Thursday, September 12, 2013

Newish Fiction That May Have Passed You By--Dan Vyleta, Kevin Baker, Tom Perrotta, Linda Spalding, and James McBride.

For a change of pace, here are some new hardcover fiction titles which do not have events at Boswell. I start off with an author who we hosted in the past. Dan Vyleta came to the store for The Quiet Twin, but alas, it's back to Winnipeg for him. The new novel is The Crooked Maid (Bloomsbury), a historical set in post-war Vienna. Per the publisher,  Anna Beer returns to the city she fled nine years over, having left after learning of her husband's infidelity. At the same time, a young schoolboy is summoned back from Switzerland to his stepfather's deathbed. So apparently one of the characters in The Quiet Twin haunts the action of the new story. Deborah Dundas in the Toronto Star writes "The Crooked Maid is an exploration of morality, with the characters weaving complex relationships that push the boundaries of what is acceptable. There’s a grey zone after the war where everything has changed but social norms have yet to catch up. There’s no better time to explore good and evil, right and wrong, than when so many of our assumptions have been torn apart."

Jumping from Vienna to New York, The Big Crowd (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) returns Kevin Baker to the Big Apple, this time focusing on Charlie O'Kane, a poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up to mayor, only to be accused of a shocking mob murder, leaving his younger brother to clear his name. Darin Strauss calls The Big Crowd "inspired, fun, serious, thought-provoking, page turning..."  Tom Deignan in Irish Central looks at the real-life connections: Through the character Charlie O’Kane (whose devoted brother Tommy is loosely based on O’Dwyer’s fiery politician/activist brother Paul), Baker explores O’Dwyer’s possible ties to the Reles killing and broader police corruption scandals, which ultimately compelled O’Dwyer to resign (though he cited health reasons), following his reelection in 1950." It's interesting that both Vyleta and Baker's book jackets have similar typefaces for "Crowd" and "Crooked." I guess that they are both trying to evoke postward urban.

Tom Perotta's new collection of short stories, Nine Inches (St. Martin's), does no such thing. If anything the vibe is early sixties schoolboy. Though the book was on my to-be-read list, I am ashamed to say that it's the second Perotta book I have not read in a row, after having read everything previously. Someday if Perotta visits Milwaukee, I promise to catch up. The stories range from the unraveling of a dad at a Little League game to the connections between an old woman and a benched high school football player. Helen McAlpin's take on NPR: "Nine inches is the minimum distance required between middle school students during slow dances in the title story of Tom Perrotta's first book of short stories in 19 years. Nine miles — or make that nine light-years — is the distance between many of the narrators in these 10 stories, and the family and friends they've alienated with their stupid mistakes."  I'm not sure why the publisher said this is his first true collection of stories--I seem to remember reading Bad Haircut...

Linda Spalding was born and raised in Kansas, but she's a Toronto woman now, which explains how she won the 2012 Governor General's Award for The Purchase (Pantheon). Hey, Carol Shields was also from the States. My niece and her husband are applying for Canadian residency--now all they have to do is write a great novel. Spalding's story also has American vibe--a Quaker family moves from Pennsylvania on the Virginia frontier, where slaves are the only available workers, testing the family's values in a big way. I thought I'd find an American review for this one but I have to reach over the border. Donna Bailey Nurse in the Globe and Mail posits: "With The Purchase, Spalding places a contemporary spin on the traditional novel of the antebellum South: Frontier adventure meets plantation romance meets slave narrative – and to haunting effect."

And finally, it's hard to believe I didn't write anything up for The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead), by James McBride, but I thought there was some thematic connection to the Spalding above. Henry Shackleford is a boy in the Kansas territory who leaves town with John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, but the twist is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl, and he, nicknamed "Onion", must conceal his identity to suvive the escalating violence. The nice thing about waiting a bit to write these things up is that the reviews are there. Hector Tobar in the Los Angeles Times writes that McBride has "written a fast-moving farce that's laugh-out-loud funny and filled with many wonderfully bizarre images."

Baz Dreisinger in The New York Times observes that "Irreverence becomes not a lampooning of champions and calamities but a new kind of homage. For all the gratuitous violence and adolescent revenge fantasies in Tarantino’s film (Django Unchained), it does succeed in resensitizing us to slavery’s horrors; his lurid, caricature-like portraits of slave owners and plantations ultimately repulse more than a tear-jerker could. McBride takes up these same irreverent tools and likewise innovates, though he comes not to repulse but to exalt. In his hands, John Brown is a wild and crazy old man — and more a hero than ever before."

Now I feel more caught up, but not having looked at the books on the Boswell's Best, I'm already feeling behind.

Addendum: My Houghton Mifflin Harcourt rep noted that Kevin Baker's The Big Crowd will be reviewed on Sunday by Scott Turow.

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