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  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2019/07/18 Permalink
    Tags: , , , crime authors, curtain, , , , , , , new yorked, potter's field, rob hart, sherlock holmes, sleeping murder, their time had come,   

    6 Crime Writers Who Ended a Series Voluntarily 


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    Having a hit series of books and a popular character that readers respond to is usually the dream of an author of an genre, but especially the authors of detective novels. But it can also become a burden, trapping the writer in a universe and a type of story that remains in literary amber. Still, most writers happily plug away at a series as long as readers keep showing up, and usually the only reason a popular detective stops accepting new cases is because the author retires…from this mortal coil. But not always; sometimes a writer decides to retire a character voluntarily for their own private reasons—like the six authors on this list.

    Sherlock Holmes, authored by Arthur Conan Doyle
    Doyle famously tried to walk away from Holmes in 1893’s The Final Problem, sending him over the Reichenbach Falls as he struggled with archenemy Professor Moriarity. Doyle regarded his Holmes stories as literary trifles and wanted to focus on more serious writing; he managed to resist the constant pleas for more Holmes stories for eight years before giving in and writing The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1901 and kicking off a second wave of Holmes stories that continued until Doyle passed away.

    Pete Fernandez, authored by Alex Segura
    Segura’s Pete Fernandez has been one of the most interesting noir detective characters in recent years, going from a shambling wreck of a life and career to something resembling stability over the course of four tightly plotted, Miami-infused novels. Segura has decided that Miami Midnight, the fifth book in the series, will be the last Fernandez mystery. Which is a shame, because Midnight digs deep into Pete as a character as he’s pulled from unofficial retirement from his unofficial career as a detective, asked by a local gang kingpin to look into the death of his son, a musician. One of the great things Segura has done with Fernandez is make his personal struggles as compelling as the cases he investigates without resorting to overblown mythology. Pete’s interesting because of the sort of personal mysteries we all carry around with us, and he’ll be missed.

    Ash McKenna, authored by Rob Hart
    McKenna’s an interesting character, a self-described “blunt instrument” who begins a journey to being a real, complete person in Hart’s New Yorked, and then continues that journey through three more books that take him all over the world. Hart’s decision to make Potter’s Field the last McKenna novel had everything to do with ending that story of personal development, of finishing the character’s tale purposefully. While he hasn’t ruled out another McKenna story at some point, it’s refreshing to see an author so in control of their character they end their series when the time feels right to them.

    Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, authored by Agatha Christie
    Christie is an unusual case, because she did, in fact, write about her two most popular characters, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, until she died. But she also voluntarily ended both series—three decades earlier. During World War II Christie worried she might not survive, and worried that meant her greatest literary creations would be orphaned without a proper send off. Her solution was to write a final case for both Poirot and Marple, then lock them away with a stipulation that they not be published until she passed away. As a result, Poirot’s final novel, Curtain published in 1975 and Marple’s, Sleeping Murder, published in 1976 just after Christie’s death. While locking novels away for thirty years on the assumption that people will still care in the future is pretty presumptuous, it certainly paid off for Christie and her fans.

    Peter Wimsey, authored by Dorthy Sayers
    Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t as famous as his contemporaries like Poirot, but he was one of the stars of early-20th century detective fiction—and the ultimate “gentleman detective” character. Wimsey was quite popular, but Sayers’ last Wimsey novel was 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon, and aside from a short story and some references she never returned to the character. There’s speculation that Sayers, horrified at the violence and terror of World War II, decided she could no longer write about murders and the like. Which is a shame, because Wimsey, who began as a somewhat comical figure, developed into a marvelous and subtle character, and the world could have done with two or three more Wimsey novels.

    Kurt Wallander, authored by Henning Mankell
    Mankell seemed to be planning the end of Kurt Wallander, the depressed, junk food-addicted Swedish detective, more or less since his debut in 1991’s Faceless Killers. Wallander aged with the march of time, and Mankell at one point tried to pivot into a spinoff series with a new character before returning to Wallander. 2009’s The Troubled Man was the definitive final adventure for Wallander, and the character was depicted as dealing with the first symptoms of oncoming dementia, perhaps the worst thing that could afflict a man who relies on his mind and his memory. Mankell continued to write until his death in 2015, but he never returned to Wallander.

