This installment: a creepy new McEwan (f); class struggles in Chicago circa ’33 (f); two fathers tell of their daughters’ murders (f); a superb English psychological thriller (f); and germ warfare and international espionage in the new Bohjalian.
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Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
It’s the 1980’s in England but not like the ‘80s we knew. (I think the genre is called alternative history.) Clever McEwan anchors action with events like the Falklands War but some things are way ahead of our time. Like Adam, a very lifelike robot imbued with many human traits. And therein lies the rub, because when Adam applies these “human” traits to real life dilemmas, it turns out he has a very stubborn mind of his own. His owner, Charlie, a slacker of sorts, is courting mysterious Miranda, his next door neighbor who has dark secrets. With his superlative pattern-recognizing brain, Adam makes Charlie lots of money in the stock market—good thing because Charlie’s broke. Enter a child, enter Turing, enter other versions of Adam and Eve who are not doing too well, and you have the makings of kind of moral tangles McEwan specializes in. Very creepy and certainly thought-provoking.
The Lake On Fire by Rosellen Brown
In 1933 The Chicago Exposition rose up out of a swamp. There preternaturally brilliant young Asher plies his talents—among them petty thievery and the ability to answer almost any question put to him. His sister Chaya, slaving in cigar factories, is “rescued” by idealistic Mr. Stillman. He courts her to the bafflement of his well-connected family and she’s constantly torn between the soft life she’s offered and her fierce sense of social justice, born of her poor, immigrant roots, which also characterizes Asher and splits her loyalties. Lots of drama, intensity, and atmosphere which brings history to life.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Initially I was daunted by the mysterious title and the apparent length of the book and what I thought might be a political theme (not a place I like to hang out on the page or in life). But with the first paragraph all doubts fled and I was in for what I think may be the best read of the year so far. That word refers to a geometrical shape in which there are infinite, countable facets. (How can that be?) And the book reflects this as it tells of two murders. One a Palestinian girl; the other Israeli, and their fathers somehow band together to tell their stories, over and over, to whoever will listen. McCann weaves in an astonishing amount of related lore: bird life, weaponry, history, literature, music, and more in rich detail. He refers to the helix of history, how everything relates, and I was totally caught up in its spell and didn’t want it to end. Astonishing!
The Playground by Jane Shemilt
It seems idyllic—children at play in the woods, their parents hanging out convivially. But each family gathered at Eve and Eric’s charming house has considerable strains and these come into bold relief when first Ash, 3, is found drowned in the pond. And then—how could happen?—his 6 year old sister Sorell goes missing. The group got together when Eve offered to tutor their dyslexic offspring but that gradually turned into free for all get-togethers. Melissa’s marriage to charming but sadistic (in private) Paul is strained and their teenage daughter Izzy leads the other kids into scary games. Grace from Zimbabwe is supporting Martin as he supposedly works on his second novel. Suspicion keeps shifting and there’s a shock at the end, though foreshadowing hinted at it. English setting; an excellent psychological thriller.
The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
What a book to have read right now, which features germ warfare and a plague on the rise. But of course in the hands of master storyteller Bohjalian, it was riveting from mysterious start to seat of the pants finish. On a bike tour in Vietnam, Alexis, an ER doc, is fretting that her boyfriend Austin hasn’t returned from his solo trip to (supposedly) visit the sites where his father had been wounded during the war. We flip back and forth between what really happened to Austin and Alexis’s determination that his death wasn’t an accident. Turns out rats are very adaptable and Agent Orange made them even tougher. With the help of a PI, Alexis gets very close to the answer and also to her potential demise. Great characterizations, atmosphere, and action—if you can bear it.