Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
Del Rey • $25 • ISBN 9780345522863
published March 6, 2012
Since the 2006 publication of her first novel in the Temeraire series, His Majesty's Dragon, Naomi Novik's star has risen quickly in the world of science fiction and fantasy. The Temeraire books (named for the dragon whose exploits they follow) have earned praise from such luminaries as Stephen King and director Peter Jackson, who has optioned the series for a possible film adaptation. There's no doubt they would make terrific movies, with their vivid characters (both human and dragon), their exciting battle scenes and their lush and varied historical settings.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, have traveled across the globe in the service of Britain's Royal Aerial Corps, from England to China to Turkey to the southern tip of Africa to, most recently, Australia (for reasons that I will refrain from revealing, so as not to spoil readers new to the series). Now, in Crucible of Gold, they are being sent to South America to negotiate with the Portuguese royal family in Brazil.
In this excerpt, the dragons Temeraire and Iskierka display their very dragonish love of treasure and fine things:
"I cannot say much for a pavilion without a roof," Iskierka said, with quite unbearable superiority, "and anyway you cannot bring it along, so even if it were finished, it would not be of any use. I do not think anyone can disagree I have used my time better."
Temeraire could disagree, very vehemently, but when Iskierka had chivvied a few of her crew—newly brought on in Madras—into bringing up the sea-chests from below, and throwing open the lids to let the sunlight in upon the heaped golden vessels, and even one small casket of beautifully cut gemstones, he found his arguments did ring a little hollow. It seemed the Allegiance had in her lumbering way still managed to get into flying distance of not one but three lawful prizes, on the way to Madras, and another one on the way back, when Hammond's urgent need of a transport to carry Temeraire to Rio had necessitated her abrupt about-face and return.
"It does not seem very fair," Temeraire said to Laurence, "when one considers how much sea-journeying we have done, without even one French merchantman coming anywhere in reach; and I do not find that Riley expects we should meet others on the way to Brazil, either."
"No, but we may meet a whaler or two, if you like," Laurence said absently. Temeraire was not mollified; whales were perfectly tolerable creatures, very good eating when not excessively large, but no-one could compare them to cartloads of gems and gold; and as for ambergris, he did not care for the scent.
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
Algonquin • $24.95 • ISBN 9781565129238
Published June 12, 2012
The novel takes place in 1948 in Brownsburg, Virginia. This is a small town where "no crime has ever been committed" and where people start to talk when a stranger, Charlie Beale, comes to stay. Charlie gets work at the butcher shop, and practically becomes part of the butcher's family—soon acting as a second father to Sam, the butcher's five-year-old son. A drifter who is looking to finally belong in a community, Charlie also buys up land, tries out all the local churches and longs for the love a woman. Unfortunately for Charlie—and for all of the people of Brownsburg—he falls for Sylvan Glass, the wife of the richest guy in town, a man who is also the least popular. For reasons I can't explain here (I don't want any spoilers!), their relationship profoundly affects Sam, and everyone else in Brownsburg. Here's an excerpt that describes Charlie's obsessive love for Sylvan:
He would die for her, just as he lived, now, for Sylvan and Sylvan alone. He would be a better person on her behalf, and he would be patient as Job, saying nothing, applying no pressure, wanting everything and expecting nothing. But it was hard for him, it was hard to pay attention to anything else, to focus on anything that didn't have to do with her.
Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face. They could sense, dimly at first and then more clearly, that his enthusiasms had become particular, and they knew they had become particular for a particular woman.
What are you reading today? Will you check out Heading Out to Wonderful in June? Are you a fan of A Reliable Wife?
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
Scribner • $25 • ISBN 9781451636888
Published March 6, 2012
I was first hooked by the premise of Carry the One, but I'm naming it one of my favorite reads of 2012 (so far) thanks to Carol Anshaw's gorgeous writing. Here's the story: Carmen, Alice and Nick are siblings. Carmen—a feminist activist with a strong conscience—is the responsible one. Alice, a painter and a lesbian, is romantic. Nick, a genius astronomer, struggles with drug use. The action begins at Carmen's wedding to Matt, which takes place in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere—where Alice falls for Matt's sister, Maude, behind the scenes, and Nick and his girlfriend, Olivia, get high.
After the party, Olivia drives everyone home in the middle of the night—and in her hazy state she hits and kills a young girl who was walking by the side of the road. This tragedy links Carmen, Alice, Maude, Olivia and Nick for years to come, and Anshaw follows each of their stories for the next 25 years. They experience fame and addiction and jail time, marriage and divorce, love and death. All the while, they carry the memory of the young girl who died—and their guilt for her death.
