When's the last time you were totally lost in a book? Seriously lost, in the way that hours go by and hunger kicks in and nothing matters but the pages turning? It doesn't happen for most of us, even if we're avid readers; life tends to intervene, and it's rare to find a book that really pulls us in.
But ever since I began covering books for The Seattle Times (in addition to my longtime beat, movies) this year, it's been happening to me a lot. So many books turn up at my desk! So many of them make their way home with me – so I can, you know, just take a quick look! So many, as it turns out, are awfully good! And the volume of books gives me the luxury of abandoning those that don't engage, in pursuit of those that will. (I employ Nancy Pearl's useful Rule of 50: Give a book 50 pages if your age is under 50; after that, you can quit reading if you don't like it, knowing you gave it a fair shot. If you're over 50, subtract your age from 100 and use that as your page count. When you're 100, you're free to judge a book by its cover. Let's just say I'm not there yet.)
So, setting aside the problem of how to make my nonstretchable home find space for an endless parade of books, I've been channeling the reader I was as a teenager – a time when neighbors were known to call my mother to tell her that they'd spotted me crossing a busy street with my nose in a book. And, in preparation for this fall fiction roundup, I've gotten lost in quite a few. The titles below, all released in the past couple of months, range from historical fiction to thriller to novella to novel of manners to just plain fiction, but all of them created a world – one that I was reluctant to leave.
I'm hoping some of you will find yourselves disappearing into one or more of these. Or, if you're immersed in something else, please share the title with me; I'm always looking to get happily lost again.
"The Living Infinite," by Chantel Acevedo (Europa, $17)
Historical fiction provides a special kind of escape – we're taken somewhere we can't possibly have ever been – and this enchantingly scented breeze of a novel, beginning with the birth of a princess in 19th-century Spain, held me rapt from its opening page. The book was inspired by the real life of the Infanta Eulalia, a woman of Princess Diana-like popularity in her time and a writer who traveled the world. Beginning inside the vast Palacio Real de Madrid (it was "like being inside the rib cage of a tremendous, beautiful beast – there were angles, curves, organic colors everywhere"), Acevedo introduces us not only to the rebellious princess, but to others in her midst: a wet nurse plucked from poverty; her Jules Verne-loving "milk brother"; her imperious siblings.
And we're taken on a Verne-worthy journey from the old world to the new: from Spain to Cuba to 1893 Chicago – for the World's Fair, and for the giddiness of finding a city in its youth, written in prose that celebrates the joy of discovery. "The White City," Acevedo/Eulalia writes of Chicago, "was a young woman in a wedding gown. It was an undiscovered country. A calliope being played for the first time, crisp and raucous."
"The Locals" by Jonathan Dee (Random House, $28)
Dee's contemporary novel, set in a working-class town in New England, couldn't possibly be timelier: It's about a regular-guy contractor who's struggling to get by, and a rich-guy hedge-fund manager from Manhattan who gets himself elected as the town's mayor and begins remaking it to suit himself. ("Consensus really isn't all it's cracked up to be," he notes.) It's a thick, chewy saga of class (one character's husband, a farmer who's "gone all-organic," makes a decent living "selling five-dollar tomatoes to weekenders who knew the value neither of a tomato nor of five dollars") and politics, seemingly written last weekend.
But what dazzled me about this novel, Dee's seventh, wasn't so much the subject matter but the narrative style. Dee here has an unusual way of slipping in and out of his characters, like a camera quietly moving from one person in a crowd to another in a long unbroken shot. We enter a room with one character, and might leave with another, as if swapping dance partners. You almost don't notice that he's doing it, until you suddenly realize that you're in someone else's head – the best kind of literary magic.
"Manhattan Beach," by Jennifer Egan (Scribner, $28)
Egan follows up her Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Visit From the Goon Squad," an ultramodern collection of linked short stories, with something entirely different: a jewel-like, conventional novel set in World War II-era New York City. At its center is Anna, who we first meet as a child drawn to the mysteries of the sea, imagining what might lie beneath it: "A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into a storm drain." A young adult by wartime, she becomes the first female diver in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, donning a heavy suit and disappearing into the depths to help repair warships. Above ground, she's exploring another disappearance: that of her vanished father, whose shady connections to an underworld nightclub owner Anna is only beginning to understand.