    There’s a power in deciding when and where to end your creation. What’s your favorite character’s ending?

    The post 6 Crime Writers Who Ended a Series Voluntarily appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/05/04 Permalink
    Tags: claire dewitt, harry hole, , sherlock holmes, vice and virtue   

    Why Are So Many Detectives Addicts? A Study in 10 Books 


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    It’s an accepted fact—in fiction, anyway—that to be a brilliant detective, you must also be broken in some fundamental way. Perhaps that brokenness is why they’re able to see the clues the rest of us miss?

    What’s curious about these flawed, brilliant minds though, is how often their struggles are expressed through substance abuse and addiction—and how those traits are treated by novelists has evolved over the years. The 10 books below feature detectives who are alternatively brilliant, messy, arrogant, and tough—but they’re linked by their addictions, and the way those vices inform, enhance, or blunt their powers.

    Sherlock Holmes (The Complete Sherlock Holmes Volume I, by Arthur Conan Doyle)
    Any discussion of addiction in detective fiction must start with Holmes, who was conceived of and written during a period of history when the dangers of narcotics such as cocaine and morphine weren’t fully understood (and the drugs were, to a great extent, legal to use). You can’t view the original Holmes stories through the lens of modern attitudes towards drugs. You can view them through a literary lens, and ask why Doyle thought it necessary to seed clues throughout the stories regarding Holmes’ probable addiction to cocaine. It can be argued the reason was simple enough: in Holmes, Doyle had created a superhuman character, and he needed to give him a fatal flaw. That set a pattern for fictional detectives that’s been repeated ever since—the idea that the people who can spot tiny clues and piece together complex crimes need to numb their racing thoughts, to escape their fevered brains and tortured existence.

    Nero Wolfe (Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout)
    Wolfe, a character born in the 1930s, also demonstrates this idea—Wolfe is not simply a legendary gourmet and gourmand, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, prone to burning cook books that deviate from his own strong beliefs on cookery—he’s also clearly a man who compensates for his shut-in existence and overpowered intellect with food, and lots of it. In earlier books, Wolfe’s mental stress was more overt, as he was described as frequently falling into periods of inactivity during which he rarely left his bed; his obsession with food and drink would today be viewed as clearly compensatory. In the early 20th century, however, it still serves mainly to humanize a character who would otherwise be a crime-solving machine.

    Jack Vincennes (L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy)
    Whereas much of the detective fiction of the mid-20th century treated alcoholism and drug addiction as a problem of morals or character—and often depicted detectives who seemed fueled by booze instead of ruined by it—Ellroy’s throwback noir classic was subversive in how it depicted Jack Vincennes’ life and career spinning out of control after he dried up and straightened out, almost as if Ellroy was subtly reinforcing the idea that messed-up people who needed chemicals just to get through the day made the most effective detectives.

    Matthew Scudder (The Sins of the Fathers, by Lawrence Block)
    By the mid-1970s, the idea that alcoholism was not a necessary professional hazard for a detective, coupled with a growing acceptance that recovering from alcoholism didn’t mean you were weak, was gaining traction. Matthew Scudder is a full-blown alcoholic in his debut novel, published in 1976, but his addiction isn’t depicted as part of his coping mechanism for a brilliant mind, or as being helpful to his investigative process. In fact, it inhibits him, and is evidence of a damaged man trying to find his way out of misery. By the early 1980s, Scudder showed up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and has clung to his sobriety ever since, becoming a leading example of a detective who solves crimes and defeats the bad guys in spite of his crippling addiction, not because of it.

    Harry Hole (The Bat, by Jo Nesbø)
    Another example of the changing role of addiction in detective fiction, Harry Hole is a brilliant detective—when he’s sober. His alcoholism waxes and wanes, and his superiors often shield him from consequences because of his abilities. But there’s little doubt that his drinking problem is just that—a problem. Harry doesn’t solve mysteries due to hallucinatory binges, and he doesn’t quiet a spinning brain with booze. In fact, his drinking isolates him and prevents him from making meaningful connections with others, and often slows down his work.

    Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (Filth, by Irvine Welsh)
    Neither a mystery or a noir, this book is 110 percent Irvine Welsh, telling the story of a policeman who is superficially investigating a crime while really indulging in a ballet of awful behavior. He’s a drug addict, a sex addict, an alcoholic, and a misanthrope who spends most of his time abusing his authority and pulling mean-spirited pranks on his fellow officers. By this point in detective fiction, addiction had come full circle: instead of the indulgence of an overstressed genius, it’s depicted as not just a weakness, but a disease in every sense of the word—or at the very least, a symptom of one. There is, in fact, a solution to the mystery in this book, but it’s really the pity and resignation that Robertson’s colleagues view him with that’s most significant—as is the fact that Robertson’s addictions actually prevent him from seeing what is painfully clear to just about everyone else, including the reader.

    Hayden Glass (Boulevard, by Stephen Jay Schwartz)
    Hayden Glass is a great detective, and also a sex addict, demonstrating how the growing understanding of the psychology of addiction and the possible vectors it can follow is invading the formerly walled garden of detective fiction, populated for so long by boozy cops and smart-mouthed underworld figures. Glass is in a 12-step program as the first novel opens, aware of his problems and working through them, but his addiction is as much an asset, as detective fiction begins a slow full-circle move, now imagining that the fatal flaws of its detectives might give them insight into the criminals they hunt. Glass tackles a series of crimes that only a sex addict could understand, and his work getting control over his impulses is just as important as his problems.

    Claire DeWitt (Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran)
    Addiction is increasingly understood as a common problem, not something only degenerates or people enduring trauma get caught up in. It therefore is treated less as a unique character trait somehow mysteriously fueling genius, and more as an everyday risk. Claire DeWitt is a detective not because she’s brilliant, or even all that motivated by justice. She’s curious and restless, and also a raging drug addict. Her adventures in her first novel slowly become entwined with her downward spiral into serious cocaine abuse, an attempt to numb something that has nothing to do with her detective work. The reason for her abuse is presented as something anyone aware of how terrible the world can be might fall into. At this point, addiction is less an aspect of the detective character as it is an aspect of society in general.

    Mark Mallen (Untold Damage, by Robert K. Lewis)
    Another example of addiction not only being presented as a problem, but a common and unexceptional one at that, is Mark Mallen, a junkie cop falling apart fast. The first book opens with him waking up with his latest needle still in his arm—and about to get caught up in a case in a personal way. What’s remarkable about Mallen is that his progress towards the solution to the mystery is paralleled with his recovery; after a friendly superior offers to let him get off the junk “the jailhouse way,” Mallen takes his first steps on the road to getting clean and becomes a stronger, more effective detective with each step.

    Pete Fernandez (Blackout, by Alex Segura)
    Segura’s excellent detective series starring Pete Fernandez is both an homage to the hard-drinking detective of the past, and a superb modern update to the trope. Segura has his cake and eats it too; Fernandez starts off the series as a mess, lost in a bottle, his life falling apart around him, staggering into solving mysteries by hazy accident. Over time, Pete’s struggle towards sobriety is mirrored by his growing talent for, and professional approach to, being a private investigator, allowing him to be both the boozy clue hound of the past and a modern-day detective who definitely does his best work when sober.

    The post Why Are So Many Detectives Addicts? A Study in 10 Books appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 8:30 pm on 2016/09/12 Permalink
    Tags: , locked-room mysteries, , , sherlock holmes, the woman in cabin 10,   

    6 Fiendish “Locked Room” Mysteries 


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    Everyone loves a good mystery, but a with everything else in life, there’s a hierarchy to the genre, ranging from thrillers who make no effort to hide the identity of the killer, to the most hardcore of all mystery types: the locked-room whodunnit. What is a locked-room mystery? Exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder) is committed in a locked room or other inaccessible area, or  more abstractly, in another recognizably impossible way. After all, if the room was locked from the inside, how could the murderer have gotten out? Here are six unputdownable locked-room mysteries ever written.

    The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allen Poe
    Often recognized as the pioneering story in the sub-genre (which isn’t surprising, as Poe pioneered detective fiction in general, among a dozen other things), The Murders in the Rue Morgue sports the classic setup: two women are brutally murdered in a room locked from the inside. Witnesses report a plethora of odd clues, including someone talking in a language that everyone describes differently. Modern readers might find the ultimate solution a little odd, but Poe’s work to outline the detective’s investigative method is one of the most influential pieces of writing of all time.

