Monday, December 18, 2006

Gift Guide Part One: Fiction

Over the next few days, we’ll be offering up our selections for the 2006 holiday season. We begin here with a few selections of works of fiction. Have a great holiday! And don’t forget to take some time to read.

A Strange Commonplace by Gilbert Sorrentino (Coffee House Press) 154 pages
If Jack Kerouac had lived, if he’d gotten sober enough to tell a whole and coherent story, if he’d gotten more life -- but sane life -- under his belt he might have written a book like A Strange Commonplace, a work that is intricate yet feels spontaneous. Sorrentino once said that he doesn't “like to take a subject and break it down into parts,” rather, he prefers to “take disparate parts and put them all together and see what happens.” While this gives his work a rollicking realism, it also makes him very tough to review in such a small space: a lot is going on in A Strange Commonplace and all those disparate parts create a sort of fictional melting pot that can be difficult to keep up with. It’s worth the effort. Infidelity is at the book’s core, and everything that can result from it, but there’s so much more here, as well. Sorrentino is the author of over 30 books and has twice received Guggenheim Fellowships. In 2005 he was given the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His first novel, The Sky Changes, was published in 1966. Forty years on, A Strange Commonplace seems to be the work of a writer at the height of his powers. -- Monica Stark

The Book of Dave by Will Self (Bloomsbury) 496 pages
While it’s seldom possible to not have an opinion about Will Self once you’ve read him, this is even more true with The Book of Dave. You won't like The Book of Dave. You'll either love it so much you won’t be able to stop talking about it, or you’ll toss it across the room halfway through. Either way -- and like always -- this is a writer who demands a reaction. This time out, Self catapults into the future, to London 500 years hence where a primitive people find the writings of Dave, a London cabbie from our time and opt to use these wise words as a blueprint for the religion of their emerging culture. (Can you spell Davinity?) Laid down like that, the premise sounds silly. It’s actually anything but. In its own weird way, The Book of Dave asks you to question everything about our culture, our traditions and the way things are moving now. A couple of cautions: if you find yourself bogging in the language Self has created for his future world, a glossary at the back of the book might help clarify some things. Also, maps for the worlds Self writes about here can be found on his Web site. (And can make the going a bit easier.) Love it or hate it, The Book of Dave is unforgettable. -- Lincoln Cho

The Collectors by David Baldacci (Warner Books) 438 pages
It’s tough to believe that David Baldacci’s first novel, Absolute Power, was published just a decade ago, his has so quickly became a household name. In his latest thriller, Baldacci reintroduces us to the Camel Club, the quirky group of conspiracy theorists last seen in his book by that name last year. Power brokers and scholars are dropping dead in Washington, D.C. The deaths seem unrelated, but the Camel Club sees the connection. Readers who enjoyed The Da Vinci Code will be thrilled by The Collectors and wonder which chicken came before what egg. The answer is easy: when it comes to straightforward thrillers with little besides forward motion to slow things down, Baldacci got there first. -- Lincoln Cho


The Journey Prize: Stories edited by Steven Galloway, Zsuzsi Gartner, and Annabel Lyon (McClelland & Stewart) 263 pages
For 18 years, the Journey Prize anthology has provided a sort of literary prize between covers. The contenders are published in the anthology, the winner is selected the following spring as part of The Writer’s Trust Award and given $10,000 and a lot of attention. Created out of James Michener’s donation of the Canadian portion of his royalties from his 1988 novel Journey, the finalists are selected from stories submitted by Canadian literary magazines and published by them throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, Journey Prize alumnae include some of Canada’s top emerging writers from the last couple of decades, including André Alexis, Elizabeth Hay, Annabel Lyon, Yann Martel, Eden Robinson, Timothy Taylor and M.G. Vassanji. The year's crop of “new and emerging” Canadian writers is no less disappointing. You probably won’t know their names -- yet -- but, as a body, their work represents the direction Canadian fiction is moving now. The Journey Prize anthology never disappoints. -- Linda L. Richards

Knights of the Black and White by Jack Whyte (Viking Canada) 548 pages
This holiday season, publishers are banking on a residual effect from the immense success of The Da Vinci Code, both book and film. You can see it across the boards, in fiction, non-fiction and art & culture. Naturally, the quality of these sort of tie-in works varies greatly, from obviously derivative rush-through-to-market rip-offs, through to deeply creative works that would stand on their own, even if the The Da Vinci Code had never been. Jack Whyte’s Knights of the Black and White definitely falls into the latter category. For perfectly wrought historical detail and sheer pleasure of storytelling, you can’t beat Jack Whyte who has been enthralling us through the Arthurian age in nine big novels and in more detail than anyone ever imagined the round table sagas could be told. Knights of the Black and White is a departure for Whyte but, when you think about it, not a huge one. Here he begins his fictionalized version of the story of the Knights Templar in what will be his Templar Trilogy. I can’t wait for the next two installments. -- Lincoln Cho

The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin (Headline Review) 405 pages
In rural England in 1819, Waterloo veteran Stephen Fairhurst has been deeply touched by the horrors of war. He wants to rest for a time at Kersey Hall, his family home. He wants to contemplate peace, not war. Again at Kersey Hall, but now 1976. Anna, a teenager, has been sent to her Uncle’s failed school for the summer. She finds herself curiously enmeshed in the lives of two men, one of them that of the same Stephen Fairhurst who owned the house so many years before. The Mathematics of Love is an ambitious debut. The story is complex and complicated, yet Darwin pulls it all off beautifully. Emma Darwin’s debut novel is unforgettable. -- Monica Stark

