book beginnings on Friday: One Out of Two by Daniel Sada

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

one out of two

This is a very slim (100-page) novel in translation from the Spanish, and I am excited and charmed by its first lines.

Now, how to say it? One out of two, or two in one, or what? The Gamal sisters were identical. To say, as people do, “They were like two peas in a pod,” the same age, the same height, and wearing, by choice, the same hairdo.

My ARC offers a blurb on the front cover from Robert BolaƱo: “Of my generation I most admire Daniel Sada, whose writing project seems to me the most daring.” Sada died in 2011.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn’s favorite of his own novels surveys characters from his other work, in a clever, sophisticated consideration of death and consciousness.

clue to the exit

Edward St. Aubyn (Mother’s Milk) calls A Clue to the Exit his favorite of his own novels. Originally published in 2000, it’s now being reissued by Picador.

Charlie is a hack screenwriter who’s just been told he has six months to live. (He takes issue with the idea that his doctor has “given” him six months, as if it were a gift he should be grateful for.) He starts driving more carefully, even as he considers suicide, experimenting with the proper response to this news. He contacts his ex-wife about seeing his daughter; he sells his house and takes half his riches to Monte Carlo to lose it as quickly as possible. And, suddenly inspired, he sets out to write a serious novel–much to his agent’s exasperation.

In Monte Carlo, he meets a beautiful stranger, who he imagines might help him with his burden of mortality. Angelique is a gambling addict, and in her company Charlie feels an equal craving for his own writing. They have a deal: she gambles away his fortune, and he writes in the casino as he watches her. His novel, On the Train, tackles the big question of consciousness, or nothing less than the meaning of life, and Charlie’s autobiographical protagonist is none other than Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s most famous character, who is joined by others that St. Aubyn’s fans will recognize from previous work. The characters of the novel within the novel argue philosophy on a train stuck in Didcot, as Charlie finds himself stuck as well between games of chance and the need to map his own final months.

St. Aubyn’s craft is on full display with this inward-looking work of simultaneous parody and earnestness. Nearly every line is quotable, a small but shining victory of prose. On the Train visits with Proust and Buddha, while “a clue to the exit” references Henry James on “the human maze,” but alongside serious, even wearying considerations, Charlie’s story is often very funny and self-referential. A third-person narrative “is so much more personal than a first-person narrative, which reveals too flagrantly the imposture of the personality it depends on,” writes St. Aubyn in Charlie’s voice: A Clue to the Exit is told in first-person, while On the Train is in the third. This feedback loop is a central device. “Feeling too upset to write, I made the brave decision to write about feeling too upset.” A parade of absurd characters and dinner parties accompanies Charlie’s, and his character Patrick’s, contemplations of death. As Charlie’s six months run out, St. Aubyn continues to surprise his reader in the final pages.

A refined and stylish novel of cynicism and the question of death, A Clue to the Exit is a perfect sample of St. Aubyn’s craft.


This review originally ran in the August 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 chips.

Coming of Age at the End of Days by Alice LaPlante

In this expert psychological thriller, a disturbed teenaged girl meets a doomsday cult and struggles for survival and identity.

coming of age

The title of Alice LaPlante’s third novel, Coming of Age at the End of Days, succinctly describes its plot. At the beginning, Anna Franklin is 16 and terribly depressed, fixated on death. Therapy and medication do nothing to bring her out of it. Her anti-religious mother begins reading to her from the Bible, just to give them some time together and to introduce Anna to literary references; this does not lighten Anna’s world, but instead gives its darkness meaning, as Revelations resonates with her mood. What finally causes her depression to break is a new family in the neighborhood. Lars and his parents introduce Anna to their church, where it is preached that the Tribulation at the End of Days is coming. There will be blood, violence and suffering. Her heart sings at the news.

Anna begins having a recurrent dream of a central image in her church’s system of beliefs; she has visions and becomes convinced she has an important role to play. Joyfully, she plans for the coming End of Days. Her parents are relieved that she no longer appears suicidal, but disturbed anew at this fresh challenge. Anna and Lars, a compelling, alternately magnetic and frightening young man, are socially isolated and bullied at school. On the other hand, Anna’s parents are loving, wise and committed to her well-being. Additionally, there is Anna’s neighbor Jim–back in his parents’ basement, in his mid-20s, suffering his own breakdown–and a chemistry teacher, the youthful, no-nonsense Ms. Thadeous. When Anna experiences a tragedy that “more than satiate[s] her hunger for death,” these few but remarkable friends represent a chance to reconsider the End she is working toward.

At the center of Anna’s story–and of all these characters’ stories–are obsessions. “Images. Sounds. The Red Heifer. Bosch’s depiction of hell. A rock hitting a tree.” Anna’s mother is a deeply devoted pianist; her father is an earthquake nut, eagerly awaiting The Big One, in a secular obsession otherwise not unlike his daughter’s. LaPlante (Turn of Mind) masterfully weaves a distressing plot in which complex, sympathetic characters, each with a complete and absorbing past, are brought to the brink of destruction and then seemingly asked: What kind of life, and death, will you choose? The reader’s imagination will be won by this brilliant, thought-provoking and memorable novel. Coming of Age at the End of Days perfectly captures the dynamics of family relationships and friendships, loyalties and priorities, and the nuanced workings of an unusual mind.


