5 Great Books for Grads

Estartupofyoumily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online, by Daniel Post Senning
Because every grad could brush up on his or her manners before heading out into the job market or onto the college scene. The Post Institute’s answer to all things digital, from the etiquette of sharing to the proper way to text, not to mention when it is, and isn’t, okay to pull out your cell phone. Do you know a grad who texts through dinner and posts everything on facebook? Do him a tremendous favor; buy him this book.
Open Road, April 2013, ISBN 978-1453254950

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
A smart guide to thinking of yourself in entrepreneurial terms, by Linked-in co-founder Hoffman. A good eye-opener to the possibilities of forging connections, adapting to the demands of changing economic landscapes, and thinking big in an extremely competitive world.
Crown, Feb. 2012, ISBN 978-0307888907

Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, by Anne Truitt
If they are fortunate and hard-working, students graduate from college with the tools they need to tackle the job market. But do they know how to be true to their own vision as artists and individuals? The antidote to all the business, networking, and social media talk that bombards us at every turn, Daybook is a thought-provoking memoir about living the artistic life. Written over a period of seven years, as the artist sculpts, creates, and watches her own daughter become a mother, Daybook is a call to the quiet life from which some of our best efforts spring.
Scribner, Oct. 2013, ISBN 978-1476740980

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio
A brief history of inspired stumbling that shows that some of the biggest advances come from thinking, trying, screwing up, and thinking again. Through the lives of five remarkable scientists, Livio reminds us that the best discoveries do not always come from a plan, and that when we go off track, we can accomplish the extraordinary.
Simon & Schuster, May 2013, ISBN 978-1439192368

A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
A long haul of a book, about ambition, writing, love, parenting, failure, and many other things. Because sometimes we all need to slow down and think. Read an in-depth review of A Man in Love.
Archipelago, May 2013, ISBN 978-1935744825

Review by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and two other books of fiction

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book Two of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir, A Man in Loveis a bit of a puzzle. First, there is the controversy of the title. Publishers around the world have tried to find clever ways to deal with the negative associations with Mein Kampf. (The original Norwegian title is Min Kamp.)

Then, there is the question of exactly what has made the series so commercially successful in Europe. While the book seems to go on forever, and very little happens, it is nonetheless compelling.  One is drawn into the everyday rhythms of the life of this man who wants so desperately to write,  whose relationships, even when at their best, are a hindrance to the fulfillment of that desire.

Knausgaard, who says he desired to be liked since the age of seven, is often unlikable. Immediately after the birth of his first child, he disappears for two weeks to write, leaving his long suffering partner, Linda, home alone with their newborn. Later, Linda goes back to school while Knausgaard stays home with the child. Many pages are devoted to the misery of child care. He finds the situation unfair primarily because he is not a mother, but a father. For Knausgaard, the domestic duties are emasculating, symptomatic of a larger crisis in Scandinavian culture–progressive ideals that turn men into house husbands and cast a dull, polite patina over what should be politically charged conversations.

Nonetheless, his vulnerabilities are such that, at times, one finds oneself empathizing. He clearly loves his children, and there are passages in which his tenderness toward them is heartbreaking. He suffers from a burning desire to please everyone. What makes Knausgaard insufferable is also what makes the book itself compelling. You struggle through the self-absorption because there is there is so much very good and thoughtful writing here. Knausgaard writes powerfully about the desperate desire to carve out time to write, an all-consuming desire that anyone struggling to balance parenthood and writing will find familiar. All of us who juggle writing with family know the wrenching feeling of being tied to people and events and everyday activities, when all you want in the world is to be alone in a room with some books and a laptop.

At one point, when he has to give a lecture about his own work, he sits at a cafe waiting for the appointed time, considering what he will say to this roomful of eager listeners:

I was supposed to talk about the two books I had written. I couldn’t do that, so it would have to be about how the books came into being, those years of nothing until something definite began to take shape, how it slowly but surely took over, in such a way that in the end everything came by itself.