The novel is the result of vast research – I learned a dizzying amount about wartime ship repair and deep-sea diving – but wears it lightly; this is a beautifully crafted page-turner. As on a walk on the beach, treasures present themselves: Egan's sudden, heartbreaking personification of Anna's disabled sister; the slick mystery of the mobster, whom Anna always thinks of by his full name (the note-perfect "Dexter Styles"); the way Anna's quiet solitude engulfs her. "In daylight it retreated; she'd tried in vain, during diving school, even to remember what it felt like. But at dusk it closed back around her with macabre comfort. It had a pulse and a heartbeat." Egan will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.
"The Tragedy of Brady Sims," by Ernest J. Gaines (Vintage, $15)
The author of "A Lesson Before Dying" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" is now in his 80s; this slim novella is his first new work of fiction in over a decade. It's practically a one-act play: In the wake of a shooting by the title character in a small-town Louisiana courtroom, a cub reporter heads to the local barbershop in search of understanding.
In the shop, a place where the clientele is as old as the taped-up vinyl chairs, the real story begins: a chorus of voices takes over the narrative to tell us about Brady, who emerges as a character like a sketch slowly taking shape. Gaines puts us inside that tiny two-chair barbershop, letting us see the clutter of pictures on the walls and smell the hair tonic and hear the music of the voices. When you're finished reading, you imagine that barbershop still; it lives on after the book is closed, like a real place that you once visited. A triumph of atmosphere, and a late-career gift, it's nice to know Gaines is still out there, carefully observing.
"The People We Hate at the Wedding," by Grant Ginder (Flatiron, $25.99)
I'm a little late to the party for this one – the book was released in June – but I couldn't resist that title. Reading this book is like watching a really good indie rom-com (not that many of those are made these days, but bear with me): it's fizzily entertaining, with just enough edge to the writing to stick with you for a little while. It's a dysfunctional family saga; sort of like Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's "The Nest" last year, but funnier. Siblings Alice and Paul have an annoyingly perfect half-sister, Eloise, and they fume upon being invited to her sure-to-be-annoyingly-perfect wedding in England. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, family tensions flare up, relationships are ruptured, jobs are lost through the unfortunate hurling of a shoebox-sized baby doll, and an awfully nice hotel room becomes Ground Zero for resentment.
I found myself thoroughly drawn in by the operatic scale of Alice's resentment (she orders five room-service breakfasts, just to spite Eloise, who's paying), and by the gentle wistfulness of the siblings' mother, Donna, a suburban widow who's never been able to get past having once lived in France, where Eloise was born. ("She tried to hold on to vestiges of her old life – despite (second husband) Bill's grumbling, she declared Tuesdays to be coq au vin night; she spoke to Alice and Paul in a mash-up of English and French.") Ginder finds that careful balance of making fun of his characters while maintaining affection for them; by this saga's end, you wish them all well.
"Bluebird, Bluebird," by Attica Locke (Mulholland Books, $26)
Many of the books I've been reading for this package had a cinematic sweep, but none more so than this one, the fourth stand-alone literary thriller from Locke – who, appropriately, has a background in television and film (most recently as a writer/producer on "Empire"). With any luck, somebody will soon option this one for the screen; in the meantime, I've got the rest of her books on my must-read list.
"Bluebird, Bluebird" feels like the beginning of a series, which I fervently hope it is. Set in Lark, Texas – a town you could traverse "in the time it took to sneeze" – it's the story of Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger with a complicated relationship to his home state. Reluctantly, he's pulled into a dual-murder investigation, while simultaneously trying to sort out his troubled marriage and his dangling-by-a-thread job. Locke skillfully blends simmering noir atmosphere, police procedural, and small-town racial politics, and creates a hero engagingly caught between the world of his past and his future. By its end I wasn't ready to be done with Mathews; I hope Locke isn't either.
"The World of Tomorrow," by Brendan Mathews (Little, Brown; $28, 560 pp.)
Should you be fond of 1930s New York, characters who speak in charming Irish brogues, and convoluted plots that involve a pair of redheaded brothers posing as toffs in the Plaza Hotel in the hopes of not being discovered by the IRA – well, have I got a novel for you. Mathews sets his debut novel during one week in 1939, during the World's Fair. Within that construct, he creates a crowded, bustling world that's insanely fun to inhabit. I didn't want this book to end; though it's just as well that it did, or I might still be sitting in my armchair with it, lost to the world.
At the center of "The World of Tomorrow" are three Irish brothers (the two poseurs have just emigrated; the third, a musician, already lives in New York with his family), each of whom spins out into an orbit of other characters around him. Hence, we get to know the ghost of Yeats, a melancholy artist from Prague, a hit man who really just wants to be a farmer, a socialite bride who's moonlighting as an "AquaGal" in a water-ballet revue, and ... oh, just read it already. This is one of those books that you jump into with its first line ("Francis never expected the silverware would be his undoing"), like a diver into an inviting pond, and just happily swim for more than 500 pages. Consider, as a tiny sample, this irresistible description of the Prague artist's colleagues: "a motley collection of aging Dadaists, surly constructivists, renegade expressionists, and a lonely surrealist who always asked for his cocktail to be served in a man's hat."
