Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Fiction with a Spooky Bent from Thomas Pynchon, Aminatta Forna, Jeanette Winterson, and John Searles, plus Terry McMillan Too.

We're caught in the avalanche of fall releases, and this week we're catching up with new and almost-new hardcover fiction. There are some high profile releases for sure, and probably none bigger for an indie bookstore than Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge (Penguin Press). This time the story is set in 2001 New York, and what is more perfect for a Pynchonian novel than the paranoia and conspiracies surrounding 9-11? The always erudite John Freeman* (ex-editor of Granta) writes in the Boston Globe "Bleeding Edge is essentially a private-eye novel, masquerading as a technothriller. It is a futuristic novel disguised in elegy. Like Tom Wolfe writing about New York as if he actually cared about the place. The action unfolds between the waning days of 2000 and pushes through 2001, the attacks of 9/11, and the shaky aftermath."

We didn't have anone waiting outside for us to open for Pynchon, so I'm not regretting our decision to not have a midnight party. Terry McMillan's newest novel, Who Asked You? (Viking) also seems up to party, as seen by those luscious purple lips on the jacket. I will note too that if this week's theme is creepy, those lips are a bit spooky to me. Her newest is set in a Los Angeles neighborhood, starting off when a mom drops off her two young boys with her mother Betty Jean, and promptly disappears. It's BJ's story here, but the voices jump to the kids, the missing mom, and Betty Jean's son, himself incarcerated.  It reminds me of my favorite Terry McMillan novel (I haven't read them all, but I've read more than one) Mama. As Patty Rhule in USA Today notes, "Who Asked You? doesn't have quite the pop-culture appeal that Waiting to Exhale and Groove captured (editor's note: culture schmulture). But it taps provocative veins for book club debates: life after a marriage ends; the high rate of imprisonment of black men; grandparents raising children; discovering a child is gay; and the bonds among sisters, to name just a few."

An author I kick myself for not reading is Aminatta Forna, winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and I'm intrigued that her new novel, The Hired Man (Atlantic Monthly) is suitably digestible at under 300 pages. Don't get me wrong, I love long books but they do take a lot of time, and I'm committed to Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement as my current big book (our event with her is November 11). In Forna's newest, a Croatian town gets some new visitors, a British womean and her new kids. Duro takes to the family, but the rest of the town isn't so happy, and the publisher calls this a masterpiece of restrained menace. Frances Perraudin in the Observer observes that "Forna made her name with her memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water, which documents the circumstances surrounding the death of her father, a Sierra Leonean politician who was hanged on charges of treason in 1975. In The Hired Man she returns to her speciality theme of the psychology of civil conflict, but in a different setting – the small, aptly named, Croatian town of Gost, a place ravaged by the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s."

From short novel to novella, we turn to Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate (Grove), set in 17th century England. In 1612, a local magistrate arrests a coven, accusing them of witchcraft, but some are protected by wealthy and respected Alice Nutter. But Nutter is about to be caught up in the reign of King James I. Winterson's got all the UK reviews and what we need to know is that in the UK, this book was released under the Hammer studio, which resonates there as an old horror movie studio, and this book has Winterson dancing with genre horror elements. Witches are in, you know, as seen in this season's American Horror Story. I'm told in the YA field, they have had their day and we're moving on to other tropes.

Hammer is an imprint of Random House UK, and as the publisher notes, they are publishing compelling and intelligent horror, with the list featuring such favorites as Helen Dunmore and Sophie Hannah. Sinclair McKay in the Telegraph weighs in positively on the program. "Ultimately, she (Winterson) combines compelling history and poetic dialogue with suspense, as a ghastly trap closes around Alice. In a story heavy with evil, another theme finally comes shining through: that of the abiding endurance of love. The old Hammer horrors were never big on redemption. But this rather more sophisticated story would make a particularly vivid film."

Keeping it genre crossover, Help for the Haunted (Morrow) from John Searles comes armed with advance quotes from Gillian Flynn, Sara Gruen, Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, and Robert Goolrick. I'm always trying to figure out how that assortment of authors tells the story of what I should expect. In this case, contemporary fiction with a bit of a gothic/mystery element, crossover commercial enough to hit bestseller lists.  Flynn notes that the book is "part ghost story, part coming-of age story" so the question is, do you call this mystery (easy to slot) or horror (harder)? I'll lay it out. Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone, and this leads them to an old church where they disappear, one after the other. She wakes to the sound of gunfire. Oh, that should lead to some nightmares. Marion Winik in Newsday (my thanks for them allowing us to once again link to book reviews) writes "Searles controls the plot with a sure hand and wraps up the situation on Butter Lane in a satisfying and believable way. The darkest secrets in this book are not paranormal at all, but chillingly ordinary."

*Hey, I've gone to some parties at his house, so I'm free with the (still deserving) compliments.The equally erudite Mike Fischer reviewed the book in the Journal Sentinel, as noted on Sunday. They could compete in an erudite-off.

1 comment:

Suzanne Z said...

I loved Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and Why be Happy? and Lighthousekeeping, but had no idea she wrote speculative fiction. (But I bet she's good at it). Big thumbs up for Jeanette Winterson.