All of Us and Everything.
By Bridget Asher.
Dec. 2015. 352p. Bantam, paper, $15 (9780385343930).
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a box
of old letters is discovered, and beliefs about
the Rockwell family come tumbling down.
Under the mantle of their disillusioned matriarch, Augusta, the three Rockwell sisters
take a break from their independently dysfunctional lives to reconnect in Ocean City,
New Jersey, and learn the truth about their
absentee father. When the letters reveal hard
truths about their lives, they must grapple
with past disappointments and learn that
reconciliation, like family, is messy. Similar
to Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (2005),
Asher’s (The Provence Cure for the Broken-hearted, 2011) novel rewards readers with an
engrossing plot rich in witty and frank dark
humor. The bizarre opening leads to a meditation on personal honesty conveyed with
a conversational cadence that lends itself to
the characters’ frustrations and fears. Readers
will linger on the story’s web of connections,
both known and unknown to the characters,
within the familial relationships, and the
messes contrived by the individuals’ fallibility and pursuits. Thoughtful and provoking.
By Helen Ellis.
Jan. 2016. 208p. Doubleday, $24 (9780385541039).
Ellis’ 12 short stories about women under
pressure are archly, acerbically, even surreally
hilarious. By extracting elements from the
southern gothic tradition, Shirley Jackson,
barrage of increasingly alarming e-mails
over the decor of their shared hallway. Ellis
takes on reality TV in the perfectly crafted
“Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” a breath-halting balance of slashing absurdist humor
and rich and authentic emotional sensitivity.
The same tricky strategy works powerfully
in “The Fitter,” an ambushing fable of comedic invention and sneaky heartbreak.
After reading Ellis, readers will never approach “book club” benignly again: think
Fight Club (1996), instead. With monstrous
children and cats, hopeless husbands, and
covertly dangerous women, Ellis takes down
the entire housewife concept with a sniper’s
precision. These are delectably revved up,
marauding, sometimes macabre tales of
ruined marriages, illness, infertility, crass
commercialism (literary product placement),
desperation, ghosts, even murder, featuring
women of shrewd calculation, secret sorrows, and deep sympathy. —Donna Seaman
Ask Him Why.
By Catherine Ryan Hyde.
Dec. 2015. 345p. Amazon/Lake Union, $24.95
(9781503950894); paper, $14.95 (9781503948907).
When Aubrey and Ruth’s older brother,
Joseph, returns from his army deployment
after only three months in Iraq, they know it
can’t be good. In the following months, while
Joseph is put on trial for acts he hasn’t fully
explained to them, they fend off accusatory
bullies at school and aggressive reporters at
home. To make matters worse, their parents
are neither loving nor supportive, meanwhile
facing harassment of their own. The details
slowly emerge, but the one thing Aubrey and
Ruth never get to do is ask Joseph for his side
of the story. Once he’s taken into custody,
more than a decade goes by before they have
the chance again, and by then it may be too
late to undo the hurt. Hyde’s conversational
style occasionally distracts, but her depiction
of family conflict remains raw and honest.
As in her internationally renowned Pay It
Forward (2000), she delivers a story full of intense emotion that, while at times heavy with
heartbreak and despair, ultimately delivers a
powerful and rewarding message of hope and
redemption. —Cortney Ophoff
Beasts & Children.
By Amy Parker.
Feb. 2016. 320p. Houghton/Mariner, paper, $15.95
“Bless the beasts and children for in this
world they have no voice, they have no
choice.” This lyric, from a song recorded by
the 1970s rock duo the Carpenters, could very
well serve as the anthem for
Parker’s incandescent collection of linked stories that
follow the lives of Jerry and
Danny, Jill and Maizie, and
Carline and Cissy. All have
been abandoned by their
parents to suicide, to drink,
to love affairs gone wrong.
All have found solace in the comfort of ani-
mals that often fare no better: kittens and
dogs, for sure, but exotic creatures, too, from
monkeys to elephant seals. As children, they
cope with humiliation and degradation at the
hands of the people they rely upon the most,
finding mechanisms to harden themselves to
the ways of the world while maintaining a
humanizing vulnerability. Parker brings all six
characters together in a zestfully inventive and
satisfyingly organic way as they navigate their
dark and imperiling childhoods to emerge as
flawed, fragile yet fiercely resilient adults. An
electrifying, daring, and magical debut collec-
tion sure to appeal to fans of Karen Russell
and Lorrie Moore. —Carol Haggas
YA/M: Savvy teen readers will be moved
by Parker’s approach to questions of
identity, feelings of betrayal, and a longing
for loyalty. CH.
By Vladimir Sorokin. Tr. by Jamey
Dec. 2015. 160p. Farrar, $23.00 (9780374114374).
Sorokin’s previous novels, including his
dark fantasy Ice (2002) and his widely
praised Day of the Oprichnik (2011), have
succeeded largely because of his gift for wittily satirizing modern-day Russian society.
While his latest offbeat tale still provides a
liberal helping of Sorokin’s signature black
humor, its approach is a little more allegorical in recounting the fate of a doctor caught
in a relentless blizzard while trying to reach
a rural Russian village afflicted by a zombie-generating plague. Setting out one morning
with a supply of vaccines and the best of
intentions, Platon Ilich Garin recruits a soft-headed sled driver named Crouper to drive
through the snowstorm, but they are stymied
at every turn on their way to the village. A
bizarre crystalline pyramid in the road cracks
the sled’s runners, then Garin falls under the
spell of a midget farmer’s wife. As the snowstorm increases its fury, Garin becomes lost
in a whirlwind of surreal events that slow
his journey to a standstill. Sorokin’s veiled
critique of governmental paralysis is oddly
mesmerizing and very funny. —Carl Hays
The Blue Line.
By Ingrid Betancourt.
Jan. 2016. 368p. Penguin, $26.95 (9781594206580).
In her first novel, Betancourt writes unflinchingly of a grim reality—the brutal
abuse of political prisoners, which she herself endured as a Colombian politician held
hostage for six years by the guerrilla group
FARC, as recounted in her memoir, Even Silence Has an End (2010). This tale runs in two
time frames. Growing up in Argentina in the
1970s, Julia contends with a strange “gift.”
She sees future disasters unfold through the
eyes of others. She and Theo, the love of her
life, are drawn into the chaos engendered by
the military dictatorship, the Dirty War, and
the “disappearance” of thousands of innocent
citizens. In the present, Julia, a translator
grateful for her safe, American life, suspects
that even after the hell they’ve been through
to be together, Theo is unfaithful. Betancourt tells an anguished story of passion,
sacrifice, imprisonment, torture, and exile
with often gruesome detail, historical accuracy, and rising suspense that sweeps away
narrative clumsiness. Ultimately, Betancourt
orchestrates an intimate conflict and shocking denouement that fuse the personal and
the political in a twenty-first-century variation on Greek tragedy. —Donna Seaman