    The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware
    Ware’s latest is a classic locked-room mystery with a Hitchkockian flare: Laura “Lo” Blacklock is a tightly-wound writer for a travel magazine, assigned to cover a luxury cruise while suffering from PTSD after a break-in at her apartment. She observes a woman in the cabin next to her and one night hears what sounds like a body splashing into the water. The next day, there is no record of the woman, Cabin 10 is locked up tight, and everyone thinks Lo is imagining things. That’s the sort of premise mystery writers have been working with for decades, and Ware manages a perfect balance between a classic and modern approach, resulting in a fantastic read.

    The Adventure of the Speckled Band, by Arthur Conan Doyle
    Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes still defines much of the mystery genre today, especially when it comes to short fiction. Holmes investigated locked rooms four times in Doyle’s original stories, but The Adventure of the Speckled Band is probably the best known. Holmes is contacted by a woman living with her spiteful, unpleasant stepfather at their dilapidated estate. About to be married, the woman is haunted by the mysterious death of her sister, whose last words referred to “the speckled band;” now, she is being forced to sleep in her sister’s old room because of repairs to the house. Holmes does his thing, and the story resolves with a bit of the graceful action Doyle was so good at writing (but which often gets overlooked in favor of Holmes’ brainy deductions).

    The King is Dead, by Ellery Queen
    Ellery Queen was for a time the most famous fictional detective (and literary pseudonym) in the world, and this classic novel is a prime example of him at his best. A man makes a public threat that he will shoot his father at midnight; his father retreats to a secure room alone with his wife, while Queen, hired on, sits in another location with the son, who has an unloaded weapon. At midnight the son raises the empty gun and pulls the trigger—and the father is shot dead, seemingly impossibly. Queen eventually gets to the bottom of it, and the novels were always presented as a fair-play “challenge to the reader,” stating that all the clues necessary to solve the mystery were in the story, and if you paused before reading the explanation you would have a fair chance of figuring it out.

    The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux
    Another “fair-play” story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is not only a cracking locked-room mystery, but also distinctive in its inclusion of detailed floor plans and other information for to the reader, inviting them to “play along” and try to solve the case before the fictional detective Joseph Rouletabille. A woman is found in her locked bedroom, severely beaten and confused. As the investigation proceeds, the perpetrator is spotted several times—but each time seems to vanish into thin air when pursued. As with any good mystery, the solution is more practical than sensational, but is still making people feel foolish to this day.

    Almost Every Book by John Dickson Carr
    Carr was more or less the King of Locked Rooms—his hard-to-find novel The Hollow Man was once selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time. Inspired by writers like Gaston Leroux and G.K. Chesterton, Carr plotted intricate puzzles for his readers, usually involving an “impossible” crime, and then followed the investigation to its inevitable conclusion. In fact, an entire chapter of The Hollow Man is dedicated to the detective Dr. Gideon Fell discussing locked-room mysteries in general, one of the greatest meta-moments in detective fiction of all time.

     

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  • Nicole Hill 4:30 pm on 2015/09/22 Permalink
    Tags: anna waterhouse, elementary, , , , sherlock holmes   

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Adventures of Mycroft Holmes 


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    Ladies and gentlemen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has entered the arena—though it might not be the one you’d expect. The NBA All-Star has cowritten, with screenwriter Anna Waterhouse, an ode to one of the true mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes universe, Mycroft Holmes.

    In a rare starring role for Sherlock’s older brother, we get a glimpse at a young man climbing in government rank, but not yet the sedentary presence Arthur Conan Doyle introduced us to in his canon. Here, Mycroft is fresh out of school, head-over-heels in love, and thrumming with activity. He, unlike his sullen, sulky collegiate brother, has achieved a comfortable existence.

    That is, until, he’s embroiled in a series of enigmatic, supernaturally tinged disappearances in Trinidad, the home of his fiancée, Georgiana, and the native country of his best friend, Cyrus Douglas. As Mycroft, alongside Cyrus, untangles this web of darkness, we begin to see how this young man will become the older, statelier, more reserved Holmes brother we know.