"The Ninth Hour," by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $26)
Beginning an Alice McDermott novel is like entering an exquisite snow globe; it's a tiny world, beautiful from every angle, hard to describe in its meditative calm. This one, her eighth, begins with a quiet death in early-20th-century Brooklyn: an Irish immigrant, humiliated by the loss of his job, has sealed the meager apartment that he shares with his wife and turned on the gas. From that event, "The Ninth Hour" flows forward and backward like water gently ebbing, into the lives of his widow, his then-unborn child, and the nuns who daily leave their convent – a place that smells comfortingly of "incense and old wood" – to efficiently tend to the needs of their poor and the sick neighbors.
McDermott, who won the National Book Award for "Charming Billy," slips us quietly into these lives, in effortlessly lovely prose; you smell the dirt in those apartments, hear the creak of the floors and the murmurs of the nuns. The book leaves its reader thinking about goodness, about life and death and sacrifice, and about the Brooklynese-twisted voice of a nun reminding children that, no matter what, "the truth finds the light."
"Little Fires Everywhere," by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, $27)
Ng's follow-up to her wildly successful, elegant debut "Everything I Never Told You" has some similarities to its predecessor: an Ohio town, a tragedy spelled out on the first page (in this case, a house destroyed by fire), a close examination of the intricate relationships between parents and children; a way of writing that moves forward like a thriller but never seems rushed. And this book also deals – though it's a subplot rather than a main plot – with a biracial family; in this case, a Chinese-American baby in the center of a custody battle between her immigrant birth mother and the white family who wants to adopt her.
But "Little Fires Everywhere," set in 1990s Shaker Heights, is a book entirely its own; a delicate, wise examination of how mothers and daughters (of which there are several sets in the plot) attract and repel each other; of how the parent you yearn for, as a teenager, might not be the parent you have. Ng succeeds at creating young characters who feel real; her teens have a touching, unformed quality to them, as if they're still shaping themselves, bursting from the page. And her depictions of parenthood are gently moving, particularly from the perspective of Mia, the single mother of a teen: "To a parent, your child wasn't just a person, your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once."
"Shadow of the Lions," by Christopher Swann (Algonquin, $26.95)
Here's why I picked up this debut novel: a posh-boarding-school setting, and a blurb on the cover that cited Donna Tartt's "The Secret History." I will read anything – well, at least a few chapters – that might potentially compare with "The Secret History," the literary thriller to end all literary thrillers, and a book that you should be reading right now if you haven't already. (Cancel everything on your calendar!) "Shadow of the Lions" doesn't quite survive the comparison, but it's an engrossing and entertaining read.
Swann deftly manages a dual narrative, told in first person by the same character at different ages. As a senior at Virginia's Blackburne School, Matthias watched as his best friend Fritz disappeared into the woods and never returned. Ten years later, as a briefly successful novelist, Matthias returns to teach English at the school, and takes the opportunity to try to find out what happened to Fritz. It's a swift tale well told, and at times eloquently so. Of the efforts to look for Fritz after his disappearance, young Matthias notes that "all of this came to nothing, a void that grew around the hole that Fritz had left behind him, a hole that exerts its pull on us still."
NEW IN PAPERBACK
Should you need to get lost in a book that's a bit less expensive, here are some worthy just-out or nearly-out paperback novels – all recommended by me or by other Seattle Times reviewers:
"The Mothers" by Brit Bennett (Riverhead, $16, out Oct. 10)
"Moonglow," by Michael Chabon (Harper Perennial, $16.99)
"The Wonder," by Emma Donoghue (Back Bay Books, $15.99)
"The Fortunes," by Peter Ho Davies (Mariner Books, $14.99)
"Faithful" by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, $15.99)
"To the Bright Edge of the World" by Eowyn Ivey (Back Bay Books, $16.99)
"The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin (Vintage $16, out Oct. 17)
"When All the Girls Have Gone" by Jayne Ann Krentz (Berkeley, $7.99)
"Mister Monkey" by Francine Prose (Harper, $15.99; out Oct. 17)
"Everfair" by Nisi Shawl (Tor Books, $16.99)
"Swing Time" by Zadie Smith (Penguin, $17)
"The Girl from Venice" by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster, $16)