Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

In the fleet The Flight Attendant (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Chris Bohjalian  puts some polish on that old chestnut of waking up next to a dead body. Flight attendant and binge drinker Cassie Bowden has only vague memories of her one-night stand with first-class passenger and American hedge fund manager Alex Sokoloff.  She recalls a business associate of Alex’s called Miranda showing up in his Dubai hotel room with more vodka. Then Miranda left and Cassie was going to leave, too, only now Cassie’s awake, and Alex is dead beside her with his throat cut. She clears out quickly, not at all sure she didn’t kill him with the broken glass she takes with her to discard, and makes her flight to New York, hangover and all. What she doesn’t know is that a Russian assassin is already regretting her decision not to kill Cassie and that the hotel security cameras were working. Cue the FBI. It’s a great set-up, although Cassie tries to drown her childhood memories and her present predicament with more regret drinking, and her addiction threatens the thrills of the espionage plot. But then Bohjalian pilots the book out of a dive with a couple of quick stunts. Fasten your seatbelts, please.

First-time author Clarissa Goenawan explores love and loss in Rainbirds (Soho Press, purchased hardcover), which mingles mystery with a touch of magical realism. When Japanese grad student Ren Ishida’s older sister Keiko is murdered, he travels to the small town where she had been living to collect her ashes. But Ren realizes that most of what he knew of Keiko has to do with his childhood, when she mothered him, and he has little idea of who she became after leaving home. He ends up taking over her teaching job at a prep school and even moves into the room she rented from a wealthy politician and his invalid wife. After he learns details of her stabbing death on a rainy night, he finds the street where it happened and lies down to reimagine her last lonely hours. He has recurring dreams of a pig-tailed girl, tries to help a shoplifting student and can’t find the knife he gave to Keiko. He does find her birth control pills. As Ren tries to discover Keiko’s secrets and come to terms with his own guilt and grief, he connects with  other people — fellow teacher Honda, the politician’s silent wife, the troubled student, a former lover. Rainbirds, with its images of goldfish, its memories and dreams, is quiet and disquieting, reminiscent of Haruki Murakami. Haunting.

New Yorker Nora Nolan has what you might call first world problems, although her college-age daughter is quick to note that no one says that anymore. Still, in Anna Quindlen’s thoughtful new novel, Alternate Side (Random House, digital galley) Nora, a museum director, and her investment banker husband Chip enjoy the privileges of life in an Upper West Side townhouse on a rare dead-end street. She really doesn’t want to live anywhere else. Sure, neighbor George is an officious busybody, and Jack next-door has a terrible temper, but it’s a real community with holiday parties, dogs on  leashes, a small parking lot for residents of long-standing, and shared handyman Ricky. Then Jack takes a golf club to Ricky’s van — and Ricky — in a parking dispute, and the incident winds up in the tabloids with neighbors split as to the rights and wrongs of the situation. Even Nora and Chip disagree, which prompts Nora to take a long look at her marriage and what she wants for the rest of her life. I suppose Alternate Side is a comedy of manners, but only if you think of the human comedy and not the laugh-aloud kind. There’s wit and satire, of course, but also probing questions of race and class, privilege and empathy. In her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Quindlen writes of how we come to understand our lives retrospectively. “The life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more  than the successes.”

Read Full Post »

sweetbitterStephanie Danler’s first novel arrives like the tangy summer cocktail you didn’t know you wanted but can’t stop drinking. Sweetbitter (Knopf, digital galley) turns out to be the perfect title for this coming-of-age, living-in-New York tale, a heady concoction of youthful yearning and impulse.

Coffee-shop waitress Tess, 22, arrives in New York in 2006 and gets a job as a backwaiter at a landmark restaurant, where she is yelled at by the chef, hazed by her fellows and mentored by the older server Simone. She learns about fine wine and good food, from the seductiveness of figs to the aggressiveness of winter lettuces. She is just as hungry for experience, and indulges in after-hour drinks and drugs with the staff, and despite Simone’s warnings, falls for bartender Jake. “I could tell you to leave him alone. That he’s complicated, not in a sexy way, but in a damaged way. I could tell you damage isn’t sexy, it’s scary. You’re still young enough to think every experience will improve you in some long-term way, but it isn’t true. How do you suppose damage gets passed on?”