    We talked with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about his fascination with that Holmes and how this slam-dunk addition to his written repertoire came to be.

    When people think of the name “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” they don’t immediately think of Victorian detective stories. But you’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan for quite some time, right?

    Yes, I was already a fan as a kid. Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett were staples at the movies and on TV. Then, in my rookie year for the NBA, when I was playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, someone gave me a two-volume set of the canon. Between the bus rides and the locker rooms, I devoured it. After that, I was hooked.

    In the Sherlock Holmes canon, Mycroft does not get a lot of love. He’s typically reserved for the role of corpulent, stuffy side character. How did you hit upon him as a subject?

    He was fascinating to me, because of all the things that are said about him: that he’s smarter than Sherlock, that he “is” the British government, that he cofounded The Diogenes Club, where members are not allowed to speak. But what wasn’t said about him was just as interesting: why is he obese? Why can he solve crimes as well as Sherlock, but doesn’t really care to? What sort of relationship do the brothers have? And why on earth are they both still single? It all seemed a mystery worthy of Sherlock.

    Also, there are already many books about Sherlock. And though he is an endlessly fascinating subject, and some of the books are quite good, we didn’t want to write about a detective in the traditional sense. Mycroft does not go after a singular bad guy. He goes after corruption at high levels, and he tries to undermine it before it grows roots and develops branches. He’s more Machiavellian than Sherlockian, in that sense.

    The primary biographical detail about Mycroft, of course, is his day job. As you mentioned, Sherlock sometimes says he is the British government. And here, even at 23, you’ve set him on that path. Still, was it a challenge to turn that sedentary, aristocratic older Mycroft into the spry, wet-behind-the-ears young Mycroft?

    My cowriter and I wondered about that for a while. We knew we wanted a more active Mycroft—and, since Mycroft isn’t active at all, that part wouldn’t be so tough. But how could we do it and still remain faithful to Conan Doyle (and Sherlock’s) description? Then we hit upon an image: young Marlon Brando versus older Marlon. Our Mycroft Holmes has twenty years, in other words, to turn into that corpulent recluse. We wanted to lay the groundwork for that eventual and inevitable transformation—but of course we’re hoping it takes a while to get there. And that we will get the chance to do just that.

    Now, of course, a Holmes brother is nothing without a sidekick. You’ve given Mycroft one in the form of Cyrus Douglas, whose native Trinidad is where our collective journey takes us. What’s interesting to me is that, while John Watson is very valuable as the reader’s conduit in the Sherlock stories, he’s still pretty tame, clearly along for the ride with Sherlock. Cyrus, though, is on far more equal intellectual footing with Mycroft. 

    For Mycroft, we wanted an opposite. Not someone from his social milieu. Not someone his age. Not someone with similar experiences or even outlook. We decided that he would be older than Mycroft, so that wisdom alone could sometimes circumvent Mycroft’s “right way of thinking” but perhaps wrong way of acting. He had to be intelligent enough to keep up with Mycroft, but more ethical, with stronger morals: if Mycroft eventually becomes “the” British government, there will be compromises he will have to make that might not be the most moral of choices. We gave them one thing in common: cigars. And then we took it from there. That Douglas would be a whole person in his own right, and not just someone who says, “And why is that, Holmes?” was very important to us.

    Speaking of relationships: you and your cowriter, Anna Waterhouse, previously collaborated on the documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. How did you bring that dynamic to novel writing? How did it work in practice?

    Well, we are both introverts. So it’s possible we would never have gotten beyond “hello.” Thankfully, my business partner and manager, Deborah Morales, is an extrovert, and she brought us together on Giants. Deborah and I had a bit of a mess on our hands, a rough cut we didn’t care for. Anna helped us find a structure and a theme, and it won awards. Working with each other in that very stressful situation proved quite easy. In the process, I spotted a fellow perfectionist. I knew that if we did another project together, she wouldn’t let go of anything until she was satisfied that it worked, and neither would I. As long as there’s no fighting, that process is not as slow as some might assume. And thankfully, there’s no fighting. About two years ago, I talked to her about my idea for Mycroft Holmes (she wasn’t even sure who he was), and she read the canon. We signed the contract with Titan, who believed in us, and we were on our way. From there, we built an outline, then worked it chapter by chapter, batting it back and forth until it said what we wanted it to say before proceeding to the next. That sort of editing and re-editing is not everyone’s preferred method, but it worked for us.  

