Fiction takes front and center this month for our summer staff recommendations. Secrets, intrigue, and mysteries abound – find a story to get lost in!
Goodbye, Eastern Europe by Jacob Mikanowski
Eastern Europe, the moniker, has gone out of fashion since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ask someone now, and they might tell you that Estonia is in the Baltics, or Scandinavia, that Slovakia is in Central Europe and Croatia is in the Eastern Adriatic or the Balkans. In fact, Eastern Europe is a place that barely exists at all, except in cultural memory. Yet it remains a powerful marker of identity for many, with a fragmented and wide history, defined by texts, myths, and memories of centuries of hardship and suffering.
Goodbye, Eastern Europe is a masterful narrative about a place that has survived the brink of being forgotten. Beginning with long-lost accounts of early pagan life, Mikanowski offers a kaleidoscopic tour recounting the rise and fall of the great empires—Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Russian—the dawn of the modern era, the ravages of Fascism and Communism, as well as Capitalism, the birth of the modern nation-state, and more. A student of literature, history, and the ghosts of his own family’s past, Mikanowski paints a magisterial portrait of a place united by diversity, and eclecticism, and a people with the shared story of being the dominated rather than the dominating.
The result is a loving and ebullient celebration of the distinctive and vibrant cultures that stubbornly persisted at the margins of Western Europe, and a powerful corrective that re-centers our understanding of how the modern Western world took shape.
The Dissident by Paul Goldberg
On his wedding day in 1976, Viktor Moroz stumbles upon a murder scene: two gay men, one of them a U.S. official, have been axed to death in Moscow. Viktor, a Jewish refusenik, is stuck in the Soviet Union because the government has denied his application to leave for Israel; he sits “in refusal” alongside his wife and their group of intellectuals, Jewish and not. But the KGB spots Viktor leaving the murder scene. Plucked off the street, he’s given a choice: find the murderer or become the suspect of convenience. His deadline is nine days later, when Henry Kissinger will be arriving in Moscow. Unsolved ax murders, it seems, aren’t good for politics.
A whip-smart, often hilarious Cold War thriller, Paul Goldberg’s The Dissident explores what it means to survive in the face of impossible choices and monumental consequences. To help solve the case, Viktor ropes in his community, which includes his banned-text-distributing wife, a hard-drinking sculptor, a Russian priest of Jewish heritage, and a visiting American intent on reliving World War II heroics. As Viktor struggles to determine whom to trust, he’s forced to question not only the KGB’s murky motives but also those of his fellow refuseniks—and the man he admires above all: Kissinger himself.
Immersive, unpredictable, and always ax-sharp, The Dissident is Cold War intrigue at its most inventive. It is an uncompromising look at sacrifice, community, and the scars of history and identity, from an expert storyteller.
City in Flames by Tomas Hachard
At once evocative and propulsive, City in Flames is a love story about two isolated people with a deep yet fragile bond trying to find their way to each other while political disorder engulfs the world around them.
Sara is a graduate student living away from home and struggling to finish her degree. When she kindles a long-distance relationship with Kevin, a disillusioned and apathetic IT worker, the two watch as the city that Kevin lives in, and Sara grew up in, slowly rises up against P., a recently elected populist leader. As protests escalate to a night of devastating fires, the impending political breakdown pushes Sara and Kevin’s relationship to the brink and leaves them torn between the turmoil of the present and a hope for the future, between their longing for connection and their terror of commitment.
City in Flames offers a timely, intimate examination of our political moment, mixing the edge of Exit West and the modern romance of Normal People. It is a story that illuminates how people can grow separated from each other, the ways that these bonds can be healed and re-established, and how humans define themselves through their relationships with others.
The Murder Wheel by Tom Mead
When a sensational killing rocks 1938 London, local newspaper ads offer a hefty sum to the person who can say whodunnit. A man has been shot dead at the top of a Ferris wheel, and his wife — the only other person in their carriage — insists on her innocence. But who else could have fired the deadly bullet and escaped unseen? The sheer implausibility of the claim is enough to whip the press into a frenzy and, for young and idealistic Edmund Ibbs, the lawyer representing the accused, that frenzy may be his only hope at discovering the truth of the mysterious murder.
As he digs into the case, Ibbs unwittingly enters a shadowy web of conspiracy and murder, soon finding himself implicated in not one but two other seemingly impossible crimes. First, a corpse appears out of thin air during a performance by a famed illusionist, then a second victim is mortally wounded in a locked dressing room backstage.
Edmund is in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time, attracting the suspicion of Scotland Yard inspector George Flint. His only hope at freedom comes in the form of retired stage magician Joseph Spector, a man steeped in the art of misdirection, who happens to be in the audience for the deadly show. Spector’s mastery of illusion is capable of piercing the veil of deceit, but will his deductive powers be strong enough to explain this utterly confounding series of crimes?
Featuring a puzzling plot with a brilliant and fairly clued solution, The Murder Wheel is a delightful homage to the Golden Age mystery sure to please fans of classic crime fiction; Tom Mead’s atmospheric writing and memorable, complex characters prove him to be one of the best new talents in the historical mystery of today.
Kala by Colin Walsh
In the seaside town of Kinlough, on Ireland’s west coast, three old friends are thrown together for the first time in years. They—Helen, Joe, and Mush—were part of an original group of six inseparable teenagers in the summer of 2003, with motherless, reckless Kala Lanann as their group’s white-hot center. Soon after that summer’s peak, Kala disappeared without a trace.
Now it’s fifteen years later: Helen has reluctantly returned to Ireland for her father’s wedding; Joe is a world-famous musician, newly back in town; and Mush has never left, too scared to venture beyond the counter of his mother’s café.
