Clare Clark’s novel of the dislocations that befall an aristocratic English family during and right after World War I is beautifully written and enjoyable, but the reader has to wonder if it would have been published had we not been living in the age of “Downton Abbey.” Of course it might have, as the popular TV show has plenty of collateral ancestors of its own: Think Brideshead Revisited and those nice books by Nancy Mitford. Still, the full name of one of the characters of We That Are Left includes the name Crawford. It’s not Crawley, but it’s close enough for jazz, as they say.
The challenge for an author who writes about a lonely character is to make that character interesting—and keep him that way. Happily, this is what Lori Ostlund has done in After the Parade, her sensitive and realistic tale of the excruciatingly lonely Aaron Englund. What’s intriguing about him is that he seems not to mind his loneliness. This may seem odd, for the difference between loneliness and solitude is that a person minds the former and doesn’t mind the latter. But Aaron holds his pain like a shield against a world that never had much use for him.
Last Bus to Wisdom is told by an orphan. He’s Donal Cameron, a Montana boy who is 11 years old in 1951. The flinty grandmother who raised him after his parents were killed needs an operation. This means Donny needs to go live with Gram’s somewhat estranged sister in Wisconsin. To do this he has to go Greyhound or, as they said back in the day, ride the dog bus. Having ridden the dog bus fairly frequently over the years, this reviewer braced herself for a horror story.
It’s sometimes amazing to realize how an obsession for sports can take over a life. In John L. Parker Jr.’s amiable new work, a prequel to his 1978 bestseller Once a Runner, Quenton Cassidy, teenage native of Citrus City, Florida, is so wrapped up in his athletic pursuits that the great upheavals of his era—the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK, civil rights and the arrival of the Beatles for goodness’ sake!—stick in his mind the way anything sticks to Teflon.
The good and useful thing about scary stories is their variety. They may leave you sad, mad or contemplative—but all of the good ones make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
If there’s a life before this one where people are allowed to pick their parents, the two young protagonists of Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel came up snake eyes, or nearly so.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s second novel, Balm, follows a group of refugees who meet in the bustling, reeking and bewildering city of Chicago.
The latest work from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is puzzling until you realize that it’s actually a fairy tale. How else to describe a story about a woman who is so bereft without the man in her life that the lack of him causes her to regress back to childhood—literally. Bride, the book’s beautiful, very young cosmetics tycoon, slowly loses all the physical signifiers of womanhood. Even the holes in her pierced ears close up.
Set in upstate New York just after the Civil War, Jeffrey Lent’s latest book is a bit puzzling. To be blunt, it ends just when things are getting really interesting. It’s not that things haven’t been interesting from the beginning: By page three we’ve been witness to a double murder. The murderer’s name is Malcolm Hopeton, and he’s returned from the war only to find that half of his farm has been sold out from under him and his wife is canoodling with his hired man—the type who, in the old days, would have been called a cur. In his fury, Malcolm even injures his hired boy, Harlan Davis, who has witnessed the whole tawdry mess. As for Malcolm, he resigns himself to the gallows. But will he hang, after all?
Halfway through Rachel Basch’s third novel, The Listener, the reader gets the feeling that the title is ironic. Malcolm Dowd is a psychotherapist at the college in his town. His job is to listen; no doubt his skill at listening has saved the sanity or even the lives of the sad people who unburden themselves in his office. But when it comes to his own loved ones, Malcolm Dowd is about as deaf as a stump.