So do serial-killer thrillers. It falls to the author, then, to pull something fresh from all that well-trod offal. South African novelist Beukes managed it masterfully in last year's time-traveling best-seller The Shining Girls, and she does it again in Monsters, fleshing out stock characters — tough-as-nails lady cop, ritualistic mad-man murderer, unscrupulous journalist on the make — and imbuing her story with shrewd social commentary, dark humor, and a dusting of metaphysical wonder.
The first body that shows up on a chilly Detroit night is unusual, even for Murder City: the head and torso of a 10-year-old boy crudely attached to the lower half of a deer. More grotesque taxidermies follow, though their maker isn't a mystery; Beukes tells us whodunit almost from the outset. That eliminates the ''how'' but not the ''why,'' which turns out to be a more complicated kind of beast. Monsters may not totally get at the bigger indictments it's aiming for, but it still delivers something smarter and sharper than your average splatter paperback. Gore is easy, after all; gutsy writing is a lot harder. B+
It's 1922, and the war has claimed the lives of Frances Wray's two brothers and father. She and her mother, saddled with an empty London mansion and a crushing amount of debt from bad investments, have been forced to take in lodgers — or, the polite term, ''paying guests'' — to keep their heads above water. The tenants, Len and Lilian Barber, are from a lower but upwardly mobile class, and their curious, mismatched pairing becomes a point of fascination for Frances, dubbed a spinster at the age of 27. Waters depicts the stops and starts of the growing romance between Frances and Lilian with lovely, muscular language, which only heightens the delicious sense of dread when things take a sharp downward turn before the stunner of an ending.
Waters, author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, is more recognized and lauded in Britain, where she's been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. But she deserves far more attention in this country for her perceptive storytelling, and The Paying Guests — a novel of manners as well as a novel of passion — should win her a mass American audience. A
Within weeks, the Georgia flu, an insidiously efficient virus born in Eastern Europe and blown across the globe like a poisonous kiss, has wiped out 99 percent of the population. Mandel devotes an excruciatingly forlorn seven paragraphs to humanity's ''incomplete list'' of loss: no more cities, no more flight, no more police, no more electric guitars, no more social media. It's what remains of a broken world that fuels a novel that miraculously reads like equal parts page-turner and poem.
One of her great feats is that the story feels spun rather than plotted, with seamless shifts in time and characters. Here, a young Arthur's fateful meeting with his first wife. Then, a Michigan airport where stranded passengers cluster in huddles of horror beneath screens showing CNN. Now, a resolute band of actors whose caravan roams between dystopian settlements performing Shakespeare and Beethoven. ''Because survival is insufficient,'' reads a line taken from Star Trek spray-painted on the Traveling Symphony's lead wagon. The genius of Mandel's fourth novel—the first with the marketing muscle of a major publisher—is that she lives up to those words. This is not a story of crisis and survival. It's one of art and family and memory and community and the awful courage it takes to look upon the world with fresh and hopeful eyes. A
Fiona, 59, has won the esteem of her peers by presiding over tough family cases, such as whether to separate conjoined twins. Just as her husband of 30 years proposes an open marriage — an idea that's as preposterous to her as it is devastating — she gets a case involving a brilliant teenage Jehovah's Witness, Adam, who's refusing the blood transfusion that will save his life because of his (but really his parents') religious convictions. Whether because of her marital problems or her regrets over never having had children, Fiona finds herself in a situation with Adam that crosses a line. The consequences aren't as violent as those that befall McEwan's protagonists in Saturday and Solar, but Fiona's experience is no less haunting in this brief but substantial addition to the author's oeuvre. A-
The narrator's flat affect, droning with lawyerly pedantry and extenuation, can make reading The Dog a little like looking over some legal documents. But as with any paperwork, the really important stuff is between the lines, and the character's retreat into a purely contractual view of the world — he calculates the exact percentage of his salary he needs to donate in order to assuage his guilt over Dubai's quasi-enslaved immigrant workforce — starts to reveal itself as well-disguised pathos. Lest I make it sound like a slog, the novel is often wonderfully droll, especially in its portrayal of the oddities of a city whose ''mission is to make itself indistinguishable from its airport.'' Also, always amusing are the protagonist's mentally composed emails, never-to-be sent missives in which he lists all of his grievances like an office-computer version of Saul Bellow's Herzog. O'Neill makes this unlikable figure engaging despite his disdain for engagement. But he's kind enough to leave him nameless, which is how he would want it. A-
Nelson's gifts in tackling huge subjects — death, grief, all-consuming love — with humor and gravitas will draw comparisons to the two reigning superstars of non-apocalyptic YA lit, John Green and Rainbow Rowell. But the intensity of her writing stands alone, in good and bad ways. There are times when it's way too much and even exhausting, but that's how it should be. Noah and Jude are at an age where synapses aren't yet settled and emotions burn too hot for comfort. Whether you're at that age right now or you've forgotten what it feels like, I'll Give You the Sun is that rare, immersive teen novel: To read it is a coming-of-age experience in itself. A-
And what a memoir it is. Hirsch traces an indelible portrait of his son, a troubled boy prone to tantrums and outbursts whom he dubs ''Mr. Impulsive.'' Even as he catalogs the multiple school changes and doctor visits and conflicting diagnoses of Gabriel's condition (some sort of developmental disorder, apparently), Hirsch uses the particulars of his family's situation to grasp at something larger and more universal: ''When he colored his hair blue/The sink was covered with blue dye/As if the sky was turned upside down in a bowl.''
When Hurricane Irene strikes New York City in 2011, Gabriel seems to disappear into the storm itself. (He's found days later, dead after downing a cap of the club drug GHB.) Hirsch's short, limber three-line stanzas are well suited to the staggered unfolding of the tragedy, as if Charon were tweeting updates from the banks of the river Styx. ''I did not know the work of mourning/Is like carrying a bag of cement/Up a mountain at night,'' Hirsch writes toward the end, as he begins to come to terms with his loss. ''That's why it takes courage/To get out of bed in the morning/And climb into the day.'' A
Nuevo Leon, Mexico, Jan. 31, 2012Northern Mexico is suffering through the worst drought in seven decades,
which has killed off herds of cattle, destroyed crops and caused severe
shortages of food and water.