Quick Review: THE NIX by Nathan Hill (Vintage)

HillN-NixUSA compelling, engrossing story of a son’s quest to learn the truth about his mother

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, in decades — not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s reappeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.

It took me a long time to read this, but I’m very glad I finally did: Hill is definitely a new author to watch, and I can’t wait to read his next book. The Nix is the story of Samuel’s quest to learn the truth about his mother, who abandoned him when he was still a child. The novel has so much going on, it’s difficult to encapsulate it in just a few sentences. It’s not perfect, but it is excellent. Continue reading

Quick Review: TRAJECTORY by Richard Russo (Knopf)

russor-trajectoryusA new anthology from the Pultizer Prize-winning author

Russo’s characters in these four expansive stories bear little similarity to the blue-collar citizens we’re familiar with from many of his novels. In “Horseman,” a professor confronts a young plagiarist as well as her own weaknesses as the Thanksgiving holiday looms closer and closer: “And after that, who knew?” In “Intervention,” a realtor facing an ominous medical prognosis finds himself in his father’s shadow while he presses forward – or not. In “Voice,” a semiretired academic is conned by his increasingly estranged brother into coming along on a group tour of the Venice Biennale, fleeing a mortifying incident with a traumatized student back in Massachusetts but encountering further complications in the maze of Venice. And in “Milton and Marcus,” a lapsed novelist struggles with his wife’s illness and tries to rekindle his screenwriting career, only to be stymied by the pratfalls of that trade when he’s called to an aging, iconic star’s mountaintop retreat in Wyoming.

I’m a relatively recent convert to Russo fandom. I read the author’s campus novel, Straight Man a few years ago, and started to collect all of his other novels. I finally got around to reading the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls, which I very much admired. Ever since, I have been eager to read more of his work. Trajectory collects four of Russo’s shorter fictions, and offers an excellent entry point in to his fiction. I very much enjoyed this book. Continue reading

Review: IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio (Flatiron/Titan)

An excellent literary thriller

Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.

As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

M.L. Rio’s debut novel turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. The writing is excellent, the story is gripping, and the characters are varied, realistic and engaging. An easy, early contender for best novel lists. I very much enjoyed this. Continue reading

Review: ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai (Doubleday)

MastaiE-AllOurWrongTodaysUSAn excellent debut novel, one of the first must reads of 2017

There’s no such thing as the life you’re “supposed” to have.

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed… because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career and — maybe, just maybe — his soulmate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future — our future — is supposed to be.

Elan Mastai is the writer of, among other things, The F Word — a movie set in Toronto that I found utterly charming and amusing. When I discovered that he’d written a novel, I immediately tried to get a review copy. I eventually did (thank you, Doubleday!), and I am delighted to report that the novel did not disappoint. All Our Wrong Todays is an endearing, amusing, thought-provoking novel. Certainly, it is one of the year’s first must-reads. Continue reading

Quick Review: DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch (Crown/Macmillan)

CrouchB-DarkMatterUSA gripping multiverse thriller

“Are you happy with your life?”

Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.

Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.

Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. Hiswife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined — one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

There was so much buzz surrounding this book in the lead-up to its publication. So much, in fact, that I started to get nervous. Having now finished the novel, though, it’s very easy to see why so many people have been recommending it: it’s superb. Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines novels, has penned a fantastic sci-fi mystery. Continue reading

Upcoming: ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai (Dutton)

MastaiE-AllOurWrongTodaysUSHaving just finished Blake Crouch’s excellent Dark Matter, the synopsis for Elan Mastai‘s tale of altered reality/history caught my attention (apparently, I’m in the mood for this type of novel, now). After doing some further digging, I also learned that Mastai wrote the movie The F Word, which I very much enjoyed (starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan and Adam Driver, it was both endearing and funny).

All Our Wrong Today’s sounds really interesting:

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed… because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and — maybe, just maybe — his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future — our future — is supposed to be.

All Our Wrong Todays is about the versions of ourselves that we shed and grow into over time. It is a story of friendship and family, of unexpected journeys and alternate paths, and of love in its multitude of forms. Filled with humor and heart, and saturated with insight and intelligence and a mind-bending talent for invention, this novel signals the arrival of a major talent.

All Our Wrong Todays is published by Dutton, on February 7th, 2017. I’m really looking forward to this one.

Review: THE LAST ONE by Alexandra Oliva (Ballantine/Penguin)

OlivaA-TheLastOneUSReality TV collides with catastrophic reality…

She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.

It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens — but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it man-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them — a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo — stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.

Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life — and husband — she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills — and learn new ones as she goes.

But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways — and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.

This novel has a very interesting concept: what happens when the filming of a Survivor-type reality show coincides with an actual apocalypse? In The Last One, we follow a contestant for an expansive reality TV series as she navigates a post-apocalyptic American wilderness. Only, she thinks it’s all part of the game… Continue reading