Tess pays no attention and gives into desire, consequences be damned. Danler writes the same way, giving voice to the reckless invincibility of being young and in love with love and life. When a buttoned-down college acquaintance shows up at the restaurant and snobbishly suggests that Tess be his table’s waitress, Tess hides behind a polite smile.  “I wanted to say,  My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t understand.”

Or you could read Sweetbitter.

modernWhen do you grow up? What rite of passage marks you as an adult? College graduation?  Buying a house? Marriage? Parenthood? Or is it the first time you have sex? Or how about when you first find out your kids are having sex? Two of the three couples in Emma Straub’s new novel Modern Lovers (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley) mull over such mid-life mysteries as neighbors in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. The other couple — teens Ruby and Harry — are too busy obeying hormones to ask anything beyond, “Do you have something?”

Harry’s parents — Elizabeth and Andrew — were classmates at Oberlin with one of Ruby’s moms, Zoe, and they had a band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth bandmate, Lydia, broke away and soared to fame with a song Elizabeth wrote, “Mistress of Myself,” then died of a heroin overdose at 27. Now, 20 years later, the past comes calling when Hollywood wants to make a biopic of  Lydia, and needs the other three to sign over rights. That’s ok with Zoe, who is coping with Ruby’s moods and with her faltering marriage to Jane, the chef  at their trendy restaurant Hyacinth. Elizabeth, now a real estate agent, thinks the movie idea is cool and is surprised that her trust-fund husband Andrew is so adamantly against it. Andrew, who has never had a meaningful job, wants to put life on pause while he sorts things out, so he gets involved with a local yoga/meditation commune. Meanwhile, rebellious Ruby, who has just graduated from high school, fools around with mild-mannered Harry, who can’t believe his luck.

Straub is a sharp, observant writer, and Modern Lovers is a diverting comedy of manners much like her last novel, The Vacationers. But the characters aren’t nearly as interesting and cool as they think they are — Andrew is especially annoying — and their meanderings don’t really add up to much. At one point, a marriage counselor asks Zoe and Jane why they aren’t asking each other the hard questions, and they reply that things are ok and they don’t want to rock the boat for fear it might topple. Mmm. Modern Lovers could do with more rocking and rolling. Instead, it glides along, easily handling the gentle swells of modern middle age.

 

 

Read Full Post »

cityonfire“Big as life.” That’s the kind of novel that Georgia native Mercer hopes to write when he moves to New York in the mid-1970s to teach at a girls’ prep school. But Mercer is distracted by the bright lights, big city, and especially by his boyfriend, William Hamilton-Sweeney, who prefers art, punk music and heroin to his wealthy uptown family’s financial empire. No wonder Mercer, already struggling with his identity as a gay black Southerner, is overwhelmed by the rich pageant stretching from the East Village to the Upper West Side. “In his head, the book kept growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it.”

Garth Risk Hallberg evokes the heck out of real life in his ambitious doorstop of a novel, City on Fire (Knopf, digital galley). It has length (900 plus pages), complexity (dozens of intersecting characters), extras (photos, documents, coffee-stained manuscript) and a youthful exuberance that doesn’t know when to stop. So, yes, it’s digressive, excessive, over-the-top, and also sort-of-amazing. Hallberg is only 36 and yet he nails the gritty, glittering milieu like a modern-day Dickens with some Richard Price thrown in. His book made me remember what a rush New York was back then. I found myself  humming Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” while I was reading; now it’s an earworm I don’t regret.

Although City on Fire has flashbacks and flash forwards, it begins in December 1976 and continues through mid-July of ’77, culminating in the infamous blackout after a lightning strike brought down the city’s electric grid. The blackout comes across as almost apocalyptic in the novel, but it’s also where Hallberg brings together the many plotlines and characters spiraling out from the shooting of Long Island teenager Samantha in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Mercer finds her after coming from a ritzy Hamilton-Sweeney party he went to without William and where he meets William’s estranged sister Regan for the first time. She and her husband Keith have recently separated and she’s moved to Brooklyn with their two kids. It turns out that Keith knows Sam, now lying in a coma in a hospital, while a detective grills Mercer at the police station and Sam’s pal, awkward asthmatic Charlie, searches for her friends from a punk band headed by the anarchist Nicky Chaos, who knows William as drummer Billy Three-Sticks.