This review originally ran in the July 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 times vermillion.

Maximum Shelf: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 22, 2015.


gap of timeThe Hogarth Shakespeare project undertakes to reinvent the Bard’s classic works in novel form; the first installment is The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. In Shakespeare’s original, the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia are great friends until one accuses the other of sleeping with his wife. The jealous Leontes plots to murder his friend Polixenes, but misses his chance and instead takes out his rage on his pregnant wife, the queen Hermione. By the time his suspicions are proved false, he has lost both his son and his wife, and the baby girl Hermione gives birth to has disappeared. Leontes ordered the baby taken into the wilderness and abandoned, but the man he assigned this task died in the process, so the baby’s fate is unknown. Sixteen years later, a romance between Polixenes’s son and a beautiful, mysterious shepherd’s daughter may offer redemption and even a second chance.

The Gap of Time is set dually in modern London, just following the 2008 economic crisis, and the fictional American city of New Bohemia. Londoners Leo and Xeno were childhood friends and, for a time, lovers; as adults, despite very different values, the bohemian Xeno and the materialistic Leo have become business partners in Sicilia, a high-tech gaming company. Leo’s wife, MiMi, son, Milo, and his uber-capable assistant, Pauline, round out a highly functional, loving family of sorts, until Leo becomes obsessed with the idea that MiMi and Xeno are sleeping together. Leo reacts violently, and loses his son and wife. When he tries to ship MiMi’s baby daughter overseas to Xeno, whom he wrongly believes to be her father, the little girl goes missing.

In New Bohemia, Shep and his son, Clo, who run a piano bar, come across a carjacking too late to save its victim, after which Shep is able to pull a baby out of the nearby hospital’s BabyHatch, a high-tech receptacle for abandoned infants. He is convinced this child is a gift meant for him, to help him heal after his wife’s death, and raises the girl as his own. Her name, according to papers found with her, is Perdita. He could never conceal from her that she is adopted: Perdita is white, while Shep and Clo are black; but she grows up in a home filled with love and music, never doubting that she is wanted. As in the original, 16 years will pass before Perdita encounters a romantic interest who, though equally ignorant of their connected past, will lead to her learning about her origins.

A very brief recap of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of the book informs the reader, so that no knowledge of the original is necessary to follow or enjoy this retelling. Indeed, The Gap of Time will please readers who have never given Shakespeare a second glance, as well as his committed fans. Winterson has fashioned the ideal remake: paying respect to the original and faithfully following many plot points, as well as the general spirit, she simultaneously builds upon it, not only making Shakespeare’s work accessible to modern minds but providing a freshly felt and relevant emotional experience.

Shakespeare’s sympathetic and intriguing plot involving several twists and changes of heart plays well with Winterson’s nuanced tone, while her characters are more multi-faceted than the originals. Leo is a deeply flawed man who nonetheless attracts the reader; Xeno is magnetic, beautiful and sensual; and MiMi is a woman of more complex feelings than the dignity Shakespeare gives Hermione. The next generation, Perdita and Zel, Xeno’s son, are appealing, with passions and interests of their own. It is Shep and Clo, though, Shakespeare’s nameless Shepherd and Clown, who get the most reworking, and to great advantage.

Most of The Gap of Time takes place in London and New Bohemia, but also visits Paris, the Seine and, of course, the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. As realistic as these settings are, it is the gaming world invented by Leo and Xeno that is most imaginative and vibrant. Leo is obsessed with the scene in Superman: The Movie where Superman zips round the world and turns back time to save Lois Lane. Their game is creative, vividly rendered and evocative of Xeno’s disappointment in what his life has become, as well as Leo’s preoccupation with the idea of time’s malleability. It is a game filled with angels of death, and it is called The Gap of Time.

As the title indicates, Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale plays with the concept of time even more than the original did, asking questions about what is changeable about our pasts and our futures. Leo wishes he could take back his madness and its consequences; Xeno wishes he’d handled it differently. This is a stirring tale filled with waste, simple mistakes and regrets. But as in the original, it also offers hope, young love and the possibility of new beginnings. In an unusual twist, Winterson herself steps forward in the final pages to speak in the first person about what she hopes for from this story–and then she steps back to allow her characters to finish it.


Rating: 7 feathers.

The Anger Meridian by Kaylie Jones

A newly widowed woman is forced to face her own secrets, in vibrant San Miguel de Allende.

anger meridian

Merryn is up late at night, awaiting and fearing her husband’s drunken homecoming, when she opens the door to find two policemen announcing that he has been killed in a car accident. She quickly bundles up their nine-year-old daughter, the precocious Tenney, and leaves Dallas, Tex., for her mother’s home in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico.

