Almost Gone by Brian Sousa

Brian Sousa’s debut book, Almost Gone, is a collection of intricately linked stories spanning four generations of Portuguese Americans. In the opening story, a young man named Scott has gone to Brazil, attempting to escape his marriage and his grief over the loss of a child. Over the course of the stories, we hear from Paulo, Scott’s father, and from Paulo’s father, Nuno, Nuno’s wife Helena, and, in a surprising turn, Helena’s first love, Mateo. Grounding many of the stories is Catarina, an enigmatic young woman who arrives in America without any English, and takes up residence in a small house next door to Helena and Nuno. There, she becomes the object of desire not only of the married Paulo, but also of his aging father Nuno, who watches her daily through the blinds. Nuno’s longing for the much younger Catarina is one of the many manifestations of solitude and unrequited love in this moving, tenderly orchestrated book.

If you put this collection down and come back to it, it’s easy to forget how all of the stories intersect, but one should resist the urge to flip back and forth, trying to tie everything together. That’s because it all does come together in the end, beautifully, and part of the pleasure of reading Almost Gone is the flash of recognition one feels throughout. You feel entirely immersed in a bullfight in Spain, which seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the book, only to come to realize how this event leads to others. Time feels compressed within each story, but the time of the book as a whole is expanisve despite the relative brevity of the collection (the book weighs in at well under 200 pages). In the final story, we return to the beach with Scott, to the pivotal event that has led him to flee his wife and his life back in the U.S. The story is painful in its distillation of emotion, and, like the best of these stories, hovers between suggestion and straight narrative, leaving the reader with a feeling of uncertainty.

In the style of Peter Orner’s accomplished Esther Stories, Sousa manages to make almost every story a stand-alone piece, while constructing a whole that feels, in the end, like an exquisitely rendered novel.

Tagus, Feb. 2013  ISBN-13: 978-1933227450

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog

Pure by Julianna Baggott (starred review)

Julianna Baggott, the author of more than a dozen books for children and adults, returns with a powerful post apocalyptic novel, chilling entitled Pure. In the Dome live the Pures, persons who escaped the Detonations that destroyed most of Earth. Outside live the wretches, the ravaged survivors whose bodies fused with objects, animals, and each other during the blast. The wretches have been taught the the Dome watches over them benevolently, and that its residents will one day come to save them, while the Pures believe they survived because they are better, kinder, smarter human beings. Those on the outside, they are taught, did not deserve the protection of the Dome. When one doubting Pure meets up with two courageous outsiders, the truth of how the Detonations happened, and why, begins to come to light. This is strange, dark, riveting storytelling, a fantasy world shot through with the very real horrors of nuclear war; echoes of Hiroshima are eerily present in the devastated landscape and ravaged bodies of the survivors.

A longing for lost mothers is woven beautifully throughout the book; both inside and outside the Dome, children remember their mothers from the Before. In a wild take on suburbia, mothers from the Meltlands (so named because of the plastic play structures that survived the Detonations and now dot the landscape like colorful, out-of-place sculptures) have formed a fierce collective, hell-bent on saving their deformed children from further harm.

PURE is a wild, terrifying, and utterly satisfying ride, a much-needed feminist voice in the highly masculinized genre of post-apocalypse fiction.

Grand Central Publishing  ISBN-13: 978-1455503063

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog

Touch & Go by Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner’s latest thriller, Touch & Go, opens with the kidnapping of the wealthy Denbe family–the parents and a teenaged daughter–from their home. The investigation is complicated by the fact that the family are such pillars of the community that no one wants to step on their toes, and the company they own has hired its own investigator. Some posturing ensues–whose jurisdiction is it, just who gets to touch what evidence–though ultimately, the various parts find a way to work together.

The large cast of characters includes the secretive family members, a bunch of bad-ass kidnappers, D.D. Warren (whom Gardner fans will recognize from the eponymous series),  and another recurring character, Tessa Leoni from Love You More. Added to the mix is a sheriff named Wyatt Foster. Gardner is masterful, of course, at creating suspense, and Touch & Go is no exception. While the characters at times feel like parodies, this is nonetheless a fun ride, a well-plotted pot-boiler that will keep you turning pages.

Buy the book.

 Dutton Adult

ISBN-13: 978-0525953074

The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

The Next Time You See Me

The Next Time You See Me, the debut novel by Holly Goddard Jones, is a literary mystery in the tradition of Kate Atkinson. The novel opens with the discovery of a body in the woods by a misfit middle-schooler named Emily Houchens. The novel’s plot hinges on Emily’s strange reaction to the body; rather than telling the police or her parents, she keeps the knowledge to herself, relishing the secret and hoping to share it with the boy in her class on whom she has a crush, a wealthy kid named Christopher whose repeated cruelty to Emily is the source of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the book.