    You hinted at it earlier, but might we see this partnership flourish again with a Mycroft sequel, or at least another book within the Holmesian universe?

    We’d like to stay with Mycroft, but that’s what we’re hoping. We’re in talks now to make it happen. But much will depend on how it’s received by the public.

    Mycroft Holmes hits B&N shelves today.

     

     
  • Jeff Somers 6:05 pm on 2015/03/03 Permalink
    Tags: cavendon hall, Coco Chanel, , , , sherlock holmes, , , the cavendon women   

    March’s Top Picks in Fiction 


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    In this month’s excellent crop of new novels, Kazuo Ishiguro returns with a fable-like story, a poet makes her much-discussed debut with a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, and Coco Chanel stars in a novel inspired by the fashion queen’s life.

    The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Ishiguro’s first novel in years is set in a post-Roman and barely civilized Britain. It tells the story of an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice, who set off to find their long lost and half-forgotten son. Its themes are memory, love, and finding yourself through devotion to another. The Britain Ishiguro describes is not the thrilling world of clashing knights and imperial decay that some other historical novels trade in, but rather a frightening place where magic—although never explicitly glimpsed—seems real, and terrifying.

    At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen
    Thoughtful, sheltered Madeline is the protagonist of this World War II novel. Her husband is unable to serve in the war, and when his father cuts him off, he and Madeline head to Scotland to find the legendary Loch Ness Monster in a bid to regain his father’s favor. This startling premise is the jumping off point for an intriguing interior journey that sees Madeline fall in love with rural Scotland—and question everything about her life.

    The Cavendon Women, by Barbara Taylor Bradford
    If you read Bradford’s delightful Cavendon Hall and/or love the work of Danielle Steele, then this standalone followup to Cavendon Hall is likely already on your Must Read list. The narrative quickly gets the reader up to speed on the Swann and Ingham families and their complicated master/servant relationships. As both families recover from World War I and hurtle unknowingly toward the Great Depression, it’s up to the titular women of the families to work together to help both upstairs and downstairs find their way through unexpected adventures, triumphs, and sorrows.

    The Precious One, by Marisa de los Santos
    A fascinating story about family, love, perception, and the power of history. Taisy has only spoken to her father once since he left her and her family when she was a teenager to start over with a new wife and a new daughter. When he suffers a major health crisis, he asks her to come to him, meet her half-sister, Willow, and help him write his memoirs. Told alternatively from Taisy and Willow’s points of view—the former tart and angry, the latter naive and youthful—the story digs deep into the characters and their shared histories and destinies. By the end of the novel, you’re rooting for each one to find the happiness she’s seeking.

    Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum
    This highly-anticipated debut by celebrated poet Jill Alexander Essbaum does not disappoint. Anna, an American, lives outside Zurich with her husband and three children. She doesn’t speak the language, have any friends, or find much succor in her family. The novel follows her attempts to break out and connect with the larger world, seeking experiences that range from the psychoanalytical to the sexual. Essbaum employs precise language and a careful structure to create a vivid portrait of a woman whose world has shrunk to just her family and her thoughts not because of the limitations of a cruel world, but because of her own interior limitations.

    The Harder They Come, by T.C. Boyle
    T.C. Boyle returns with a powerful take on violence in American culture—and, possibly, the violence inherent in the human condition. Sten Stensen is a retired school principal and Vietnam veteran returning home to Texas from a trip abroad during which he killed a man who was attempting to rob the tour bus he was riding. Once home he is celebrated as a hero and drawn into a self-styled border brigade fighting against drug cartel incursions into the woods outside of town. He’s also caught up with his mentally unstable son and the strange older woman who has established a hold over him. When his son’s schizophrenia erupts into murder and he flees into the country patrolled by the local patriots, Sten—and readers—begin to understand how little control we have over events around us.