But human remains have been discovered in the woods. Two more girls have gone missing. And as past and present begin to collide, the estranged friends are forced to confront their own complicity in the events that led to Kala’s disappearance.
Against the backdrop of a town suffocating on its own secrets, in a story that builds from a smolder to a stunning climax, Kala brilliantly examines the sometimes brutal costs of belonging, as well as the battle in the human heart between vengeance and forgiveness, despair and redemption.
My Husband by Maud Ventura
At forty years old, she has an enviable life: a successful career, stunning looks, a beautiful house in the suburbs, two healthy children, and most importantly, an ideal husband, whose wealthy background allows her to transcend her own social class. After fifteen years together, she is still besotted with him. But she’s never quite sure that her passion is reciprocated.
Determined to keep their relationship perfect, she meticulously prepares for every encounter they have, always taking care to make her actions seem effortless. She watches him attentively, testing him to make sure that he still loves her just as much as he did when they first met.
Until one day she realizes she may have gone too far . . .
Landscapes by Christine Lai
In a ruinous country house in the now barren English countryside–decimated by heat and drought–and in a dusty library damaged by earthquake and floods, Penelope archives what remains of the estate’s once notable, now diminished, art collection. As she delves into the objects and images, she also keeps a diary of her final months in the dilapidated estate that has been her home for two decades and a refuge for those who have been displaced by disasters. Out of necessity, Penelope and her partner, Aidan, have sold the house and with its scheduled demolition comes this pressing task of building the archive. But with it also comes the impending arrival of Aidan’s brother, Julian, who will return to have one final look at his childhood home. Penelope suffered at the hands of Julian twenty-two years ago during a brief but violent relationship, and as his visit looms large over her, she finds herself unable to tamp down the past in her efforts to build a possible, if uncertain, future.
In this elegiac and spellbinding blend of narrative, essay and diary, Penelope’s past, present and future collide as fear and loss close in around her, and she clings to art as a means of understanding, of survival, and of reckoning. Recalling the works of Rachel Cusk and Kazuo Ishiguro, Landscapes is an evocative reinvention of the pastoral and the country house novel for our age of catastrophe, and announces the arrival of an extraordinarily gifted new writer.
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov
“At one point they tried to calculate when time began, when exactly the earth had been created,” begins Time Shelter’s enigmatic narrator, who will go unnamed. “In the mid–seventeenth century, the Irish bishop Ussher calculated not only the exact year, but also a starting date: October 22, 4,004 years before Christ.” But for our narrator, time as he knows it begins when he meets Gaustine, a “vagrant in time” who has distanced his life from contemporary reality by reading old news, wearing tattered old clothes, and haunting the lost avenues of the twentieth century.
In an apricot-colored building in Zurich, surrounded by curiously planted forget-me-nots, Gaustine has opened the first “clinic for the past,” an institution that offers an inspired treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a past decade in minute detail, allowing patients to transport themselves back in time to unlock what is left of their fading memories. Serving as Gaustine’s assistant, the narrator is tasked with collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to nostalgic scents and even wisps of afternoon light. But as the charade becomes more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek out the clinic to escape from the dead-end of their daily lives—a development that results in an unexpected conundrum when the past begins to invade the present. Through sharply satirical, labyrinth-like vignettes reminiscent of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka, the narrator recounts in breathtaking prose just how he became entrenched in a plot to stop time itself.
Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck
Jenny Erpenbeck (the author of Go, Went, Gone and Visitation) is an epic storyteller and arguably the most powerful voice in contemporary German literature. Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos—an unforgettably compelling masterpiece—tells the story of the romance begun in East Berlin at the end of the 1980s when nineteen-year-old Katharina meets by chance a married writer in his fifties named Hans. Their passionate yet difficult long-running affair takes place against the background of the declining GDR, through the upheavals wrought by its dissolution in 1989 and then what comes after. In her unmistakable style and with enormous sweep, Erpenbeck describes the path of two lovers, as Katharina grows up and tries to come to terms with a not always ideal romance, even as a whole world with its own ideology disappears. As the Times Literary Supplement writes: “The weight of history, the particular experiences of East and West, and the ways in which cultural and subjective memory shape individual identity has always been present in Erpenbeck’s work. She knows that no one is all bad, no state all rotten, and she masterfully captures the existential bewilderment of this period between states and ideologies.”
In the opinion of her superbly gifted translator Michael Hofmann, Kairos is the great post-Unification novel. And, as The New Republic has commented on his work as a translator: “Hofmann’s translation is invaluable—it achieves what translations are supposedly unable to do: it is at once ‘loyal’ and ‘beautiful.’”
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa
Twenty-five-year-old Takako has enjoyed a relatively easy existence—until the day her boyfriend Hideaki, the man she expected to wed, casually announces he’s been cheating on her and is marrying the other woman. Suddenly, Takako’s life is in freefall. She loses her job, her friends, and her acquaintances, and spirals into a deep depression. In the depths of her despair, she receives a call from her distant uncle Satoru.
An unusual man who has always pursued something of an unconventional life, especially after his wife Momoko left him out of the blue five years earlier, Satoru runs a second-hand bookshop in Jimbocho, Tokyo’s famous book district. Takako once looked down upon Satoru’s life. Now, she reluctantly accepts his offer of the tiny room above the bookshop rent-free in exchange for helping out at the store. The move is temporary, until she can get back on her feet. But in the months that follow, Takako surprises herself when she develops a passion for Japanese literature, becomes a regular at a local coffee shop where she makes new friends, and eventually meets a young editor from a nearby publishing house who’s going through his own messy breakup.
But just as she begins to find joy again, Hideaki reappears, forcing Takako to rely once again on her uncle, whose own life has begun to unravel. Together, these seeming opposites work to understand each other and themselves as they continue to share the wisdom they’ve gained in the bookshop.