Such beauty is everywhere in this book, which is by turns graceful and maddening, wise and self-serving.

Since the publication of the first book in the series, Knausgaard has sold half a million books in Norway. In the U.S., half a million is a respectable showing (for a single book, not necessarily for multiples), but in Norway, that number means you’ve reached one in ten of the population, an unheard of feat. The series has also been a success in Europe and is garnering a good deal of attention from reviewers in the U.S.  It appears that literature has found its new golden boy, and, in keeping with the archetypal literary golden boy, Knausgaard complains frequently in this book that he hates the attention. The accolades sicken him,  the journalists and photographers who want to capture something of his spirit for an admiring audience are objects of ridicule.

The complaint does not feel quite genuine. The internet is swarming with images of Knausgaard gazing soulfully into the camera, or looking off into the distance with a cigarette in hand. It’s not that he is different from other writers in this respect; Knausgaard’s friend Geir admits that everything that Knausgaard has is exactly what Geir wants and can’t achieve. Having taken a page from the Jonathan Franzen playbook, Knausgaard doth protest too much. It’s fine to enjoy the fame. It’s hypocritical to wallow in it while pretending to despise it.

Ah, but the book. The book itself is very good, easy to put down at moments but easy to come back to. Or, perhaps I should say it calls you back. During the period that I was reading it, I kept remembering that it was there, in the other room, that I only need go in there and shut the door and I would be immersed in it again. I wanted to be immersed in it. The book itself has something. It is truly a joy to read. The endless minutia of the writer’s days has a kind of raw intensity. One might be tempted to say “honesty,” but, upon closer inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The book is orchestrated, like all memoirs, to give a certain view of the speaker. Accuracy isn’t the point, perhaps. Knausgaard is a very good writer, and that is why one is so easily drawn into the book.

Incidentally, one has to question whether the exact same book by a woman would be considered high art at all, or merely another domestic memoir filled with nappies, love affairs, friends, and food porn. Knausgaard is very good at food porn. The way that My Struggle has been received seems symptomatic of the larger issue in the literary landscape: men can write about anything and be praised for creating serious art (Knausgaard’s previous book was about angels), while women who tackle the same themes, with equal talent and scope, are marginalized as “women writers” working in the realm of “domestic” fiction or memoir. This disparity has nothing to do with the quality of Knausgaard’s work, which speaks for itself, but rather with the lingering assumption among critics that women who write about certain subjects are not deserving of serious consideration, while men are.

Archipelago Books, May 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1935744825

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

You probably won’t like M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life of Hiding in Plain Sight. That said, you may recognize some of her characteristics in people you know: an ability to turn on the charm when something is to be gained, a lack of conscience, a tendency to orchestrate relationships and to discard friends and acquaintances when they are no longer useful. You may even begin to wonder if you’re a sociopath yourself.

Thomas, a Texas law professor who also happens to teach Sunday School at her Mormon church, details her own journey to diagnosis. She grew up knowing she was different, but not understanding why. At the age of thirty, a psychiatric evaluation revealed that Thomas had “a prototypical psychopathic personality.”

What makes the book initially interesting–the author’s recitation of her own sociopathic character traits and actions–is what makes it ultimately easy to put down. Thomas contends that she, like the majority of other sociopaths, lives successfully in society, undetected. She believes that her sociopathic tendencies make her, in some ways, a more evolved human being, highly capable and very well-liked. She also finds herself to be exceptionally good-looking, stylish, and somewhat brilliant. A sympathetic reader might argue that Thomas be blamed for these narcissistic tendencies, as sociopaths by definition tend to have a very high opinion of themselves, often unsupported by the facts.

The book’s strength is that it may provide some comfort to anyone who suspects they are married to–or perhaps raising–a sociopath. While sociopaths are over-represented in prisons, Thomas contends that many more are living among us, “hiding in plain sight.” She estimates that four percent of the population fit the diagnosis for sociopathy. For sociopaths and those who love them, it should be heartening to know that a diagnosis of sociopathy does not doom a person to a life of crime or loneliness. While Thomas fantasizes about killing, for example, it’s not something she would ever consider acting upon.

Parents of sociopaths may find the book to be a sometimes painful, sometimes comforting insight into the elementary school years.

“I usually had friends despite my perceived oddness,” Thomas writes, “but I experienced periods in which I was avoided or even ostracized by everyone. I could overwhelm people, put them off. I was too aggressive for them, or they could see how deceptive, untrustworthy, and scheming I was.”

She notes, however, that she was “never bullied or picked on,” because her peers were afraid of her. Instead, she was often the one who picked on others, coldly choosing her victims and targeting their vulnerabilities. She also lacked the insecurities that plagued many of her friends, and didn’t care very much what others thought of her.

Just as the sociopaths you know probably begin to wear on your nerves at some point–self-centeredness, in the end, being a friendship-killer–the memoir begins to grow old a few chapters in. The fact that it is interesting but not entirely illuminating should come as no great surprise. The best memoirs work because the author is able to reflect with some degree of honesty and humility on his or her own flaws. While Thomas is honest to a point, it is difficult to trust a voice that confesses to thoughtlessly bending the truth to her own purpose; is she being truthful now? Thomas’s self-congratulatory tone tends to wear after a while. The premise is certainly compelling. But what is missing, ultimately and perhaps unsurprisingly , is the author’s ability to truly connect with her audience.

Crown, May 14, 2013

ISBN 9780307956644

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Michelle Richmond is the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog. Her new novel will be published next year by Bantam, and her new story collection is forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2.

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Reviewed by Mia Lipman 

In her dark and deft fourth novel, the much lauded Claire Messud pulls no punches with the voice of Nora Eldridge, a beloved schoolteacher wound up explosively tight. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she notes by way of introduction, and it’s fair to say things go downhill from there—but Messud’s vivid writing woos us into keeping this bitter pill of a lady company. (The author came by her PEN/Faulkner Award and Booker Prize nominations honestly.)

Having played the “straitlaced” good girl for all of her fortysomething years, Nora anchors her ferocity just beneath the surface, and it takes a family of three to unleash it: the Shahids, whose luminous young son, Reza, “a canonical boy,” captures Nora’s imagination when he enters her third-grade classroom. Reza’s foreignness and poor English charm his teacher, but the other students peg him as a target, and a playground scuffle connects Nora with his mother, Sirena. The two women share an interest in art—Sirena’s professional and thriving, Nora’s amateur and unfulfilled—and soon they also share a studio that becomes Nora’s refuge from everything she resents: failed relationships, dead mother and hypochondriac father, no art degree, no children. Sirena’s academic husband, Skandar, welcomes his wife’s new friend and his son’s “institutrice” with polite intimacy, and the Shahids quickly absorb Nora into their worldly, accomplished family.

But on Messud’s watch, it’s never as easy as all that. Familiarity can breed obsession, and Nora finds herself teetering on the hairline crack between trust and distrust as she digs deeper into her new relationships. Messud is comfortable in claustrophobic spaces, and it’s hard not to follow her into them, flinching, even when we ought to know better.

This sharp, empathetic portrait of a broken woman demands a second glance, then a third, then an entire afternoon. The payoff will leave you reeling.

Knopf, April 2013

ISBN-10: 0307596907

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Mia LipmanMia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

Reviewed by Mia Lipman

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her linked story collection, Olive Kitteridge, reviewers praised her gift for elevating the ordinary. Among the rarefied breed of unrushed authors who produce an enviable book every 5 to 10 years (see: Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Díaz, Ann Packer), Strout also has a particular talent for spinning empathy out of misery. Her characters are mean, stupid, bumbling, frustrating, and hard to get enough of.

Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, reimagines an unhappy neighbor family from her childhood as even worse off than they probably were: dead father, incompetent mother, blowhard older brother Jim, hopeless younger brother Bob, and wayward sister Susan. The three kids have managed to avoid each other for years, resenting from afar—but when Susan’s teenage son, Zach, acts out by throwing a pig’s head into a mosque, Bob and Jim are forced into an awkward attempt at solidarity to help him survive the public outcry. The Burgess boys never wanted to go back to Shirley Falls, Maine, so they can’t muster much enthusiasm when it becomes obvious they have no choice.

Woven into this family mess are glimpses at the life of a local Muslim man, Abdikarim Ahmed, who emigrated from Somalia and belongs to the mosque that Zach defiled. Strout isn’t quite as successful at reading his mind, but Abdikarim and his family offer a quiet, pointed reflection on what it means to be in community.

Weirdly and brilliantly, Zach turns out to be the moral compass at the center of the Burgess brouhaha. By all accounts a sweet kid, he doesn’t really understand why he did what he did, and the adults around him sure as hell don’t. But in the course of trying to figure it out, each of these broken people manages to do a little better than usual. Also a lot worse—there are no miracle cures in Strout’s world. But the moments of connection, through hatred as well as love, are riveting.

Only a writer this deeply tapped into how humans work could make you want to sit still and watch as the Burgesses flail, suffer, and endure.

Random House, March 2013

ISBN-10: 1400067685

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Mia Lipman

Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

unchangeable spots of leopards

by Kristopher Jansma

Reviewed by Susanna Daniel 

At the start of Kristopher Jansma’s slippery and energetic debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, the unnamed narrator tells about his childhood spent in Terminal B of an American airport, making up stories — he will be a writer, of course — about passengers and the shop people who oversee him while he waits for his flight attendant mother, whose questionable parenting choices are almost all we ever learn about her.

Like most literary orphans, the boy is plucky and precocious, and one dramatic afternoon he learns that the grownups who have been distractedly looking out for him regard him less with affection and amusement than annoyance and pity. It’s an experience the narrator will continue to have throughout the the book: first he sees himself through one funhouse mirror, then through a different and equally distorted one. And the reader never knows which perspective to believe.

The twists and turns of the novel’s plot, which spans three decades, veer confidently into familiar literary territory, jockeying nimbly between bildungsroman and rags-to-riches and love triangle and caper. The setting jumps just as agilely — New York, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland — as does the narrative style: one chapter is an unbroken monologue told to a couple of tourists in a hotel.

Before he is thirty-five, the narrator has remade himself half a dozen times. He is a liar of many stripes: identity thief, plagiarist, heartbreaker, and author. Like many authors, however, he’s far more enchanted with the notion of having written a book than the act of actually writing one, and therein lies the rub. On one of its many levels, this is a book about how to avoid writing a book.

The novel is rapid in pace, the language and details tightly controlled. Each time the story swerves into well-trod literary territory, the swerve is embraced fully. (Waiting on a train platform, the narrator not only invokes Hemingway, but also shares a local liquor with another American tourist who, to take it all the way, quotes from “Hills Like White Elephants.”) The few characters who break into the narrator’s self-involved bubble are quirky and colorful without ever becoming entirely of-the-flesh; this is more a story of hijinks than of hearts. Even this reader, who admittedly prefers a more reliable narrator, found myself rooting for the storyteller. He’s a liar and a thief, sure, but he’s also an underdog with more nerve than he’s earned.

At the center of the ever-shifting story is the question of truth — slanted, as the narrator professes to prefer it, or altogether disassembled. Each chapter spins a more outlandish yarn that the last, leaving the reader with the sense that the truth is sliding around even as the book sits closed on the shelf.

It’s tremendous fun, this book. One might wish for a little more of a typical debut’s raw, hard-beating heart, but what the book lacks in heart it makes up for in exuberance.

Viking Adult, March 2013  ISBN 9780670026005

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Susanna Daniel is the author of STILTSVILLE, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and SEA CREATURES, forthcoming in July 2013 from HarperCollins. Visit her website at http://www.susannadaniel.com.

Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun

Give Me Everything You HaveIt isn’t often that a book keeps me awake at night. Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, the new memoir by James Lasdun, did just that.

In 2003, Lasdun, author of several books of poetry and ficiton, taught a creative writing workshop at Morgan College in New York City. One of his students, a quiet, reserved young woman whom Lasdun refers to in the book as Nasreen, turns in a story which he praises in front of the other students. Nasreen seems unflustered, if vaguely pleased, by the praise, and she visits Lasdun a few times during office hours to discuss her work. When the class is over, they lose touch.

Two years later, Lasdun receives an email from Nasreen, wanting to know if he will read her novel. An email correspondence ensues, one which becomes increasingly personal, and eventually flirtatious–primarily from Nasreen’s end. While attempting to subtly discourage the flirtation, Lasdun encourages Nasreen as a writer and offers to introduce her to his agent. When Nasreen becomes more direct, inserting herself in his life in a way that makes Lasdun, who is married, uncomfortable, his own emails become more businesslike and less frequent.

Nasreen doesn’t react well to this cooling effect. She begins sending him dozens of emails each day, many filled with inappropriate fantasies or requests. Eventually, her emails become hateful and anti-semitic. She then begins involving other people as well, attacking Lasdun’s agent by email, absurdly accusing Lasdun and the agent of stealing her work and selling it to other writers. She begins contacting Lasdun’s potential employers and accusing Lasdun of having affairs with students and plagiarizing her work. She leaves nasty reviews on Amazon alleging the same things, and posts rants on goodreads and various blogs. In short, she sets out to ruin him, referring repeatedly to her own tactics as “verbal terrorism.”

Nasreen’s aim is nothing less than to destroy her former professor. While her claims are so outlandish, her tactics so reprehensible, as to discredit her among critics, Lasdun’s colleagues, and the publishing world, the sheer volume and vitriol of her attacks on Lasdun have what was perhaps the desired effect: she infects every part of his day. He cannot stop thinking about her, feeling overwhelmed and attacked by her. All he wants is to be rid of her, but it is impossible. The police and FBI are unable to help, because she has never threatened his life, but they insist that he keep the emails rather than discard them, in case she does actually make a threat on which they can act. Lasdun, a self-proclaimed liberal and non-practicing Jew, is suddenly cast in the light of the oppressor/racist/sexual predator.

Give Me Everything You Have is not merely a recounting of the sordid details of the years-long attack. It is a deeply meditative book, in which Lasdun turns the microscope on himself, examining both his own role in the disaster–his willingness to fall into the friendship in part because the attentions of this young, attractive, talented woman were flattering–and the problem of his inaction. While he is never quite able to muster compassion for the woman who has taken on the aura of a demon in his daily life, he does attempt to understand how their seemingly innocuous online relationship escalated to this horror:

 

People are always in various stages of various different dramas when you encounter them: freshly embarked on some, halfway or more through others. One is always approaching the denouement of this or that subplot of one’s life. And you, the stranger, entering the picture in all your blundering innocence, may well be the catalyst for some long-awaited climax, or the last in a series of minor but incessantly accumulating, and finally backbreaking, straws.

The fact that Lasdun has always lived in the shadow of his father, an accomplished architect whose well-known buildings tower over London, and has always felt that his own contributions to the world pale in comparison, adds another dimension to the book.

Lasdun’s thoughts on the re-emergence of an old-fashioned culture of reputation–in which one can be ruined by someone else’s words, posted and spread anonymously and exponentially through the relatively new tool of the Internet–are fascinating. Whereas reputation once meant to him the currency of literary fame and fortune, it takes on a far more sinister face: reputation is something which can be built over a lifetime and destroyed rather quickly by one single, determined, off-kilter person.

As a writer and sometime teacher, I find the book particularly nightmarish. But it serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who cares one whit what others think–which is to say, all of us.

ISBN-10: 0374219079

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Feb. 2013

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Michelle Richmond is the author of four books of fiction, including the international bestseller The Year of Fog. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press. Visit her website.

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

Cover of SnowJenny Milchman’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, will likely please fans of cold-weather crime writers like Arnaldur Indridason (Arctic Chill) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess).

When Nora Hamilton discovers her cop husband Brendan dead of an apparent suicide in the home they share in the small town of Wedeskyull, NY, the police force she has long trusted quickly rallies around her. But as the unlikelihood of his suicide nags at her, Nora begins to question the omnipotence of third-generaton police chief Vern Weathers, known to everyone simply as Chief, and his band of loyal officers–including the trigger-happy Club Mitchell and the aptly if obviously named Tim Lurquer.

Bombarded by questions about Brendan’s past, Nora must face how little she really knew about him. Much of the plot hinges on the death of Brendan’s little brother in a tragic accident when Brendan was just a child. The description of the aftermath of the child’s death, perceived through photographs at a distance of more than two decades by Nora, who never knew him, is brilliantly and chillingly executed.

Readers may be puzzled by Nora’s lack of curiosity, which, though key to the plot, sometimes feels strained. It seems implausible that she would never have heard about the worst and most talked-about tragedy the town ever suffered, particularly when her own husband was at the center of it. It’s a minor complaint, however, in what ultimately is a very compelling mystery.

Milchman excels in unexpected moments, such as when she describes Nora’s sister’s stiflingly hot New York City apartment:

Teggie’s bedroom was as sweltering as the cramped rest of her apartment. I went back to the bed, crawled across it, and tugged at a window. It opened with a sticky separation of paint, and the volume of the city instantly increased.

The author clearly knows the frozen landscape that serves as backdrop to her story. The characters are frequently seen sliding down banks of ice, scraping it off their windows, or hiking over hills of snow. Milchman masterfully describes the ice-bound setting in the way that only someone who truly lives it can. Like the best Nordic crime thrillers, the novel succeeds in making you feel very, very cold.

Milchman also displays a keen eye for character. Characters who might be mere plot devices in a lesser thriller are thoughtfully rendered here. There is Chief, who rules over the town like a not-always-benevolent father, firm in the belief that he is called upon to protect his flock, and that too many rules and regulations only get in the way. His junior officers’ devotion to him feels entirely real, and the ways in which he is tangled up with members of the community, including Brendan’s Aunt Jean, becomes clearer and more menacing as the novel progresses.

Another fascinating character is Dugger, an autistic man who has been recording the town in images and sound for nearly three decades. Dugger’s photos and audio recordings lend an intriguing and essential layer to the plot.

But the real triumph of Milchman’s first novel is the pacing. The plot unfolds at an excellent clip, stalling in just the right moments, lingering on characters long enough for us to get to know them, ultimately rushing headlong to a series of startling revelations. I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, unwilling to put the novel down until I had reached the fascinating and unexpected conclusion.

Ballantine Books, Jan. 2013 ISBN 978-0345534217

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year of fog coverMichelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the novels No One You Know and Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Visit her at http://michellerichmond.com.

If you like Cover of Snow, you might also like Arctic Chill (Arnaldur Indridason), The Ice Princess (Camilla Lackberg), and Sun Storm (Asa Larsson).

The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose has cemented her reputation as one of our leading writers of suspense, fusing thriller elements with history and a fascination with how the past can affect and alter the present. While reincarnation themes dominate her most recent books, including the brilliant THE HYPNOTIST, you don’t have to be a believer to sink into her carefully constructed ambiance, often populated by damaged yet hopeful characters seeking redemption in a chaotic and dangerous world.

In THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES, Rose introduces a new character, Jac L’Etoile -a young woman haunted by her past and the ethereal scents that filled her childhood as heir to the French perfume company, House of L’Etoile. Jac’s youth is marred by the pain of her mother’s untimely death and a difficult relationship with her family, but after fourteen years of living abroad in the United States, her attempts to flee the past catch up with her when she and her talented brother Robbie inherit the family business. The inheritance is rife with trouble; plagued by financial trouble in a relentless corporation-driven era that is destroying the art of natural perfume making in favor of mass production, the once legendary House of L’Etoile is on the brink of ruin. But when Jac’s brother stumbles upon a potentially life-changing secret in the family archives and soon thereafter disappears under frightening circumstances, Jac finds herself thrust into a desperate gambit to find her brother, unravel the mystery of the legendary fragrance of Cleopatra – a possible tool to restore past-life memories – and find a way to confront, and make peace, with her shattered past.

Ms Rose excels, as always, at depicting her troubled heroine’s journey as Jac navigates the glamorous boulevards of the City of Lights and the lethal underworld of reincarnation tools and those who will stop at nothing to obtain them. Rose also populates her fast-moving, breathtaking narrative with a host of memorable secondary characters, including assassins and a shadowy figure that her fans will recognize from past books. But it is her meticulous attention to the evanescent, fascinating world of perfume that sets this novel apart. At moments, the very pages of THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES emanate the ambergris and musk of ancient Egypt, so that you find yourself sniffing your fingers for traces of the elusive, lost perfume. In Jac, Rose has also developed her best heroine yet: a woman whose outward fragility conceals an inner courage that propels her into the terrifying catacombs of Paris on a quest that will re-define her belief in, and powers to, retrieve the past, even as these exact heart-breaking sacrifice.

Readers of historical fiction, suspense and mystery should flock to this captivating and unusual novel.

Atria Books, Paperback release-Feb. 2013,  ISBN 9781451621488

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Visit MJ Rose’s website.

C.W. Gortner is the bestselling author of four historical novels, including his most recent, THE QUEEN’S VOW. Visit him at www.cwgortner.com

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker’s enchanting debut novel, The Age of Miracles, follows the life of a young girl in the suburbs beginning with the day the earth’s rotation mysteriously begins to slow, throwing the world as we know it into a kind of controlled chaos.

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.

As the slowing becomes more severe, and days stretch to sixty hours, humans must decide whether to follow their circadian rhythms or obey a government mandate to live on “clock time,” going on as if nothing has happened. Reminiscent of the 2011Lars von Trier film Melancholia, The Age of Miracles is a kind of pre-Apocalypse story, as opposed to the post-Apocalypse novel (an excellent example of which is Julianna Baggot’s terrific novel, Pure).

Unlike most end-of-the-world stories, there is no violence here. Instead, Thompson focuses on an 11-year-old girl’s perception of unfolding events: her coming-of-age angst, her love for a boy with a dying mother, the disintegration of her own family life. The global chaos is only hinted at, as the narrator’s life goes on much as it had before. She goes to school, faces bullies, and anxiously watches her neighbor, who has chosen to follow the ever-changing rhythms of the sun instead of the increasingly meaningless clock time. The Age of Miracles is a very sweet, engaging story, one which stayed on my mind as I went about my day. What is missing in terms of concrete information about the slowing (the changes in the magnetic field, as well as “the sickness” and shifts in weather and the , are dealt with in a vague, dreamy way) is made up for in the narrator’s voice–innocent, full of wonder. We don’t know how the world will end; what we do know is that the narrator survives to adulthood (she tells the story from this vantage point), in a world irreversibly altered from the one that she knew as a child.

The most interesting idea of The Age of Miracles is this: we prepare for all sorts of contingencies. We worry about global warming, warfare, chemicals in our water. And yet what destroys us may turn out to be something we never imagined.

We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology. We had robot arms and robot hands, robots for roving the surface of Mars…And yet, the unknown still outweighed the known. We never determined the cause of the slowing…

SFJB: Highly recommended
Buy the book: Indiebound Amazon
Visit Karen Thompson Walker’s website

Random House Trade Paperbacks, Jan. 2013 

ISBN-13: 978-0812982947