6 Superlative Stories You'd Be Sorry to Miss

New novels can be hit and miss; these are special.

Posted Sep 27, 2014

reading woman
Like a reading monster, I devour novels one after another. I only take notes on the best ones that I can recommend to other readers of literary fiction.

The following six are not only memorable, but thought-provoking—which is what makes me value and review them here.

All I Love and Know by Judith Frank begins simply enough. When Daniel’s twin brother and sister-in-law, Joel and Ilana, are killed in an explosion in Jerusalem, Daniel and his partner Matt fly to Israel. Matt passes the time listing the many thoughts he’d been having of which he was ashamed, including: "Will he ever get to just be a normal, young, shallow queen again, or would tragedy dog him for the rest of his born days?" Then:

But Matt knew these questions were bullshit, that he was evading the real issue: If Joel and Ilana had really done what they said they were going to do, he and Daniel would be returning home with their kids, and the life he knew would open up into dark seas he couldn’t even begin to chart.

Will the Israeli court give the two young orphaned children, as instructed in the will, to the gay couple, or to their Israeli grandparents or to Daniel’s parents who want them very much? Author Judith Frank does a masterful job of letting readers feel what the protagonists feel. Relationships are strained all around as the would-be fathers try to mesh their former dreams with this new kind of family life.

It all rings true, from the deeply psychological personal struggles and the ways children mourn, to the question of how to feel and respond to the terrorist act. This issue-packed novel repeatedly moved me.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín, a prize-winning novelist, focuses on the struggles of Nora, a 40-year-old Irish widow with four children. A deeply moving character study, immersed in daily details and small critical moments. Nora has to go back to work at the company she left when she married, which requires all kinds of decisions and hard adjustments.

When the receptionist asked for her name, she found herself speaking too grandly, causing the woman to glance up at her. That tone, she thought, would be no use here. She concentrated now on becoming quiet and mild, but also efficient and in full control of herself. She had no idea what work she would be doing.

As Nora tip-toes carefully into a fuller engagement with the social world, we watch her find herself, and grow, and help her children grow, and finally become someone with a mind of her own.

The Festival of Earthly Delights, by Matt Dojny, is a very funny coming-of-age story set in a fictional Southeast Asian country, where our hero Boyd has recently moved with his unfaithful girlfriend to try to repair their relationship. In a series of letters he describes his experiences, many of them hilarious, some surprisingly moving. I’m a sucker for a fresh dark comedy, and this debut novel of Dojny’s is written with great flair. A random example, after Boyd has accidentally killed a turtle, a curse-worthy offense:

"Oh! There are many different curse.” Mr. Horse began to count them on his fingers. “One curse is call ‘Great-Pretender.’ This is when you see and hear things that no others can see and hear—baby insects made from metal, or the bird with no face. One curse is ‘Brown-Eye-Girl,’ that is, a need to use toilet when no toilet is near. ‘Splish-Splash’ is the curse that is to have a small vomit come up into your mouth. For the turtle-killer-man, ‘Ninety-Six-Tears’ is a curse to have lack when being with any woman, not have enough excitement. The ‘Taste-of-Honey’ is when man is fast to have over-much excitement with the woman—if you understand. And one of the most feared curse is: ‘Final-Countdown.’ When the turtle-killer plays a lottery, he will get all number perfect, but for final number is wrong. Every time.” Mr. Horse widened his eyes. “It will make you to be crazy.”

The Children Act by Ian McEwan, a favorite author of mine, tells the story of a middle-aged woman, her marriage a mess, who presides over cases in family court. The core of the book is pure McEwan: faith against reason, finding or making meaning, and choosing to live or to die. The plot is not complicated: How will Fiona judge the competence of the 17-year-old boy who is refusing (for family religious reasons) medical treatment to save his life? Meetings with the boy change both their lives in heartbreaking ways.

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet is an odd novel, and that’s a very good thing. The mermaids are real, though barely glimpsed, so let’s call the novel magic realism in only that one aspect. It’s also exceedingly funny, beginning with newlyweds Deb and Chip planning their honeymoon. Deb’s a wry skeptic, while sociable Chip wants to get to know Middle Americans better. The narrator elaborates:

The fact that honest Middle America, once plodding along reliably with combines for the menfolk, homemade preserves for the women and for the children some highly entertaining planks of wood, is now threatened by a growing subculture—a subculture so large it’s bigger than the rest of us, actually, which maybe means it’s not a subculture at all, says Chip with a worried aspect. That’s where the fear comes in.

The non-subculture is made of people who believe that fossils are a trick. These people are suspicious of biology and mortally offended by an ape. Also they’re angry about it.

On the one hand moral fiber, possibly, but on the other hand madness.

Once at their Caribbean resort, plot mostly takes over the book becomes  a kind of murder mystery, with French-farce-like hijinks, as well as episodes involving a small army and a gun-happy vacationer. And enough sharp humor to make this novel a blast.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North is a time travel novel, and as I’ve said more than once, I love those. This one is different in that one character is reborn repeatedly, retaining the knowledge gained in previous lives. That is, except when his mind is wiped by someone who has been tracking him. The action moves back and forth through time, and the author has clearly done the complicated thinking needed for plot points to make “timely” sense.

Questions would be posed from the early 1800s or twentieth century, relayed back down through time from the child of the 1850s to the grandfather who would be a child again by 1780, who could then pass it back to the grandparent of the 1710s and so on and so forth until, with as few generations as possible to corrupt the message, one of his own time could put the question to Hoeness directly. He would then inscribe his reply on some well lasting material and leave it with the Cronus Club to deliver to its future correspondent, and posterity. . . . Assuming, of course, you’re still interested several lives later, when the message may finally arrive.

I was never tempted to stop reading, though the somewhat formal prose (one reviewer called it “elegant”) did slow me down.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

More Posts