Soon, we meet young schoolteacher Susanna, the only person in the small factory town who believes foul play may be involved in the disappearance of her sister, Ronnie, who has a reputation as a drinker and troublemaker. Susanna, who is suffering through an unhappy marriage, isn’t an easy character to like, but she is believable in her complexity. While attempting to get the police to pay attention to her sister’s disappearance, Susanna takes her bullied student, Emily, under her protection.

The novel is told in a shifting third person point of view. In addition to Emily and Susanna, we hear from  Emily’s neighbor, a quiet factory worker named Wyatt, as well as from the lonely middle-aged nurse who cares for him and the detective whom Susanna regrets turning down for a date a decade ago, when they were in high school. While this is a small town, the residents, each trapped in his or her own private struggles, are not always aware of what links them; their failure to truly understand one another gives this the feel not of an idyllic small town but rather of a community falling apart at the seams, its deterioration at once physical, economic, and moral.

Goddard Jones manages just the right amount of creepiness, mixed with strong characterizations. While there is a mystery at the heart of the novel, it’s not a whodunnit, as Goddard lets the reader know pretty early on not only that Ronnie is the body in the woods, but also who killed her. The mystery lies, instead, in the characters’ unusual reactions to their own suffering. Goddard Jones excels in peeling back the layers of human nature, so that, while our heart breaks for a troubled child, we also understand why she is an outcast, and while we are aware of the decomposing body in the woods, we nonetheless are able, in some way, to feel the sorrow of the murderer’s own life falling apart.

Touchstone, Feb. 2013  ISBN 978-1451683363

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Visit Holly Goddard Jones’s website.

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog.

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, Jeff Backhaus’s beautiful debut novel, opens with a man locked inside a room, unable to come out except for in the middle of the night, while his wife is sleeping. Ever since losing his young son in an accident which he feels he should have prevented, Thomas Tessler has been hikikomori–a common enough condition in Japan for which Americans have no name. Megumi, a young woman from Japan whose own grief and alienation prompted her move to New York City three years before, is called upon to help him. Megumi’s job: to coax him out of his room, so that he can have a life again.

I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and decide never to come out. I needed a day to grieve. Then a week. A month. Tired, I took a nap. When I woke, it was dark. The walls were high. There was no way out.

When Thomas’s wife, Silke, pleads with Megumi to save her husband, Megumi reluctantly agrees to visit the apartment, planning to only go once. Finding herself drawn to Thomas, whose plight is similar to that of her dead brother, Megumi continues to return, day after day, until finally, Thomas opens the door a crack. As their intimacy grows, Megumi begins to realize that she wants more than to simply be Thomas’s savior. There is a kind of innocence to the eroticism that unfolds between them, and while Silke cannot help but suspect that there is more to Megumi’s process than merely talking with her husband, there is nothing torrid or cheap about this love triange. Backhaus manages to create genuine empathy for Thomas, Megumi, and Silke, and to make readers feel the separate and devastating loss that each of them is experiencing

Beckhaus’s writing is spare and beautiful. If at times simplistic, it is the simplicity of a very young woman whose unique talents have thrust her into a very complex situation.  What I love about this novel is that there is never too much on the page; there is always just enough. There is a lightness to the novel, despite the characters’ enduring sadness–a lightness not of mood but of atmosphere. Imbued with the sense of quiet and delicacy that permeates the best of Japanese fiction, Hikikoromi and the Rental Sister is an extremely promising debut. Put Jeff Backhaus at the top of your list of writers to watch.

Algonquin Books, Jan. 2013 ISBN 978-1616201371

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Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress.

Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt

I first came across the work of Roger Rosenblatt at a local bookstore, where the paperback of his memoir,Making Toast, was on display on the front table. When Rosenblatt’s 38-year-old daughter died suddenly of a heart defect no one knew she had, he and his wife Ginny moved in with their widowed son-in-law to care for their three small grandchildren. Making Toast is a beautiful and deeply painful book, shot through with the author’s raw grief. Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, takes up where Making Toast left off. At the time of its writing, Rosenblatt’s grief has not abated. If anything, it has grown sharper. This book, like the one before it, is stunning. It is associative, like the best long-form essays, meandering from subject to subject, from esoteric fact to watery remembrance.

The book is shot through with meditations on water, solitude, Quogue, and kayaking, as well as surprising revelations (Rosenblatt interviewed several presidents; among them was Nixon, who remarked that Rosenblatt’s tape recorder was “better” than the old tape recorders).

