Sunday, December 02, 2007

Holiday Gift Guide: Fiction

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (William Morrow) 316 pages
In the year that he was outed as the son of Stephen King, it’s unsurprising that Morrow should choose to republish Joe Hill’s debut collection, initially published in 2005 by the UK’s PS Publishing. On reading the book you realize that Hill was right to hide his identity for as long as he did. Once you know, it becomes almost impossible not to compare son to father, a comparison that can’t help but alter whatever you would have thought had you not been tempted to make it in the first place. Fortunately, Hill got to play unconnected writer for long enough to know he really could make it on his own. After all, 20th Century Ghosts got published and, presumably, got agented on its own. More importantly, it was celebrated and awarded and applauded in its publication year. In 2005, the book won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection, the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection and the International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection. And what everyone now wants to know: does Hill sound anything like dad? Well, yes. And no. After all, is there an author writing in this genre who has not been influenced by Stephen King? Yet the work is certainly not derivative and the voice and the phrasing and the pacing are not his father’s. But even if it’s tough for us not to make that comparison right now, it doesn’t matter. This is the work of a serious writer. It is inevitable that more work should follow. And more, I think, after that. We have a long time to make this separation. A long time to get used to the idea that author Hill calls a famous person “Dad.”

A Man of No Moon by Jenny McPhee (Counterpoint) 271 pages
If you’ve not had a chance to read anything by Jenny McPhee, A Man of No Moon is a terrific place to start. Beautifully written, painstakingly researched and occasionally as smoking hot as anything you’ve read in a literary novel, A Man of No Moon is a lovely book. McPhee convinces from the first moment. “At the risk of waking her,” begins the prologue, “I ran my finger along the perfect little bumps of her spine, down into the small of her back, then up the gentle rise, until I finally sank it deep into the fissure between her supple, tender cheeks.” We are in Italy, in 1948 with Italian poet and translator Dante Omerto Sabato who is set on his own death. When he is convinced to temporarily suspend the inevitable, he meets pair of American actresses and, ultimately, commences a doomed three-way affair. With more than passing glimpses into the nature of art, cinema and the human heart, A Man of No Moon is a gorgeous ride.

Antony & Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough (Simon & Shuster/McArthur & Company) 594 pages

For as long as many of her readers can remember, Australian author Colleen McCullough has been delivering top knotch historical fiction, of the kind that there is not nearly enough these days. McCullough’s work soars. It blisters. And it leaves us always wanting more. Best known for 1977’s The Thorn Birds, McCullough published the first of her “Masters of Rome” series in 1990, leading off with The First Man in Rome, which deals largely with the rise of Marius. There have been six novels in the series since then, including 2002’s bestselling The October Horse. I can’t imagine that the newly released Antony & Cleopatra will create any less excitement than its predecessors. McCullough, who turned 70 in 2007, has lost none of the grace and style that have been captivating readers for these many years. The book is a doorstop, but this is McCullough and she knows we like it that way.

Charlemagne and Roland by Allan Massie (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 232 pages
Allan Massie was born in Singapore in 1938, but raised in Scotland where he has, over the years, become one of the best known journalists in the country. He is the author of 19 novels and nearly as many works of non-fiction, notably critical studies of Muriel Spark and Colette. Charlemagne and Roland is the third book in Massie’s “Dark Ages” trilogy which began with The Evening of the World and continued with Arthur the King. Massie’s style of storytelling has gone far, far out of fashion yet he grabs us early in Charlemagne and Roland and never really lets go, bringing history once again fully to life.

Christmas at Grandfather’s House by Mark Leever (Pantheon Hill Publishing)
Each holiday season seems to produce at least one noteworthy work of fiction that’s geared to the holidays. One that comes across with the right blend of heartstring pulling and seasonal pathos that the reader comes away from it feeling buoyed and with renewed faith in the season of joy. This year I hazard that book is Christmas at Grandfather’s House by Mark Leever. The book collects six stories, all focused on the fictional town of Wharton. Each story focuses on one aspect of Christmas past or present but the thread that connects them -- beyond Christmas itself, of course -- is the reminder that the season is really about family, love and remembrance. -- Aaron Blanton

Empyre by Josh Conviser (Ballantine/DelRey) 278 pages
Publishers Weekly swooned: “Robert Ludlum meets William Gibson in this dystopian spy thriller,” which sums it up so neatly, I’ll let them restate it here. And, clearly, Empyre plunges you directly into page-turning action written as tightly as the very best thrillers. Yet the book is clearly and cleanly science fiction. Empyre is the sequel to Conviser’s 2006 debut novel, Echelon. While Echelon was a very good book, Empyre is even better. The Empyre of the title is a shadow organization that is behind the high level of madness affecting the whole world. Ryan Laing and Sarah Peters, two bioengineered Echelon agents, find themselves drawn back into the center of a plot that could alter the face of their world.