The rest of Kaylie Jones’s striking novel, The Anger Meridian, is set in San Miguel, where Merryn’s mother, Bibi, presides over an opulent home and her frightened daughter’s life. As Merryn struggles to navigate her husband’s legacy (the FBI has followed her to Mexico to investigate his business dealings) and her and Tenney’s future, she has the opportunity to confront many dishonesties, including her own. Lying is one of The Anger Meridian‘s central themes.

The tone of Jones’s writing quivers with tension from the opening page. Merryn is traumatized, anxious, grinds her teeth at night; she behaves like an abuse victim. But where does her damage come from? And whom should she–and the reader–trust? A handsome American expat doctor, a lawyer friend of the family, a local yoga teacher, the members of Bibi’s entourage and clever Tenney each offer different angles on Merryn’s life. In the end, there are several puzzles to untangle in this lovely, finely plotted novel, which highlights colorful San Miguel and the complexities of family, loyalty and honesty. The Anger Meridian is at once a suspenseful mystery and a superlatively gripping story of self-discovery.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 martinis.

The Casualties by Nick Holdstock

This memorable first novel examines a Scottish neighborhood’s eccentrics with the benefit of hindsight following an apocalypse.

casualties

In Edinburgh, Scotland, there was once a neighborhood called Comely Bank, whose denizens included some eccentrics, with stories that warrant telling. Hinted at, just out of the reader’s line of sight, is the calamitous event that wiped it out, and Edinburgh, and all of Western Europe and beyond. This catastrophe motivates the unnamed narrator’s storytelling, told almost entirely in flashback.

Following a brief and ominous opening in which Comely Bank’s destruction is promised, the daily lives of local residents form the focus of Nick Holdstock’s debut novel, The Casualties. Sam Clark is a very curious man. He runs the charity bookshop in the neighborhood, where he carefully sifts and sorts through donated books looking for the ephemera tucked forgotten between their pages: he’s after photographs, letters, airline tickets, notes and cards that shed light on the lives of strangers. He carefully observes the people around him, seeking their stories. The reader won’t learn what he’s really looking for until well into Holdstock’s meticulously ordered narrative.

Comely Bank’s other residents include Sinead, a nymphomaniac struggling to control herself but obsessed with a local shopkeeper; meanwhile she serves as caregiver for an obese, mentally handicapped man. Caitlin works at a secondhand clothing store and fixates on the crackling skin condition that mars her face. She loves a man who does not love her; “with adoration comes the wish to hold a pillow over his face.” Alasdair lives under a bridge, dispensing questionable health advice to passersby who do not want it; he can’t remember his last name or his past. “Trudy” is the name taken by a Filipino prostitute illegally residing in Comely Bank. Mr. Ashram is resentful of his neighbors’ reluctance to accept him into their society. Retired headmistress Mrs. Maclean is impatient for her own demise. And so on–until the final, strangely twisting, imaginative pages.

Holdstock vividly presents his odd and varied characters, and places them in a world that is at once both colorful and recognizably everyday. The protagonists’ personalities and actions are quirky but believable, and given added weight by their place in time: The Casualties is a twist on the post-apocalyptic novel in that it reexamines the world just before its end. This perspective, and the continuing mystery of the narrator’s identity, nudge the reader into asking uncomfortable questions about life and its length and meaning. In its ending, Holdstock’s unusual creation leaves certain details to the imagination. Strong characterization and a creative plot, both familiar and bizarre, give this novel enduring allure.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pictures.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

A vibrant, thought-provoking literary puzzler about identity and self-determination.

diver's clothes

“You stand in the middle of the small square, thinking about your options.” Vendela Vida’s (The Lovers) vivid fourth novel, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, is surprising in several ways, beginning with its unusual second-person perspective: you are the protagonist.

“You” are a woman traveling alone from Florida to Casablanca, fleeing troubles at home that are only gradually revealed to the reader. What you seek is unclear: a vacation? An escape? But what you find instead is the immediate theft of your passport and wallet–in short, everything you need to travel or return home. This abrupt change in circumstances is terrifying but also strangely freeing.

As the rest of the story unfolds, the unnamed protagonist spontaneously reacts to situations as they present themselves. You accept a passport and wallet that was stolen from another American woman, offered by the Casablanca police in lieu of your own, and take on that woman’s identity. You accept an unlikely job offer as the stand-in for a famous American actress. You hang out backstage with Patti Smith, date an older Russian businessman, even undertake a little acting. When circumstances get hectic, however, you are tempted to use your newfound skills in spontaneity and anonymity to disappear again.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty is a complex, enigmatic fable about starting over, the nature of identity and the possibility of escaping the past. Vida’s meticulous release of details, knowing use of suspense, colorful evocation of Morocco and tantalizing characterization make this a singular, revelatory and deliciously satisfying novel.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cameras.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 460 other followers

%d bloggers like this: