A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install

This exceptionally charming novel addresses human relationships by way of a one-of-a-kind robot.

robot in the garden

Deborah Install’s first novel, A Robot in the Garden, is a delightful romp and an emotional journey, both hilarious and poignant.

Ben is idle, unemployed, still living in his childhood home in a small town in England, and grieving his parents’ death. He is a constant source of frustration to his wife, Amy. When a robot appears in their back garden, Amy is exasperated, as usual: she tells Ben to get rid of it. Ben is intrigued. The robot, Tang, is decrepit but apparently well-made, and has more personality than the androids the neighbors keep around to do laundry and house chores. Tang is also obstinate, willful and possibly broken beyond repair, but Ben suspects that there is something special about this creature. Together they undertake a riotous expedition, seeking a fix for Tang–and perhaps for Ben as well. On the way, the odd pair encounters bizarre situations, including android sex workers and a radioactive wiener dog, and make new friends. Mulish but endearing, Tang throws tantrums and wins Ben’s heart, and stirs him to reexamine his relationships with the people in his life.

Both Ben and Tang are well-developed, imperfect but lovable characters, and Install has an expert ear for tone and mood. Her dialogue is masterful–Tang’s singular voice develops throughout the novel as he does, and the silliness of this eccentric story provides a refreshing counterpoint to sentimentality. A Robot in the Garden is zany and heartfelt, endlessly funny and often absurd, but speaks directly to the central challenges of the human experience.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the May 20, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 Premium seats.

Maximum Shelf: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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 May 9, 2016.

Steven Rowley’s first novel, Lily and the Octopus, is a startling, scintillating experience, both funny and emotionally wrenching: a story that shatters all expectations.

lily and the octopus

In the opening lines, narrator Ted Flask introduces his contented home life with his domestic partner, an aging dachshund named Lily. They live in Los Angeles, where Ted works from home, and they are comfortable in their routines: pizza on Sundays, Monopoly on Fridays, talking about cute boys on Thursdays. They have inside jokes, holiday traditions, and an idyllic story of love at first sight. Lily holds up her end of conversations, although as a dog she is of course distractible, and her memory can be short. Her voice is just as we expect a dog to sound. As a puppy (in flashbacks, as in the scene of their first meeting), her breathless enthusiasm comes out in all caps and exclamation points: “IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE!”

As the novel unfolds and Ted fills out as a character, though, it becomes clear that his life is not necessarily well-rounded. He has a therapist he dislikes; he finds her dim-witted, and in his head runs all her advice past his ideal, imaginary therapist. He has panic attacks. His career has stalled. A long-term relationship, ended 18 months ago, continues to haunt him; recent attempts at dating have gone poorly. Until Lily, he worried that he was unable to open up, unable to love. In Ted’s favor, he has a superlative human best friend named Trent, who always comes when called and brings Valium. And, crucially, Ted has Lily. She is the best thing in his disordered and inwardly-turned life.

Those first sentences introducing Lily also introduce the octopus. A new addition to their household, he has a death grip on Lily’s head, and he’s not going anywhere. Like Lily, the octopus talks. Ted wants him to leave, but the octopus will not let Lily go. She begins to have seizures. She weakens.

Ted dreams of an octopusectomy. The vet offers chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, but is not optimistic about Lily’s chances. Ted tries to involve her in the decision-making, but Lily is a dog: her attention span is limited (oh look, red ball!) and, anyway, at 12-and-a-half human years, she has been feeling a little run-down. She rarely speaks in caps anymore. Ted was warned by a vet that, as Lily aged, she would begin to exhibit what he called Enclosed World Syndrome; that is, her perceived world and realm of interest would shrink. It is true, her walks have gotten shorter. Of course, Ted himself has the same malady. As the octopus’s tentacles tighten around Lily’s precious small head, Ted realizes he has a battle on his hands.

It is easy to fear that the market for books about beloved dogs may be flooded, but this one does something new. Lily and the Octopus is its own beast, and the reader is not the same person at the end as at the beginning. In many ways this is the story of Steven Rowley’s life in all its emotional truth, if not in specific, literal details. Ted and Lily’s Los Angeles is a thoroughly realistic setting, but a few elements–most obviously the talking octopus–offer boggling departures. By relying on metaphor, Rowley creates a fantasy world with touches of magical realism, somehow both more affecting and more comforting than reality.