Got that? Because there are many, many more characters with overlapping stories and lives, like Sam’s father, who oversees a family fireworks business, and the magazine writer, who profiles the father and knows the detective and lives next to the gallery assistant who works for the dealer who was once William’s mentor. And so on. You may remember the old TV drama tagline: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Hallberg would like to tell a million or more with few degrees of separation.

Happily, Hallberg can really write in a take-no-prisoners, eat-my-dust style, and my eyes only glazed while reading some of Nicky Chaos’ rants or trying to decipher Sam’s zine writings. Sure the book could be shorter. Possibly it would be better, and more people would read it. Still, New York, New York. The good old bad old ’70s. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. What a rush.

Read Full Post »

littlelifeOh, my. I can’t remember when I last read a book so immersive as A Little Life (Doubleday, digital galley), the kind that makes you oblivious to the world around you because the story becomes your reality.  Hanya Yanagihara’s beautifully written second novel is both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the way in which the past impinges on the present. Unafraid of the dark, it can be as hard to read as it is to put down.

Four culturally diverse college roommates relocate to New York City after graduation to pursue their separate ambitions while still sustaining their bonds. J.B. is the Haitian-American artist who finds success painting portraits of his friends. Malcolm, the bi-racial son of wealthy professionals, searches for love and happiness as an architect. Willem, kind and compassionate since his boyhood on a Montana ranch, works as a waiter until his talents as an actor are recognized. Then there’s enigmatic Jude, who begins his brilliant ascent as an attorney, and who has never talked about his past nor the trauma that left him physically disabled. Willem, with whom he shares a shabby apartment, is both flattered and perplexed when he overhears Jude saying he tells Willem everything because it just isn’t true.

“In more generous, wondering moments, he imagined Jude as a magician whose sole trick was concealment, but every year, he got better and better at it, so now he only had to bring one wing of the silken cape he wore before his eyes and he would become instantly invisible, even to those who knew him best.”

Skilled at deflecting personal questions and setting boundaries, Jude eventually can’t hide all his secrets, the demons haunting him. He wears long sleeves — always — because he cuts himself, although those scars aren’t nearly as deep as the ones on his back, or the burn mark on his hand. Jude’s horrific childhood of physical and sexual abuse is gradually revealed in heart-wrenching bits and pieces, much in the way memory works. His doctor, Andy, knows some things, and his mentor, Harold, knows others. Willem, whose feelings for Jude intensify over time, witnesses his bouts of extreme pain, the nights when he forsakes bed for the solace of a razor blade. More and more, A Little Life is about Jude, and the love and loyalty he inspires among his friends who struggle to help him.

As a reviewer, I can tell you there are things wrong with this book. At 700-plus pages, it is overly long and sometimes repetitious. Female characters get short shrift; one of the four friends practically disappears from the narrative. On occasion, the perspective shifts abruptly, and time passes with little reference to outside events. I also can tell you, how as a reader, none of this mattered. I love this book.

Read Full Post »

furstDecember, 1937. The snow is falling in New York City as a lawyer visiting from Paris looks over his shoulder to see  if he is being followed. It’s also snowing in Madrid as a middle-aged museum curator waits nervously to be questioned by the authorities. The two men’s fates are soon linked in the atmospheric Midnight in Europe (Random House, digital galley), in which Alan Furst once again illuminates ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times as Hitler’s shadow looms ever larger. Here, the Spanish Civil War serves as a precursor of what is to come, and Spanish emigre Christian Ferrar, who works for an international law firm in Paris, agrees to help the Spanish Republic obtain much-needed arms to fight Franco’s fascists. There is an eye-opening train journey through industrial Germany in the company of an arms dealer wanted by the Gestapo, and later a more harrowing trip to Odessa and Poland in which a train is hijacked. Moments of heart-in-your-throat terror alternate with scenes in Paris nightclubs and bedrooms that whisper of betrayal and romance. No one is better than Furst at evoking this midnight hour before war plunges Europe into darkness.

