October 15, 2015 Booklist 17 www.booklistonline.com
immigrants, who are constantly scrounging
for food and money while living in fear of being deported. Secondary characters, including
a feisty, disabled reporter; an accomplished
black policewoman; and a white philanthropist, round out the cast in a timely and
affecting story. —Joanne Wilkinson
YA: Teens may relate to bright, 15-year-
old John Falconer, who lives on his own
in the ghetto known as Africa Town and
meticulously documents the lives of his
fellow residents. JW.
Life and Other Near-Death Experiences.
By Camille Pagan.
Nov. 2015. 263p. Amazon/Lake Union, $24.95
(9781503946002); paper, $14.95 (9781503945623);
When Libby Miller receives a shocking
cancer diagnosis from a less-than-empathetic
doctor, she thinks it’s the worst thing that
could happen to her. Having watched her
mother slowly and agonizingly lose her own
battle with cancer, Libby is determined that
she will not put her family through a similar
experience. She decides to forego treatment
and is about break the news to her husband,
but before she can, he delivers astonishing
news of his own. With no marriage to speak
of and only months remaining, Libby decides
to live like there’s no tomorrow. Telling no one
of her plans, she escapes to the equatorial sun
of Vieques, a small island near Puerto Rico.
But will her resolve withstand the concern of
her twin brother, the friendship of her island
landlady, and the growing love of a handsome Puerto Rican pilot? Instead of doom
and gloom, Libby’s journey is one of hilarious
turns and heartfelt realizations. Though unrealistic, it is just the uplifting medicine some
doctors would order. —Cortney Ophoff
Pretending to Dance.
By Diane Chamberlain.
Oct. 2015. 352p. St. Martin’s, $26.99 (9781250010742);
e-book, $12.99 (9781250010728).
In 1990, Molly Arnette was like any other
14-year-old girl, yearning for a pair of purple
Doc Martens. Her world was just starting to
open up beyond her family’s neighborhood in
the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Decades later, Molly looks back on the summer of her 14-year-old self as the summer
when everything changed. As a grown woman,
Molly wonders if she’s strong enough to proceed with the adoption application she and her
husband have started and whether it’s time to
let him know the truth about her own childhood. Chamberlain has teenage Molly and
grown-up Molly narrate alternating chapters,
piecing parallel stories together. Exploring
the thrilling feelings of first love, the depths
of teenage angst, and the difficult decisions
families and spouses make together,
Pretending to Dance is a multilayered, poignant novel.
Chamberlain writes knowledgeably about see-
ing a family member confront a degenerative
illness, the power of therapy, and the hardship
of loss. Reminiscent of a Sarah Dessen or Sha-
ron Creech novel, Pretending to Dance proves
that a coming-of-age story can happen at any
time in your life. —Stephanie Turza
YA: Molly’s traumatic adolescence and
meaningful steps toward adulthood will
resonate with teen readers. ST.
By Michel Houellebecq. Tr. by Lorin Stein.
Oct. 2015. 256p. Farrar, $26 (9780374271572).
“Humanity didn’t interest me—it disgusted
me, actually.” So announces François, midway
through best-selling, controversial French writer Houellebecq’s (The Map and the Territory,
2012) latest. Ostensibly about the democratic
transformation of France into an Islamic country in 2022, this is instead a study of nihilism,
misogyny, and the inadequacies of humanism. While François is a successful academic,
an authority on nineteenth-century author
J. K. Huysmans, he thinks primarily about sex.
When France turns Islamic, as a non-Muslim,
he can no longer teach, so he takes early retirement. When the suave new university director
offers to rehire him if he converts, François
doesn’t hesitate. Why? Because under the new
regime, polygamy is encouraged. Hence Houellebecq’s title, which is one meaning of the word
Islam and a description of the attitude of François’ ideal woman. Is this satire? Submission is
well crafted, but the pornographic sex scenes
are as tired as their rationale. Houellebecq’s
faltering is François’ failure writ large: the inability to believe there might be any meaning
in or meaningful differences between diverse
points of view or ways of life. —Michael Autrey
A Wild Swan and Other Tales.
By Michael Cunningham.
Nov. 2015. 144p. illus. Farrar, $23 (9780374290252).
Fairy tales exert a gravitational force on many
fiction writers, and some are moved to try their
hand at updating them. The results can be
wickedly delectable, as in Jean Thompson’s The
Witch and Other Tales Retold (2014) and, now,
manding variation on “Jack and the Beanstalk”
in which he parses marriage and the bond be-
tween a loyal mother and a “rapacious” son. It’s
startling just how psychologically sophisticated
and affecting Cunningham’s pitch-perfect
recastings of “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Beauty
and the Beast” are as stories of the perversity
of desire. The original tales are timeless for
good reasons, and by approaching them from
a fresh and astute perspective with humor and
compassion, Cunningham revitalizes their pro-
found resonance. Imaginatively illustrated by
Yuko Shimizu, this is a dazzling twenty-first-
century fairy-tale collection of creative verve
and keen enchantment. —Donna Seaman
Cunningham’s high stature and the book’s irresistible
premise will attract lively media attention and
YA/M: Revised fairy tales suffuse the
pages of YA novels, and teens will relish
Cunningham’s smart, sexy, funny,
illustrated versions, especially those about
By Ben Sanders.
Nov. 2015. 352p. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24.99
(9781250058799); e-book, $11.99 (9781466863170).
Readers know from the first page of this
amazing novel that they’re in for a hard-boiled feast. We watch the drunks and their
“shared pursuit of emptiness.” Later, a pile of
money gives off “the scent
of beckoning dreams.” Part
of the pleasure is sharing
the author’s glee in spinning these confections
and in watching him create a labyrinthine plot that
keeps readers glued to the
page while they wonder
what’s going on. Marshall Grade is an ex-cop
searching for a kidnapped girl. Just why is
a mystery—people keep asking him and get
no answer until the end. His quest brings
him up against a nasty crew of killers, and
we watch as the author restages archetypal
or even seemingly shopworn genre scenes
but makes them fresh: hero unleashes judo
on thugs threatening lone woman; cops and
killers gather for a shootout at a motel; villains give philosophical speeches before
plugging the hero; hero dogged by mysterious person known only as Patriarch, whose
identity, when finally revealed, makes all the
plot puzzles clear in an overpowering moment. A stunning achievement and a likely
breakout book from a talented New Zealand author whose Auckland series has not
It’s startling just how psychologically sophisticated and affecting
Cunningham’s pitch-perfect recastings of “Rumpelstiltskin” and
“Beauty and the Beast” are as stories of the perversity of desire.
—Donna Seaman, on A Wild Swan and Other Tales