the photo of him playing chess with his grandfather, Click, her own favorite picture of Jonathan, minues after finishing a Memorial Day road race up at the lake, with a cup of water thrown over his face and an expression of unmistakable pride and just distinguishable lust. Or was it only in retrospect, Grace thought, Click, that she had always seen lust in that picture, because later, running the numbers, she had realized that Henry was about to be conceived, just hours after it was taken. After Jonathan had eaten a bit and stood for a long time under a hot shower, after he had taken her to her own childhood bed and, Click, saying her name again and again, and she remembered feeling so happy, and, Click, so utterly lucky, and not because they were in the act of making the child she wanted so badly, but because at that specific moment even the possibility of that did not matter to her, nothing but him and, Click, them and this, and now the memory of this, rushing up to the surface: the eye and the other eye through the lense that must be looking back.
"That's nice," Ron said, lowering the camera. Now she could see his eye again: brown, after all, and utterly unremarkable. Grace nearly laughed in embarrassment. "No, it was good," he said, misunderstanding. "And you're done."
Done, indeed. Will you be checking out You Should Have Known? What are you reading this week?