    The Fifth Heart, by Dan Simmons
    More than just a Sherlock Holmes novel or a historical novel, this delightfully unexpected book depicts Holmes during his Great Hiatus after apparently dying at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes teams up with a suicidal Henry James (yes, the famous author), and the two travel to America to solve a mystery. The real kicker? Holmes explains he faked his death because he has concluded, based on the evidence of his existence, that he is a fictional character. The clues he uses to reach this conclusion will be familiar to anyone who has made a study of the Holmes stories, but that’s not necessary to enjoy one of the most inventive, interesting, and meta novels to come out in a long time.

    The Last Flight of Poxl West, by Daniel Torday
    This debut is a cracking read, filled with instantly quotable lines and richly detailed characters. The fictional Poxl West has written a memoir about his amazing life—fleeing the Nazis, joining the RAF, and flying bombing missions—that is an instant success. His nephew Eli views him as a hero, and when Poxl leaves Eli’s life, the young man becomes even more obsessed with his famous uncle. But not everything is as it seems (or as Poxl has claimed), and Eli must deal with revelation, disappointment—and a new understanding of his uncle that will affect you as deeply as it does Eli. Eli’s story alternates with Poxl’s memoir, which creates the sensation of reading two sharp books at once.

    A Fireproof Home for the Bride, by Amy Scheibe
    It’s rare enough for a writer to achieve a note-perfect recreation of a time period, or an affecting account of a young woman’s coming of age, or a complex story of family secrets and explosive historical themes. Amy Scheibe pulls off all three feats in her novel about Emmy, a young Lutheran woman coming of age in rural 1958 Minnesota. When Emmy rejects her betrothed, starts dating a Catholic, and takes a job at the local paper as a reporter, she begins to see the world much more clearly—and as much larger and deeper than she’d ever imagined. Schiebe approaches her characters and her setting with confidence, humor, and an understanding of how our families and our surroundings shape us, usually without our knowledge.

    A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell
    You’ll instantly love the voices of the three Alter sisters who populate this acerbic, brilliant novel. As scions of an unlucky family, the three sisters have gathered to write their suicide note and end their lives—something of a an Alter family tradition. Ever since their great-grandfather made a scientific breakthrough that led indirectly to the use of the infamous Zyklon B gas in Nazi concentration camps, the Alter family has been cursed—or so the sisters believe. Despite its dark themes, this book is hilarious.

    The Fire Sermon, by Francesca Haig
    Famed poet Francesca Haig has crafted a brilliant dystopian science fiction debut, telling the tale of a future world after a nuclear holocaust. As the radiation fades, humanity struggles on, but mysteriously, everyone is now born with a twin—one twin being a nearly-perfect Alpha, the other a mutated, monstrous Omega. As the Alphas rise to supremacy and the Omegas are oppressed and cast out, one fact binds them perpetually together: when one twin dies, the other dies as well. Haig’s story follows Cass, an Omega with psychic abilities, and her Alpha twin, Zach, who has imprisoned her as he rises to power in the Alpha society. Haig’s background in poetry shows in her finely-tuned language and sparkling descriptions. The Fire Sermon will leave you anxious to read the second book in this planned trilogy.

    Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, by Jennifer Chiaverini
    This is a fascinating story about a pair of women: the future wife of President Ulysses S. Grant and the woman she owned as a slave. Julia Dent is born with poor eyesight and prophetic visions in antebellum Missouri, and her slave Jule acts as her best friend and her eyes, seeing the world for her. When Julia marries Grant, she vows never to be away from him. When she accompanies Grant on his campaigns, both military and political, she brings Jule with her despite the conflict between owning a slave and being married to the man leading the Northern armies. When Jule claims her freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation, the former slave comes into her own, but the women continue to swing into each other’s orbit regularly. This absorbing book offers a detailed history lesson along with its story of a unique female relationship.

    Mademoiselle Chanel, by C.W. Gortner
    By rights, there should be dozens of novels starring Coco Chanel as their heroine, because Chanel is one of the most fascinating, creative, and downright interesting people in history. Gortner crafts a rollicking story about an orphan taught to sew by the nuns who care for her, a strong, independent woman who works as a seamstress by day and a nightclub singer by night, and a fashion icon who revolutionized not just fashion, but the role of women in society. The novel stays true to the real-life Chanel’s history, enhancing it with imagined observations, reflections, and motivations for many of her most shocking choices. This is the book to read if you love fashion, if you love strong women, or if you just love a good story.

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