Fall delivers so many treats, and one of the best is the abundance of new books that publishers traditionally release at this time of year. The stacks by my bed, by my reading chair, and on my desk constitute only a small number of a glut of new titles, too many to mention at once. It is a bit like choosing my favorite Halloween candy from a particularly large stash. But wait! These are all sugar-free, and so, so yummy!
The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
What charmed me about this book are its themes–miniatures (as in doll-like houses), Amsterdam in the 17th century, and a bright and unique young heroine who is a new bride in an arranged marriage. Nella is from a formerly-wealthy country family, who marries and moves to the house of a wealthy older man in Amsterdam, a man who is kind but curiously detached and physically remote. For a wedding present, however, he presents Nella with a cabinet house (based on an actual 17th-century dollhouse at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) that replicates every room in their home. Her efforts to furnish it lead Nella to an enigmatic miniaturist, who recreates the furnishings, people and animals of the home a little at a time, and who must know more about the family than Nella, possibly foreseeing things that have not yet come to pass. Burton brings Amsterdam vividly to life, fascinating enough by itself. And the plot reads like a thriller, as Nella tries to understand the family and its secrets. This is a surprisingly accomplished first novel, much deeper and richer than I expected.
The Interior Circuit: a Mexico City Chronicle, by Francisco Goldman
Goldman first came to my attention with his haunting novel/memoir, Say Her Name, which recounted the death of his young wife Aura in a freak surfing accident in 2007. In the intervening years, while mourning her death, Goldman decided to spend as much time as he could in Mexico City, where he and Aura had met and lived. He wanted to learn to drive the circuit, a thirty mile ring around the city, partly to immerse himself in the city, and to draw symbolic ring around his grief. Driving in Mexico City (known as “the DF”) is not for the faint of heart, as neighborhood streets intersect each other at unanticipated angles, dumping cars into thoroughfares with no merging lanes, each car driven by “wild-eyed, eager race-car drivers who veer off track”. What Goldman contemplates, during his examination of the city, is not only his personal grief, but the ongoing tragedy of Mexico’s narcoviolence, which in previous decades had left the city “untouched, although still corrupt”. Goldman has tackled and brought into focus a portrait of one of the world’s great historic, tragic and beautiful cities.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
For years, I was almost embarrassed to say that I had read only one of Robinson’s books, Housekeeping, and skipped her newer novels. Now I’m glad I waited, for Lila is the backstory of a central character for Robinson’s best selling novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). I can hardly wait to tackle those two that I missed, now that I am so taken in by her unusual characters and the small town in Iowa that they inhabit. Lila, a former orphan has had a tough life on the run, barely surviving before (and after) being “stolen” by an older girl who saw the small child neglected and abandoned. Years later, Lila finds the small town of Gilead, where she ends up settling in (against her instincts) and even marrying an older man, the local preacher. Robinson is such a skilled writer she can handle burning material with the most delicate care. Particularly in her portrayal of the relationship of Lila and her new husband, I often held my breath to see what Lila would say or do, only to end up more breathless at the outcome. A tender, tough and beautiful story.
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean
How could I ever resist a book that is subtitled “the history of the human brain” by popular science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb)? What makes Kean’s book particularly appealing, (amidst hundreds of books about the brain) is his skill using true stories of unusual doctors, maladies and cures to illustrate this history. The history of medicine often seems to be one ill-timed, gruesome and unbelievable experiment after another that can make the stomach turn and the mind reel. Yet among those stories the creativity and determination of doctors who have paved the way for innovations in mental health, surgery, and infectious disease cures stands out. It would be hard to pick a favorite chapter, as each illuminated a part or function of the brain that I did not want to miss. Science writing is one of the strongest genres being published today, and if I were you, I would not want to miss this one!
The Secret Place, by Tana French
Many of you know by now that I am a sucker for anything Tana French writes, and her newest is no exception. This is her fifth novel in her Dublin-set mystery series, yet each of her books can stand alone, as she is adept at not necessarily following the same set of detectives each time. She often uses a minor character from a previous novel to play a major role in a newer novel. In her typically lovely prose, she plumbs the complexities and depths of her characters in a way that few mystery writers do (P.D. James comes to mind, yet French can do as well with fewer words). A recurring theme in all her books is adolescence, and in this novel a pair of detectives are assigned a cold case involving the year old murder of Chris Harper, who was a student at an exclusive Dublin school. French so beautifully renders the motivations and behaviors of cliques in the world of young women in this book, I could not put it down. Warning: do not start The Secret Place unless you have hours to spend at one sitting, and have snacks in hand.
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters
Waters is the author of five other novels (including Night Watch (2006) and Tipping the Velvet, 1998), which I have not read but probably will now. Initially the plot and setting of this novel intrigued me, and I was surprised at how masterfully she combined a keen examination of England’s post-Edwardian years, a lesbian love story, and a gripping thriller so seamlessly. With two brothers killed in WWI and her father’s death shortly after, Frances Wray and her mother are left struggling to maintain their London home with a huge debt. They decide to take in an unhappily married couple as boarders, and the upshot is that the two women fall in love. Waters is known for her unusually silky prose, and a talent for lulling the reader into her smooth (and often comic) plot, then turning up the heat to scorching. A gripping mystery I could not stop thinking about, even two weeks after I finished it.