All Families Are Psychotic
by Douglas Coupland
Published by Random House Canada
279 pages, 2001

In a year where National Book Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen made such a splash writing about a dysfunctional family, there is only one writer who could give the author of The Corrections a run for his money. Douglas Coupland, who has been making strong observations on the human condition as it is found in North America since the publication of Generation X a decade ago, does it again in All Families Are Psychotic, a great dysfunctional romp of a novel that, nonetheless, packs a strong emotional wallop. While Sarah Drummond is about to be launched into space, her family gathers around her at Cape Canaveral, the first time the whole clan has been assembled since... well.... ever. All Families is wildly funny and passionately hopeful. It might just be Coupland's strongest work of fiction yet.

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Gunman's Rhapsody
by Robert B. Parker
Published by Putnam
320 pages, 2001

Parker's best-selling books about Boston private eye Spenser have always owed debts of philosophy and action to the classic American western, but Gunman's Rhapsody is the first of his 40 novels to be lumped unambiguously into that genre. He isn't breaking any new ground here in terms of what sorts of stories can be told within the western vein; rather, Parker has chosen to re-create the events leading up to and following the infamous 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. The mix of author and incident is almost ideal. Parker's fondness for spare, punchy prose blends smoothly with the tale of Wyatt Earp and his brothers moving to Tombstone to seek their fortune, and how a series of decisions, prejudices and politics precipitated that bloody 30-second showdown between the Earps (backed up by John Henry "Doc" Holliday) and the Clanton gang. Like Spenser, Wyatt is a figure of firm-jawed convictions who, despite his decision to throw over his common-law wife for a self-confident showgirl named Josephine Marcus, succeeds in being a sympathetic figure. Parker skillfully captures the atmospherics of his historical setting: "He liked saloons," the author writes of Earp. "He liked the easy pace of them, the way the light filtered in through the swing doors and profiled the dust motes hanging in the still air .... He liked the smell of beer, and the card games, and the sense of oneness with the men who, like himself, liked saloons. He liked the lazy undercurrent of trouble that always murmured just below the surface of things." Parker tries too hard, through a series of news briefs tacked between chapters, to transport his audience back to the Gilded Age West, and it might have been more interesting to read his take on a lesser-known period in Wyatt Earp's life. But at least he captures the spirit of frontier America in all its dusty, desperate glory. If only his most recent Spenser novels offered the same freshness of curiosity that Gunman's Rhapsody does ... -- J. Kingston Pierce

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Hippolyte's Island: An Illustrated Novel
by Barbara Hodgson
Published by Raincoast Books
282 pages, 2001

Those that enjoy the work of designer/writer extraordinaire Nick Bantock will like Hippolyte's Island, a novel by Bantock's sometime studio-mate, Barbara Hodgson. While Hodgson's illustrations are just as strong as Bantock's, they're quite different and her storytelling tends to be deeper and richer (not to mention longer): there's more to read in a Hodgson novel and less to look at, though the illustrations that are here are beautiful and intricate. This time, the author of The Sensualist and The Tattooed Map tells the story of Hippolyte Webb, a "quixotic traveler, writer, and natural historian" who sets out to rediscover the Auroras, a group of South Atlantic islands that have been lost for almost 200 years. Hippolyte's Island is, quite simply, charming, not to mention a perfect hybrid of two quite distinct forms.

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Something Dangerous
by Penny Vincenzi
Published by Orion
710 pages, 2001

What is it with Penny Vincenzi? She consistently pumps out richly detailed novels of epic reach and breadth. Her latest, Something Dangerous, is 710 pages that are -- amazingly -- as crisp and entertaining on page 700 as they are on page one. In her latest tome, Vincenzi brings us Adele and Venetia Lytton, twins growing up in London in the 1920s in the intellectual glow of their family's publishing empire. As the 20s give way to the 30s, the twins experience their worlds changing. Relationships have brought disappointment and, in the wider world, Hitler's Germany is simmering not so far away and will soon wreak havoc on their previously placid lives. Something Dangerous seems custom made for wintertime fireside reading. An awful lot of a fascinating story, Something Dangerous is a delicious excuse for some serious self-indulgence.

The Distant Land of My Father
by Bo Caldwell
Published by Chronicle Books
372 pages, 2001

Bo Caldwell is beautifully out of the gate with The Distant Land of My Father, the first novel for this former Stegner Fellow. Blending the first person poetry of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-nominated When We Were Orphans, with the familial sensibilities of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, The Distant Land of My Father is narrated by Anna Schoene, daughter of a Shanghai-based insurance salesman-turned millionaire smuggler. When war and shady business connections frighten her, Anna's mother takes her back to California, leaving her father behind. Alone in Shanghai, his fortunes change. Imprisoned by the Japanese and ultimately deported, Joseph Schoene, when finally reunited with his daughter in the 1950s, is a different man than the one she remembers.

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The Feast of the Goat
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
404 pages, 2001

The Feast of the Goat is being hailed as Mario Vargas Llosa's best novel to date. Since the Peruvian author and politician has penned 17 previous books, this is no small claim. Goat certainly has the epic scope often associated with best books. It also features Llosa's passion for politics. This time he's bringing to life the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo -- the "Goat" -- at the end of his terrible regime in 1961. Vargas Llosa skillfully weaves documented history with several gripping fictional storylines to good effect. The Feast of the Goat might well be a modern masterwork.

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The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
by J.T. Leroy
Published by Bloomsbury
247 pages, 2001

Haven't heard of J.T. Leroy? You shall. Oh yes: you shall. Born in 1980, Leroy's first book, a novel called Sarah, debuted to raucous applause in mid-2000, drawing frequent comparisons between Leroy and a young William S. Burroughs. His new book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, is a collection of loosely connected, autobiographical stories. As the title suggests, Leroy's life -- at least, how it's portrayed in The Heart -- hasn't been precisely a picnic thus far. Rapidly becoming the enfant terrible of the American literary scene, Leroy's book is worth reading if only to have read it. We've seen the future, folks, and it looks self-absorbed.

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