Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Three unique novels

Every summer the magazines, NPR, etc. feature reviews and teasers for new novels. This past few weeks I have enjoyed three of them immensely. These aren't just beach reads, though they could be for discriminating readers.

The first is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This is a bittersweet, caustic, and often funny story about fame and the often destructive results of its pursuit. Its characters include a lovely young American actress who in 1962 is an extra in Cleopatra, a young Italian hotel owner named Pasquale who runs a remote hotel on the Italian coast, the randy and often drunk actor Richard Burton (yes!), a press agent who becomes a Hollywood big shot, a failed musician hoping for a comeback, and several others. The trick is that the novel jumps back and forth between 1962, World War II,  the recent past and even back to the infamous Donner Pass episode. The earlier scenes lead to unexpected humorous and sad results, and Jess Walter describes them with wit and humanity. In setting up such a complex plot, Walter promises a big payoff, and he provides a great one. Don't skip a word.

Gillian Flynn's third novel Gone Girl is a terrific mashup of genres: romance, mystery, detective, you name it. The novel starts the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary and is told in alternating chapters. First, Amy's voice in her diary and later her own, then Nick's reactions to her disappearance. The reader doesn't know whom to believe and often doesn't care, because both Nick and Amy are beautiful, spoiled, narcissitic liars but totally engaging, no matter their deviousness. Was Amy abducted, did Nick kill her, why did she or someone else leave so many clues (mostly red herrings)? Gone Girl has fascinating, fully formed characters like Nick's masculine twin sister who watches his back while wondering just a little if he's guilty, an oozingly caring Oprah-like talk show host who interviews Nick, a Mutt and Jeff local police couple, and a former beau of Amy's who lives a hermetic life with his smothering mother but still yearns for Amy. Quite a stew pot, but Flynn keeps us on edge until the surprising ending.

John Brandon's A Million Heavens is an engaging mixture of magic realism, naturalism, and hopefulness. In a dying New Mexico desert town, an odd group of people react to the sudden coma of a child piano prodigy. His gruff father keeps watch at his bedside, a group of vigilants stand in silence every Wednesday night outside Simon's window, a California divorcee uses a nomadic 20 year old to father her child while he uses her for refuge, the mayor longs to bring his fmily together, and a young woman grieves for her bandmate who died in a truck crash. And in a waiting cell in heaven, the young musician Reggie begins to write songs only he can create, and in some strange symbiosis his girl hears the songs, a roaming wolf hears the songs, and....This is a novel that seems depressive but redeems itself with hope and fine writing.

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