Alice creates a series of paintings based on the girl's life. Here's an excerpt about her process:
Alone, Alice sat at the kitchen table while her coffee went cold, then finally went into the studio and sanded a gessoed canvas to begin a fresh portrait of Casey Redman. This would be the fifth. The early ones came to Alice set in places of Casey's childhood—inside a snow fort in a field by the toboggan hill, on a raft in what was clearly Sullivan Lake. Like that. As these were also places familiar to Alice from her time at the co-op, she was remembering as much as imagining. But the next one—Casey awkwardly slow-dancing with a boy at a party—came to Alice already articulated, though she had no familiarity with the specific setting, what seemed to be a paneled family room. [. . . . ]
Alice was beginning to see the terms of these paintings. She would wait for them to arrive and then paint them, like clicking a shutter, making snapshots out of oil and canvas. This was the central point of her art now, to record the girl's unlived life. Also, these would be her best paintings. She knew this already. She could see a whole world of paintings ahead of her that she wanted to make, and she would make them, but none would be as good as the Casey Redman paintings. She wasn't sure if this was a gift, or a sentence.
Other People We Married by Emma Straub
Riverhead • $15 • ISBN 9781594486067
On sale February 7, 2012
Emma Straub is a bookseller in Brooklyn and an entertaining Tweeter, and I've had my eye on her story collection ever since a) it was reviewed on The Book Lady's Blog and b) I saw that Lorrie Moore described it as a "revelation" on the book jacket. Other People We Married was originally published by a small, independent press, but in two weeks Riverhead will publish a paperback edition. (Riverhead will also publish Straub's debut novel.)
I haven't finished this collection yet, and I've been skipping around, but so far I love these stories. They're about people in transition, about loss and change and hope. Like in the best short stories, the language is clear and lovely and packed with imagery that will immerse you in a character's world in just a few short pages. The stories are also very funny.
Here's an example. This is from "Puttanesca," in which a couple meet on a blind date arranged by their mutual bereavement therapist. This is the moment they first see each other at Starbucks:
"Stephen?" she said, sure that she would be speaking into thin air, that the quarterback would shake his head and probably laugh when he got outside. Laura wasn't unattractive, she knew, but hers was a subtler kind: unplucked eyebrows and sensible footwear.
He looked startled, like a baby next to a popped balloon just before the tears started to flow. But then the momentary look of panic was gone, so absent, in fact, that Laura was sure she'd imagined it. "Laura?" he said. Stephen was already smiling when he slid into the seat across from her, as easily as if she and everyone else at the Starbucks had somehow wandered into his living room.
"Looks that way," Laura said. Her hair felt even more brown than usual, like mouse fur or dry dirt. "Hi." At least it was long again. After John died, she'd chopped all her hair off, up to her ears. Her mother said she looked like Joan of Arc, who Laura thought probably didn't have a mirror. It had not been a compliment.
What are you reading today? Are you interested in Other People We Married? For even more fantastic short story collections, see this spotlight from the February issue of BookPage on new books from Nathan Englander and Dan Chaon.
The Submission by Amy Waldman
FSG • $26 • ISBN 9780374271565
Published August 16, 2011
(Paperback on sale March 27, 2012)
The premise of the novel is simple: Two years after 9/11, there is an anonymous competition for a memorial design. There are 5,000 entries, and a jury is selected to choose the winner. Their choice, most supported by a woman whose husband died in the attack? A garden that, turns out, was designed by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan.
The story is told from multiple narrators: the chair of the jury; the widower on the jury; the architect himself; an undocumented Muslim woman whose husband also died in the attack; a ruthless journalist covering the competition; and the brother of a firefighter who died on 9/11, who is also the leader of an anti-Islam group.
The book is fascinating for its different points of view. You'll confront stereotypes and be forced to consider different perspectives. Ultimately, the big question is: Is it insensitive for a Muslim to design a 9/11 memorial? Is it a gesture toward inclusiveness in the United States (and a powerful symbol for America's freedom of religion)? Does the identity of the architect matter at all?
Here's an excerpt from the book. The jury has just looked up the name associated with the winning design. As you will see, his name immediately triggers some sharp reactions. Paul is the chair of the jury.
The piece of paper containing the winner's name was passed from palm to palm like a fragile folio. There were a few gasps and "hmmms," an "interesting," an "oh my." Then: Jesus f**king Christ! It's a goddamn Muslim!" The paper had reached the governor's man.
Paul sighed. It wasn't Bob Wilner's fault they were in this situation, if indeed they were in a situation, but Paul resented him for forcing them to confront that they were, possibly, in a situation. Until Wilner spoke, no one had voiced what was written, as if to do so would bring the problem, even the person, to life before them.