Melancholy by Jon Fosse, translated by Grethe Kvernes and Damion Searls (Dalkey Archive Press) 284 pages
In the parts of Europe where Norwegian author Jon Fosse is well known, he is being hailed as the new Ibsen and is the author of 30 books and the recipient of a lifetime stipend from the Norwegian government for future literary efforts. First published in Norway in 2000, Melancholy won the Melsom Prize. Here Fosse artfully crams more melancholy than imaginable into a single day. Artfully, but with a subtle, sometimes almost sinister humor, Fosse introduces us to Lars Hertervig, a young Norwegian studying art in Germany. Like many artists, Lars is haunted by a houseful of insecurities, but his burden is added to by hallucinations and sexual obsessions. And, as we watch Lars spin through a single eventful day, it’s impossible not to ask ourselves about the view of the artist and the madness that spurs his soul. -- India Wilson

The Moneypenny Diaries: Secret Servant by Kate Westbrook (John Murray) 311 pages
In a Bond year, can anyone resist a diary penned by Jane Moneypenny, the spy’s boss’ personal secretary? Of course, since Moneypenny is as fictional as Bond himself, we know that the object here is to entertain and beguile and Samantha Weinberg, writing here as Kate Westbrook, manages both. I mention Westbrook’s better known name because it was as Weinberg that she wrote Pointing From the Grave, for which she was awarded the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction. Secret Servant is the second of her Moneypenny books and it’s everything it should be: a little romance, a lot of adventure, a dollop of mystery and all against the backdrop of the cold war. In Secret Servant, matters get very personal when Moneypenny discovers that her father may been murdered and, for a while, the danger seems very close to home when she finds herself in danger as, well. -- Linda L. Richards

The Peruvian Notebooks by Braulio Mañoz (University of Arizona Press) 273 pages
Antonio Alday Gutiérrez is living a double life. Maybe triple, depending on how you count such things. Though he had high hopes when he arrived in the United States from Peru, he’s only able to get work as nightwatchmen at a mall in Lima, Pennsylvania (which is, of course, ironic all by itself). And, of course, with a nightwatchman’s wages, it means his shelter must be modest, as well. Since those he left in Peru had high hopes for him, Antonio invents a beautiful new life in America, complete with a lovely home and a growing business. And, in the hope of making his new American friends think better of him, Antonio invents a glamourous past in Peru. As the novel opens Antonio is in a dire situation, holed up in his apartment waiting for the police to arrive. In a mad attempt to conceal his double life, he has committed a desperate act. Through old letters, notes in a diary and even his own ragged thoughts, Antonio contemplates his path to this point. Mañoz skilfully weaves the disparate elements of the narrative into a cohesive and quite wonderful whole. -- Linda L. Richards

Salon Fantastique: Fifteen Original Tales of Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Thunder's Mouth Press) 396 pages
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are, arguably, among the best known contemporary editors of anthologies in the world of fantasy fiction. The team gained part of this reputation during the editing of 11 volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. With Salon Fantastique they’ve set themselves quite a different task, but it really works here. In their introduction, Datlow and Windling let us know that their “aim was to evoke the liberating, creative spirit of a literary salon by inviting a number of writers to gather together in these pages exchanging ideas in literary form.” I don't know about the exchange of ideas in this forum -- there is, after all, not much room for an exchange -- but the stories included are as pleasantly varied as would be expected and, considering the authors included in this gathering, the quality of the stories is high, and they pull our minds and imaginations in all possible directions. Fifteen authors contributed to Salon Fantastique, among them some of the very top writers in the field, among them Christopher Barzak, Jeffrey Ford, Gregory Maguire, Lucious Shepard and Marly Youmans. -- Lincoln Cho

Windflower by Nick Bantock and Edoardo Ponti (Chronicle Books) 224 pages
Readers who fell in love with Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine more than 10 years ago will find little to remind them of those characters in Bantock’s latest outing. Windflower is good. It’s charming. But it’s a very different sort of book. First, although the book is illustrated, there are more words in wildflower than what we’re used to seeing from this author. A lot more. Interestingly, though, since Bantock is known as an illustrator-turned-writer, rather than the other way around, his writing is very visual. “She sees her mother comb and braid the bride’s hair. The bride has very dark brown eyes, a high-bridged nose, and a jaw that is a little wide at its hinge.” Bantock is clearly very concerned with the way things look and he wants you to see what he sees. In Windflower, a young dancer named Ana is promised in a loveless match. Everyone in her family is in favor of that match, except for Ana’s grandfather, who agrees that the marriage must not happen, at any cost. As the wedding approaches, Ana flees, setting her on a journey beyond her wildest imaginings. Edoardo Ponti -- yes that Ponti -- is listed as co-author, but his name appears much smaller than Bantock’s, I'm not sure what that means, though maybe the co-authorship is incidental, although Ponti is adapting the novel for the screen. Certainly the style here seems all Bantock, all the time. Fans will adore Windflower and the beautiful frieze printed in full color along the bottom of every page in the book helps make this an ideal book for gift-giving.

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