twisted

Readers of S. J. Bolton’s gripping Lacey Flint novels know that the secretive London detective rarely goes with the flow. In A Dark and Twisting Tide (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), she’s again risking life and limb, first by “wild-swimming” in the Thames, where’s she’s living on a houseboat, and then by going after a serial killer who is leaving the shrouded, drowned corpses of young women for her to find. She’s also risking her heart, growing closer to cop Mark Joesbury, whose undercover work takes him away for days at a time. Lacey goes undercover, too, disguising herself as an Afghan refugee to try and find out more about a possible human-trafficking ring targeting the tight-lipped immigrant community. Old friends and new enemies complicate matters, and then a nightmare comes true when she finds herself once again at the mercy of the river and a relentless pursuer who swims like a mermaid and attacks like a shark.

alldayAlafair Burke’s complex new thriller All Day and a Night (HarperCollins, digital galley) takes it title from prison lingo for a life sentence with no parole. That’s what presumed serial killer Anthony Amaro has been serving the last 18 years, which gives him a solid alibi for the murder of a Brooklyn psychotherapist. But because the body has the signature of Amaro’s old kills, it leads to the D.A. and police ordering a “fresh look” at his case. Is a copycat at work or was Amaro wrongfully convicted in the first place? As Amaro’s celebrity lawyer argues to get him released, Burke’s series detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner begin an investigation that takes them back two decades to the murder of a handful of prostitutes in Utica. Also investigating, but for Amaro’s side, is young lawyer Carrie Blank, whose half-sister Donna was one of the victims. Both Ellie and Carrie have conflicted feelings that spill over into their personal lives as old secrets come to light and loyalties are tested. Coincidences abound, but Burke keeps tensions high until almost the very end.

vertigo

How well do you know Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? You might want to refresh your memory before starting Martha Grimes’ clever Vertigo 42 (Scribner, digital galley), in which Scotland Yard’s Richard Jury makes some dizzying connections between murders old and new. After meeting widower Tom Williamson at Vertigo 42, a London bar atop a financial-district high-rise, Jury takes off for Devon to look into the death of Williamson’s wife Tess 17 years ago. Did she fall — as the police think — or was she pushed — as her husband believes? And what, if anything, does childless Tess’s death have to do with the death five years earlier of a schoolgirl who fell into the country estate’s empty swimming pool while her pals were playing hide-and-seek? Meanwhile, Jury’s visit to his pal Melrose Plant’s country home presents him with the puzzle of a lost dog and the death of a young woman who fell from a nearby tower. Grimes juggles the surfeit of plots and the quirky cast with her usual ease, tipping her hat to Hitchcock and to previous Jury tales (there are 22) while readers’ heads spin.

strangerDetective constable Maeve Kerrigan often finds her brilliant boss, DI Josh Derwent, crude and rude. But no way she thinks he’s a murderer. Still, in Jane Casey’s sterling The Stranger You Know (St. Martin’s digital galley), Kerrigan’s  on the inside in the investigation of a serial killer who kills attractive young women in their homes, but Derwent’s shut out by their superiors. Not only does he fit the profile of a trustworthy stranger a woman might invite in her home, he also was the prime suspect in the long-ago, unsolved murder of his classmate Angela Poole. The new crime scenes have an uncanny similarity to Angela’s. Still loyal to Derwent, a wary Maeve continues the search for the “Gentleman Killer,” even as a stalker from her past reappears. Or has the killer targeted her?

someoneBrian McGilloway returns to Derry, Northern Ireland for the second Lucy Black thriller to be published in this country this year, after Little Girl Lost. In Someone You Know (HarperCollins/Witness Impulse, digital galley), Lucy’s assignment to the public protection squad again brings her into a murder investigation when an at-risk teen is killed, her body tied to the railroad tracks. If the train hadn’t been delayed, it would have destroyed the crime scene, and the death slated as a suicide. But someone is preying on Derry’s girls, even as they escape their dysfunctional homes to party with their friends, unaware just how close the enemy lurks. The daughter of two cops — one her chief superintendent boss, the other now suffering from dementia — Lucy has an affinity for the vulnerable that serves her well. A third book is on its way.

Read Full Post »