Lily and the Octopus comes with the trappings of humor, canine antics, strong characters and profound emotions. Rowley, who is also a screenwriter, peppers the story with Cate Blanchett, Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Bradleys Cooper and Milton. Equally prominent are the literary references: Kipling’s jungle, Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” and a reading list to prepare for an octopus hunt: Hemingway, Melville, Patrick O’Brian. The book opens in the spirit of a fun read, but the tone quickly deepens to a sadder and a more intense experience. Ted and Lily’s story centers around relationships: love and life partnership, the nature of commitment and of loss, and what it looks like to fight for one’s friends. As Ted battles the octopus and tries to shore up his darling, he ends up examining every aspect of his own life, his own shortcomings and the strengths he discovers in himself, almost by surprise. His journey, then, is not only about a man and his dog but about breaking out of life’s stalemates. This introspection and interior aspect to the novel is only one of the depths that make it both more than another story about a beloved dog, and more than a whimsical work of fantasy–although it is a superb example of both.

Lily and the Octopus is literary and raw, and relentlessly heartfelt. Questions of who and how we love are at its center and, vitally, the question of how we part. Imaginative, ever-astonishing, suspenseful and wise, Rowley’s surprising novel is thoroughly gut-wrenching, but well worth the pain. With a winning dog at its robust heart, no reader could ask for more.

Rating: 9 moments with the red ball.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Rowley.

Mon amie américaine by Michèle Halberstadt, trans. by Bruce Benderson

In a long letter to a friend in a coma, a Parisian woman meditates on friendship.

mon amie

Parisian Michèle and New Yorker Molly have been friends for many years. As colleagues in the film industry, they travel together, and talk on the phone nearly daily–until, at 40, Molly collapses in her office and becomes comatose. Michèle Halberstadt’s (The Pianist in the Dark) novel Mon Amie Américaine takes the form of a long letter Michèle writes to Molly, in lieu of speaking, because “The words I can’t share with you are choking me.” As Molly remains unresponsive, uncomfortable truths are revealed behind a presumably lifelong friendship.

Michèle’s letter acts as a diary, an account of her experience of Molly’s near death: getting the news; tracking her friend’s progress (or lack thereof); being forbidden to visit; and finally, after Molly awakens several months later, discovering a different person from the one she’s missed. The new Molly is hesitant, frightened and languid where the old one was a high-powered businesswoman, vibrant and fun. Meanwhile, Michèle suffers injuries in her own life, with no Molly to turn to.

Bruce Benderson’s translation from the French is melodic and evokes fluent but accented English, exactly as the reader expects Michèle to sound. Her tone ranges from elegiac to loving to frustrated (“How many times in the last ten years have I repeated you ought to see a specialist”) to self-pitying and to resigned. This love letter to friendship ends by considering what we are willing to do for those we love, and what obstacles even friendship may be unable to overcome.

This review originally ran in the April 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 phone messages.

Hill by Jean Giono, trans. by Paul Eprile

This slim French novel in a new translation pits humankind against the natural world in moody, lyrical prose.


Hill, Jean Giono’s first novel, won the Prix Brentano in 1929 and has been newly translated into English by Paul Eprile. Focused on the conflict between humans and nature in a tiny French village, the story’s imagery and atmosphere offer a thrilling, disturbing, visceral experience in an unassuming package.

A small Provençal hamlet known as the Bastides Blanches (the White Houses), or simply the Bastides, has been for some time slouching back toward a state of nature. In these crumbling houses now live four families comprising a dozen residents–plus one, a mute vagabond they call Gagou, “who throws off the reckoning.” The eldest resident, an old man named Janet, falls ill, takes to his bed, and here the troubles begin: an ill omen is noted, the town’s water supply runs dry, and the surrounding landscape takes on a sinister cast. Janet begins to speak in tongues, and “in the old man’s talk there are chasms where untold powers rumble.” The men of the village meet to strategize as the natural world encircling the Bastides advances.

Hill runs just over 100 pages, but its impact is powerful. Giono sketches his characters sparingly. The character of Gagou presents ominous questions that are left unanswered: Are his differences malevolent, or merely another force of nature? The individualities of human characters are not the point; instead, this story is about the shape of the world, the breadth and agency of nature independent of humankind. Eprile’s translation emphasizes language and a brooding tone. The result is a curious, intriguing novel of wind, earth, water and fire, both threatening and luminous.