I Never Saw Paris: A Novel of the Afterlife by Harry L. Freund (Carrol & Graf) 196 pages
Sixty-four-year-old Irving Cadman is heading out shopping in preparation for a trip to Paris with his wife of nearly 40 years. A car jumps the curb, killing him, three other pedestrians and the driver of the offending car. Though dead, the five of them are bound together for a week before they move on for judgment. In that week they are under the care of the angel Malakh, who will help them put their lives into perspective so that can better explain and understand. I Never Saw Paris is by turns funny, charming, thought-provoking and even occasionally philosophical. Like author Fruend’s debut work, 2005’s Love, With Noodles, it lifts with a sweet and gentle wisdom while never hesitating to add a rich laugh.

The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter by Mary Ellen Dennis (Five Star)
We’re in late 18th century England where Elizabeth -- Bess -- Wyndham, an authoress of a certain age, finds life is passing her by. At the ripe old age of 30, the years are certainly slipping away and perpetual spinsterhood seems likely. “Even if she believed in marriage, at her advanced age she was far more likely to be attacked by an army of frogs than receive a serious proposal.” Of course keeping her all spinstered up and writing in her garrett does not exciting fiction make and if The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter is anything it is exciting. Elizabeth meets her other in the highwayman Rand Remington and, considering he is the ultimate bad boy, more excitement ensues. It’s an open secret that author Dennis is the alter-ego of bestselling mystery author Denise Dietz (Chain A Lambchop to the Bed, Fifty Cents for Your Soul) so it’s no surprise that this skillful fleshing out of “The Highwayman,” Alfred Noyes’ classic poem, swells under the journeyman’s touch. The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter is delightful. Compelling characters, a great story and a strong premise: this might be an accomplished author’s best book thus far.

Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison (Grove/Anansi) 281 pages
The author of A Good Day to Die (1973), Legends of the Fall (1979), The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000) and so many others is back in fine form with Returning to Earth, the story of a Finnish-Chippewa man of middle years who is fighting the debilitating -- and potentially fatal -- effects of ALS, the affliction formerly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In some ways, Returning to Earth is a sequel to 2004’s True North in that it picks up many years after the death of True North’s central character, David Burkett. His daughter, Cynthia, fell in the love with Donald -- our ALS sufferer -- in True North, though the two have since wed. Returning to Earth is a beautiful book. In it Harrison explores all of the nuances of human emotion and we are richer for having passed this way.

Songs Without Words by Ann Packer (Knopf) 322 pages
As I sat down with Songs Without Words, I had to keep reminding myself that this was only Packer’s third book and second novel. It’s simply no longer possible for me to imagine a literary world without the work of this writer in it. Packer’s debut novel, 2002’s The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, was an international bestseller and was made into a competent but not inspiring film starring Michelle Trachtenberg and Sean Maher in 2005. Five years after the publication of that debut, Songs Without Words looks at the things that connect us: friends, family and the almost eerie desire that most of us share to survive. A beautiful story, told with a delicate touch, Songs Without Words was worth the wait.

Trespass by Valerie Martin (Nan A. Talese) 304 pages
Quite often, when a novel is discussed, it’s easy to pick out a central thread or theme or both and say, “This: this is what this book was about.” As far as I can tell, Trespass is unblemished by a core that is so mundanely dissected. Instead, when examined, it almost becomes easier to tell you what the book is not about. The central storyline (or so I judge it from where I sit now) has Chloe Dale, an illustrator, dealing with a newly empty nest: her only child is 21 and a freshman at New York University. Her husband, a historian, is working on a book about the crusades. With son Toby gone, their house on 10 acres in the Catskills is quiet and it would be safe to assume that they’re heading towards a time of emotional peace. But Chloe finds herself increasingly disturbed about her government’s foreign policies. Meanwhile, in a sort of mad echo of her inner turmoil, a poacher is disturbing the peace of her studio. But the peace is well and truly shattered when Toby introduces -- and then rapidly marries -- his new girlfriend: a Croatian-American whose past is a dangerous question mark and the piece that will pull the whole family out of their gentle existence. Martin won the Orange Prize for Fiction for Property in 2003. She writes lyrically and at some distance. Trespass is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

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