Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Literary and Commercial Triumphs Abound in This Week's New Book Roundup, Or So I'm Told--Karl Ove Knausgaard, David Peace, Terry Hayes, Emma Straub, Sally O'Reilly, and Matthew Quirk.

How have I not been paying attention to the six-volume autobiographical novel that is My Struggle? While the first two volumes focused on the death of author Karl Ove Knausgaard's father and the second concerned his father's courtship of his second wife, the third (My Struggle: Book Three), published by Archipelago and translated by Don Bartlett, focuses on his childhood. Everyone's crazy about this series, which is being compared to Proust, from Zadie Smith whose Twitter feed read "It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack" to Norwegian paper Dagens Naeingsliv, which writes "A gripping novel ... This childhood portrayal drifts off with a lightness and sensitivity that not many will associate with him ... There is no doubt that the series is worth following the author all the way."

And since I'm currently reading Dissident Gardens, in readiness for Jonathan Lethem's visit on June 30, 7 pm (Summerfest Break Night), I'm particularly interested in anything Lethem has to say. The publisher edited his review in The Guardian for the juicy bits: "The book investigates the bottomless accumulation of mysteries everyday life imposes. . . Knausgaard's approach is plain and scrupulous, sometimes casual, yet he never writes down. His subject is the beauty and terror of the fact that all life coexists with itself. A living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery."

Speaking of small presses distributed by Random House, Melville House releases Red or Dead, which has already been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. Fascinating how all the literary prizes have commercial sponsors. You caught yesterday that the Orange Prize (itself a French telecom company) is now the Baileys (as in liquor) Women's Prize for Fiction. The winner gets a free case. That said, Goldsmiths seems to be a campus of the University of London...huh? In any case, David Peace, the author, was named one of Granta's Best Young Novelists in 2003.

Here's a little plot. In Red or Dead, the acclaimed writer David Peace tells the stirring story of the real-life working-class hero who lifted the spirits of an entire city in turbulent times. But Red or Dead is more than a fictional biography of a real man, and more than a thrilling novel about sports. It is an epic novel that transcends those categories, until there’s nothing left to call it but--as many of the world’s leading newspapers already have--a masterpiece. Yes, that's publisher copy.

One novel that's getting a lot of buzz is Terry Hayes' debut, I am Pilgrim (Atria). Here's what the publisher says. At the novel's opening, we find ourselves in a seedy hotel near Ground Zero. A woman lies face down in a pool of acid, features melted off her face, teeth missing, fingerprints gone. The room has been sprayed down with DNA-eradicating antiseptic spray. All the techniques are pulled directly from Pilgrim's book, a cult classic of forensic science written under a pen name (the code name for a world class and legendary secret agent).In offering the NYPD some casual assistance with the case, Pilgrim gets pulled back into the intelligence underground. What follows is a thriller that jockeys between astonishingly detailed character study and breakneck globetrotting. The author shifts effortlessly from Pilgrim's hidden life of leisure in Paris to the Saracen's squalid warrior life in Afghanistan, from the hallways of an exclusive Swiss bank to the laboratories of a nefarious biotech facility in Syria.

Publishers and reviewers are throwing around every comparable writer around, from John LeCarre to Robert Ludlum to Tom Clancy. One even mentioned Robin Cook; who even thinks about Robin Cook anymore. Give me the next Arthur Hailey, please. Though I haven't seen a comparison to David Baldacci, the B-man himself offers these words of praise: "Hayes delivers muscular prose, sniper-round accurate dialogue and enough superb and original plotting to fill three volumes. He balances it all with the dexterity of the accomplished storyteller that he so obviously is. I Am Pilgrim is simply one of the best suspense novels I've read in a long time."

We sent out our email newsletter yesterday. Because of the holiday weekend, and my tight timetable, I wasn't able to have my normal round of proofing--apologies all around. I'm also experimenting with a first person plural voice for the newsletter, while sticking with first person on the blog. That made my rec for Emma Straub's The Vacationers (Riverhead) sound a bit forced. Here's Sharon's quote for Straub's second novel.

"There is nothing quite like a family vacation. Trapped in a hotel or a rented house with the same people you usually go out of your way to avoid. Everyone can relate to this, whether you are vacationing down the shore, or on the exotic island of Mallorca, like the Post family in Emma Straub’s witty and fun new novel. Franny and Jim Post are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. They are spending two weeks in Mallorca with Sylvia, their daughter, who is soon to be leaving for Brown, Bobby, their 28 year old son, Carmen, his 40 year old girlfriend, and Lawrence and Charles, a married gay couple who are trying to adopt a baby. Add to this mix the fact that Jim has had an affair with a 23 year old intern, and has lost his job and his wife’s trust in one fell swoop. I read The Vacationers at the beginning of February in a vain attempt to feel warmer in the frozen snow globe that is Milwaukee at this time of year. I did, however, spend several enjoyable hours with Emma Straub’s extremely knowable characters, and enjoyed a story of family, love, and loss that we can all connect with." --Sharon

Speaking of books with lots of advance quotes (and we were, just two books ago), Sally O'Reilly's Dark Aemilia: A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (Picador) has them in spades. Among its fans are Anne Fortier, Danielle Trussoni, Paula Brackston, Sena Jeter Naslund, and Fay Weldon. Fortier, author of Juliet calls Dark Aemilia "a magical, ravishing literary masterpiece." and the rest of the raves are just as enthusiastic.

The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth's royal court. The Queen's favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair. A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will--or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself. In rich, vivid detail, Sally O'Reilly breathes life into England's first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history.

And finally, a Hachette bonus, just because we have to do our share to help this publisher. The Directive is by Matthew Quirk (Little, Brown), his second novel following The 500. This time, Mike Ford is again playing a dangerous game--this time the stakes are even higher. Mike's brother is in over his head in a powerful conspiracy to steal a secret worth billions of dollars from the little-known but unbelievably influential trading desk at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In an effort to help, Mike soon finds himself trapped by the dangerous men in charge--and forced to call on all the skills of his criminal past in order to escape. Booklist's starred review writes "Solidly researched, with elements of a technothriller, this is a nonstop, heart-pounding ride in which moral blacks and whites turn gray in the efficient alignment of power and interests that is big-time politics. Quirk has another high-powered hit on his hands."

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