My first thought upon reading this book was that it is the kind of book I would like to have written. But then I realized I was mistaken. Kayak Morning, like Making Toast before it, draws its weight and its beauty, its utterly crystallized emotions and startling sensitivity, from grief. I would like to have the talent to write this book, but I would not like to have the experience that made this book possible. The death of Rosenblatt’s daughter is on every page, it colors everything. His daughter died before him, his daughter whom he remembers with such specificity as his little girl, and he cannot get over it. What father could? What parent could? The book comes from a place no parent wants to go.

In this way it reminds me of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Blue Nights, which addresses, among other things, the unexpected death of Didion’s adult daughter, follows the narrative thread of The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about the year following the death of Didion’s husband. Both of these two Didion books are incredibly good, but The Year of Magical Thinking is, in my mind, the more masterful one. In Blue Nights, Didion is doing battle with time, with the stark realities of her own aging body and her aging mind; she worries, in fact, that she no longer possesses the powers of narrative that she once had. Beyond that, however, Blue Nights, beautiful as it is, is a book without hope. At the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, her daughter is still alive; at the beginning of Blue Nights, she is not.

Didion’s approach to the narrative of grief is perhaps the more obviously intellectual, Rosenblatt’s the more dreamy. Both are deeply felt, unforgettable. Didion writes Blue Nights, it seems, in the depths of grief and in the absence of hope, while Rosenblatt writes Kayak Morning in the depths of grief but the presence of hope; he has his wife, his two sons. More important, perhaps, is the fact that he still has his daughter’s children, his grandchildren, whom he cares for every day. During the school year he and his wife live in a single room of their son-in-law’s house. He writes in this room while the children are in school, and when they are not, they are always welcome to pile in and pile on. One does not get the sense that Rosenblatt will outlive his grief; and yet, his book’s two-word title includes the word Morning, a sharp contrast to Didion’s two-word title, which includes the word Night.

Ecco, Jan. 2012 ISBN 978-0062084033

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Reviewed by Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress

The Not Yet by Moira Crone (starred review)

Moira Crone’s The Not Yet is disturbing, entrancing, and unforgettable. Set in the 22nd century in a barely recognizable New Orleans–known in the complex and fascinating dystopian geography of the novel as the New Orleans Islands–The Not Yet explores our obsession with youth and appearance against a backdrop of irreversible and frighteningly plausible climate change.

This is a world in which the all-powerful Heirs gain extreme longevity by making a terrible trade. Everything about their lives is orchestrated for pleasure and extravagance–down to their shells, the physical manifestations that cover their bodies and faces and have no correlation to the shriveling, aging bodies that are hidden from view. The Heirs live in a world of Cirque-du-Soleil like fancy, but, despite their prosperity, the price they pay is extreme. Utterly removed from the sensual pleasures that still thrive among the lower classes, the Nats and the Not-Yets, the Heirs survive on a bland diet of non-food, which they consider superior to the lowly, real food of the non-heirs.

In Crone’s richly imagined world, government has become more invasive, society more divided, with strict divisions among classes. The social order is so rigid that non-heirs are not allowed to touch the Heirs whom they serve. The orphan at the center of the novel, Malcolm de Lazarus, survives his childhood as an actor in the Sims, elaborate performances that allow Heirs to laugh at the absurdities of life before the scientific discoveries that made near-immortality possible. The story jogs back and forth between Malcolm’s childhood and his struggle as a 20-year-old man to survive and to claim his inheritance. He is a “Not Yet” because he has not yet become an heir, but is in line to achieve that enviable state.

The Not Yet is the most forceful depiction of global warming that I have ever seen. New Orleans is a series of islands which continue to sink, and yet the spirit of New Orleans is still alive in strange places that Malcolm discovers in a journey by boat among the islands. The entire country has been divided up into territories and protectorates, and there seems to be little communication among the various regions except at the highest levels of government.

The Not Yet shimmers with the extraordinarily descriptive prose and surprising turns of phrase that anyone familiar with Moira Crone’s work has come to expect from her. But it is far more than a unique, inimitable style that makes this novel so memorable. It feels prophetic and important. In one scene, Malcolm’s mentor sends him out to find ancient texts. As the novel progresses, she immerses herself in these texts–a blasphemous act–ultimately following her own path of enlightenment to explosive consequences. When I finished The Not Yet, I couldn’t help imagining someone coming across this novel hundreds of years from now; this future reader, like Malcolm, might marvel at the how much has changed, and how perilously we ignored the warning signs.

Purchase THE NOT YET.

Visit Moira Crone’s website to learn more about her work. Read a Q&A with the author here.