"Ms. Costello." Paul addressed the minute-taker in an almost musing tone, without meeting her eyes. "That will be expunged, naturally. We'd like to keep the record free of—of profanity." He knew this sounded ridiculous: What New York City body cared about profanity? What minute-taker bothered to transcribe it? "Perhaps you could step out for a few minutes. Go help yourself to some more dessert." [ . . . ]
The door shut. He waited a few seconds before saying, "Let's stay calm here."
"What the f**k are we supposed to do?"
"We know nothing about him, Bob."
"Is he even American?"
"Yes, it says right here under nationality, American."
"That actually makes it harder."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"How did this happen?"
"What are the odds?"
"I can't believe it."
"It's Maya Lin all over again. But worse."
"What are the odds?" the mayor's aide kept repeating. "What are the odds?"
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
Other Press • $14.95 • ISBN 9781590514634
On sale January 31, 2012
Fortunately, there are a few U.S. publishers who make a habit of buying foreign rights and translating international bestsellers for us Yanks to read. Other Press is one of those publishers, and I just happen to know and adore their Associate Publisher, who has excellent reading taste. (Well, it matches mine so it’s got to be excellent, right?) On a recent visit to the Other Press offices, said Associate Publisher handed me a galley of one of their upcoming titles. He guaranteed that I was going to be enchanted by it. And, yes, once again he was right!
It’s a story about the power of a love that can’t be diminished by time or distance. Set in Burma, a blind boy and a crippled girl forge a bond that can never be broken. Together they learn to use their senses to navigate the human heart and the world itself. But it’s also the tale of an abandoned daughter's quest as she searches for the father she discovers she never really knew. She must come to terms with her father’s past and solve the mystery of his disappearance. Beautifully written, and even a bit magical, the novel draws you in on the very first page. It’s a love story like no other I’ve ever read.
Here’s a taste of what it’s like to master the art of hearing heartbeats…
"Every voice had its distinctive repertoire of expressive forms, and so, too, did every heart. Recognizing strangers by their heartbeat on a second or third meeting posed no difficulty for Tin Win, even though the beating was never absolutely identical. It betrayed much about body and soul and altered with time or according to the situation. Hearts could sound young or decrepit, boring or bored, mysterious or predictable. Yet what was he to think when an individual’s voice and heart were at odds, each telling a different, mutually incompatible story?”
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Riverhead • $25.95 • ISBN 9781594488139
Published January 5, 2012
I was drawn to Ellis Avery's The Last Nude because a) how could you not be drawn to that bold jacket? b) I had just finished An Object of Beauty and was on a novels-about-art kick and c) there's a big honkin' blurb from Emma Donoghue, one of my favorite authors, on the cover.
The story is about the real-life Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, and the relationship she strikes up with her muse, Rafaela, the woman depicted on the jacket in the painting Beautiful Rafaela. By the way, this painting sold at Sotheby's in November. The winning price? $8.4 million. I'm embedding a video from Sotheby's below the excerpt, where you can see the Vice President of Impressionist & Modern Art talking about the piece.
But back to the book (which can be yours for only $25.95). I'm enjoying the story because the setting is wonderful (Paris in the 1920s) and the relationship between artist and muse is believable and intriguing. As Megan Fishmann writes in a review in the January issue of BookPage, "Avery weaves historical fact with electrically charged narrative . . . Filled with fabulous literary anecdotes and characters that seem to leap off the page, The Last Nude is a novel perfect for lovers of the 1920s, of Paris or simply of love stories."
Here's a scene from the first day that Rafaela models for Tamara. Tamara has made her wear a plain dress while she poses. After looking at the other portraits in Tamara's apartment, Rafaela wishes she could look more glamorous.
As the minutes passed, I realized I no longer felt uneasy. I felt jealous. Why did I get the ugly dress, the ugly painting? And why didn't Tamara paint my face? The painting next to the mannish woman showed a nude—sleek, modern, Olympian—with her arm across her face. Was this Tamara's kink? She didn't paint faces? No, I saw plenty of faces in the room, some, to be honest, not as nice as mine. It was as if, by putting me in the ugly dress, she had made herself blind to me. Beautiful, she'd said. Did she really think so? I wanted to take off my dress and lie down on that velvet couch for her: I wanted her to see me in the grand way she saw the others.
What are you reading today? Are you interested in reading The Last Nude?
Here's the video:
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing • $14.99 • ISBN 9780446573658
On sale now
I decided to read this novel because a) Father of the Bride is one of my all-time favorite movies, b) our reviewer compared Martin to Henry James, Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald in her review (yes, really), and c) I like art.
Well. First of all, I loved this book, and I ingested it in one sitting—seriously. I actually listened to the book rather than read it—I was driving home after Thanksgiving (I highly recommend the audiobook from Hachette), and for once in my life I wanted I-40 to stretch a little bit longer so I could keep listening from behind the wheel. (I opted to finish it while lying on my couch and listening to the stereo, instead of circling the neighborhood.)