This review originally ran in the April 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 6 purple foams.

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco, trans. by Richard Dixon

A man on a remote mountain puzzles over a mysterious distant light in this gently disquieting novel.

distant light

Antonio Moresco offers an otherworldly story of isolation with Distant Light, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. The unnamed narrator opens with the statement that “I have come here to disappear.” He is the sole resident of an abandoned village in the mountains, and spends his day wandering the ruins of houses, sheds and a cemetery that are fast returning to nature. He contemplates the forces around him, described in sinister terms: evil, savage plants strangling and fighting one another in “this slaughter, this blind and relentless torsion they call life.” While bothered by these thoughts, and the noises of the wild animals, he is most tormented by the mystery of the light across the gorge. Deep in a thick forest, the light comes on each evening at the same time. What could it be–human, bioluminescence, alien?

Distant Light combines poetry and philosophy, and employs a setting both threatening and teeming with life. In a plot where not much happens, with few characters and no names, Moresco nevertheless evokes profound concepts and deep emotions. His quietly anguished protagonist claims to seek seclusion but cannot put down the question of the “maelstrom of little lights.” When the man finally crosses the gorge and meets the small boy living alone in an ancient house, he finds only another puzzle. Lonesome, dreamy, desolate, this is a novel of reflection on humanity’s place in the universe and the fluid relationship between life and death. Patient readers of philosophy will appreciate this brief but deliberately paced meditation.

This review originally ran in the March 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 potholes.

Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong, trans. by Scott E. Myers

A passionate, troubled love affair between two men is set in a time of cultural upheaval, in late 20th-century China.

beijing comrades

Translator Scott E. Myers’s introduction to Beijing Comrades is itself an engrossing story: the tale was originally serialized online, and the author–listed here as Bei Tong, elsewhere as Beijing Comrade, Miss Wang and other names–remains anonymous; Myers does not know Bei’s gender. This is the first English translation and the third version of the novel to be published, combining two previous publications and a new manuscript by Bei with an expanded story and explicit sexual detail.

Beijing Comrades is about Handong, a privileged, successful, egotistical businessman, and Lan Yu, a younger man of modest circumstances. When Lan Yu arrives in Beijing as a student, Handong immediately takes him as a lover. The older man had been accustomed to myriad sexual conquests of both men and women, defined by psychological domination and materialism, but this liaison is different, eventually coming to dominate both men’s lives. Over the years, Handong and Lan Yu strain to reconcile their relationship with a culture in upheaval: late 1980s China, experimenting with capitalism, approaching the Tian’anmen Square protests, increasingly materialistic and anti-gay.

While the dialogue is stylistically inconsistent, reminding readers of the fact of translation, the emotions of the story reinforce its realism. First-person narrator Handong is not always a likable character: he is cynical, profit-driven, fickle in love and often cruel. But these flaws make him credible, and even increase the impact of both men’s anguish.

Beijing Comrades is an important entry in the Chinese historical record as well as a moving, erotic and emotional novel.

This review originally ran in the March 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 dinners out.

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Set during a weekend of pro football reenactment, this sidesplitting novel displays all the baggage of male middle age.

throwback special

The Throwback Special stars a group of middle-aged men gathering for the 16th annual reenactment of a memorable moment in professional football: the 1985 sack, by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, that resulted in a career-ending comminuted compound fracture of the leg for Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. In the hands of Chris Bachelder (Bear v. Shark), this is rich material, by turns poignant and droll.

The 22 men are expertly evoked as individuals, often pathetic but also sympathetic. “It could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.” This is Bachelder’s specialty: the intersection of the absurd with earnest emotion, neuroses lovingly portrayed. The Throwback Special is endlessly hilarious, ranging from the serious, even the existential–it is true of the play, like everything else, that “while it was happening it was ending”–to the shrewdly wise: a seven-page interior monologue about race relations by the group’s one person of color is surprisingly entertaining.

The book takes place over a single weekend, involving a certain amount of action but mostly focused on the men’s thoughts and reflections. In this brief window, Bachelder reveals the magic of professional sport spectating, the silliness and profundity of traditions, and the tender illogic of friendship. Obviously, this novel will attract football fans, but there is absolutely something for everyone (even the sports-averse) in this rollicking, irreverent but sweet human drama.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the March 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 ping pong balls.

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