The story is about Lacey Yeager, a young woman who joins the art world in the 1990s at the bottom of the latter in Sotheby's basement, then eventually works her way up to owning her own gallery. She has affairs, has questionable morals, learns to schmooze and make huge deals. Martin describes the beautiful people, places and art that fill Lacey's world, and it all feels something like a dream—until it comes crashing down, of course.
Here's an early excerpt, from when Lacey's perspective starts to shift as a young employee at Sotheby's:
At Sotheby's, she started to look at paintings differently. She became an efficient computer of values. The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth. Auction records were available in the Sotheby's library, and when a picture of note came in, she diligently searched the Art Price Index to see if it had auction history. She factored in condition, size, and subject matter. A Renoir of a young girl, she had witnessed, was worth more than one of an old woman. An American western picture with five tepees was worth more than a painting with one tepee. If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable. A deserted painting scared buyers. Why did no one want it? In the trade, it was known as being "burned." Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory. When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.
Got any audiobook recommendations for my next drive home?
A Good American by Alex George
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157592
on sale February 7, 2012
This time of year is always about looking back—what were my favorite books of the year? It's fun to catalog and rank a year's worth of reading, but it's also refreshing to look forward: What books of 2012 are going to be truly special? One such book is Alex George's A Good American. George is an English lawyer who lives in Missouri, and A Good American is his first novel to be published in the United States.
Like the author, the main characters of A Good American are immigrants—Jette and Frederick Meisenheimer, two Germans who board a ship to New Orleans (by chance; they meant to go to New York) in 1904, and end up settling in Beatrice, Missouri.
George follows the Meisenheimer family for a century, during wars, deaths, births, broken hearts and young love, Prohibition, successes, failures. One of the joys of this story is George's ability to evoke the power of music from the era, ranging from Barbershop quartets to the sweet sounds of the cornet and piano.
This was the rare book that made me laugh and cry, pause to listen to songs on YouTube—then seriously consider taking a reading break down at Nashville's Gerst Haus restaurant (I refrained, but I'm still craving German and Cajun food).
The novel comes out on February 7. Here's a little preview, after Jette first hears the music of an old acquaintance:
As Jette listened to the languorous unfurling of melody, she remembered her brief time in New Orleans. Lomax had been the first friendly face they met in America. Without him they might never have made it to Missouri. She wondered what path her life might have followed if the man on the stage had not appeared when he did. The thought occurred to her that, like the improvised melodies that Lomax was spinning from the bell of his horn, every life was a galaxy of permutations and possibilities from which a single thread would be picked out and followed, for better or for worse. When the music ended, Jette made a choice of her own that sent our family careening down an unlikely path that only now has acquired the reassuring gloss of inevitability. By such delicate threads do all our existences hang.
What do you think? Will you look for A Good American in February? (By the way, the novel has been compared to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I wouldn't disagree!) What are you reading today?
Inheritance by Christopher Paolini
Alfred A. Knopf for Young Readers • $27.99 • ISBN 9780375856112
On sale November 8, 2011
The books were originally intended to be a trilogy, but the story was just so epic in scope, the third book was split in two. Thus, Inheritance--with a 2.5 million copy first printing.
The book opens with the Vardens' attack on Belatona, and I won't give away any more than that. Check out an excerpt from the first page to get your juices flowing:
The dragon Saphira roared, and the soldiers before her quailed.
"With me!" shouted Eragon. He lifted Brisingr over his head, holding it aloft for all to see. The blue sword flashed bright and iridescent, stark against the wall of black clouds building in the west. "For the Varden!"
An arrow whizzed past him; he paid it no mind.
The warriors gathered at the base of the slope of rubble Eragon and Saphira were standing upon answered him with a single, full-throated bellow: "The Varden!" They brandished their own weapons and charged forward, scrambling up the tumbled blocks of stone.
Eragon turned his back to the men. On the other side of the mound lay a wide courtyard. Two hundred or so of the Empire's soldiers stood huddled within. Behind them rose a tall, dark keep with narrow slits for windows and several square towers, the tallest of which had a lantern shining in its upper rooms. Somewhere within the keep, Eragon knew, was Lord Bradburn, governor of Belatona--the city the Varden had been fighting to capture for several long hours.
With a cry, Eragon leaped off the rubble toward the soldiers. The men shuffled backward, although they kept their spears and pikes trained on the ragged hole Saphira had torn in the castle's outer wall.
Eragon's right ankle twisted as he landed. He fell to his knee and caught himself on the ground with his sword hand.
One of the soldiers seized the opportunity to dart out of formation and stab his spear at Eragon's exposed throat.
Are you a fan of the Inheritance Cycle? Have you cleared out your reading schedule to finish Paolini's fantastic tale?