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When Death Goes on Hiatus: ‘Killing Pretty’ by Richard Kadrey

Killing PrettyJames Stark is a sarcastic, hard-charging brawler who can heal from any wound. Half human and half angel, he still feels pain, and his battered body carries a multitude of scars from shootings, stabbings, and torture. Stark, who goes by Sandman Slim, is so tough he smokes Maledictions, cigarettes you can only get in Hell. He lives off spicy food, donuts, and Hell’s best wine, Aqua Regia. His attitude and appetites are the product of eleven years in gladiatorial arenas in Hell’s capital, Pandemonium (a much hotter version of Los Angeles). In the first book of Richard Kadrey’s bestselling supernatural noir series, Stark escapes Hell, seeking vengeance with a flaming sword and his weapon of choice, the na’at—a malleable, sword-like whip. He possesses Hellion magic, the ability to warp distance via shadow, and a black blade that cuts anything, opens any lock, and starts any car.

Stark’s penchant for violent solutions existed long before his time in Hell. He is a descendant of Wild Bill Hickok, and in previous adventures, Stark has faced off against numerous threats: vampires, mutant angels, necromancers, a zombie plague, and gods as old as God himself. He’s saved the world more than once, served as a bodyguard for Lucifer, and even reigned on the throne of Hell for a time.

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A Fevered Vision in the South Seas: ‘Imperium’ by Christian Kracht

ImperiumIn the early twentieth century, a young German named August Engelhardt sailed to Kabakon, a small island in the German territories of the South Pacific. His goal was to establish an outpost from where he could promulgate his ideas, chief among them the belief that the proper way to live, spiritually and practically, was to be naked, to worship the sun, and to eat nothing but coconuts. From Kabakon he managed to disseminate frugivorist and utopian literature to Europe, and to entice to the island numerous followers, some of whose travel he funded. By the end of his life, though, Engelhardt was malnourished, disconnected, and delusional, a leprous skeleton who barely reached middle age and who seemed to prove by his own dwindling health the untenable idiocy of his philosophy. In Christian Kracht’s newly translated novel, Imperium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 179 pages; translated from the German by Daniel Bowles), Engelhardt is not merely an anthropological subject but “our friend,” and the protagonist not only of the book but of “the new age.”

Imperium is funny and short, but vigorous in its exploration of ideas and ambitious in its scope. Fiercely erudite, it is clearly the work of a man who has ingested all sorts of philosophies and literary traditions. While comparisons to classic adventure and maritime tales are inevitable, Kracht’s narrative sensibility echoes the self-conscious playfulness of 19th century French and Russian tale-tellers, and his obsessive focus on coincidences and ostensibly dissimilar yet interrelated phenomena reminds one of Pynchon’s intricate cataloguing of stories-within-stories, regardless of whether they are germane to the plot. (A digression, for example, concerning the alleged creation of the yeast by-product Vegemite under the aegis of the Kellogg brothers is particularly Pynchon-esque in its interpretation of corporate hegemony as a mechanizing force guiding individual wills.)

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A Family’s Struggles Mirror Its City’s: ‘The Turner House’ by Angela Flournoy

The Turner HouseSet primarily in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s riveting and acrobatic first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages), flips among several points of view and timelines: principally between the Great Migration of the mid-1940s—when Francis Turner leaves his young wife, Viola, and their infant son behind in Arkansas to prepare a new life for the family in Michigan—and 2008, when Viola is near the end of her life and about to lose the family home. This spells potential tragedy, as both mother and house are the last points of connection among the couple’s thirteen children.

In the story’s central timeline, Francis has already died and Viola’s advanced age and ill health have forced her to move in with her eldest son, Cha-Cha. With thirteen kids, Viola should be spending her last hours holding loved ones’ hands, surrounded by the noise and activity that was the soundtrack to her life. But each son and daughter has such complicated and all-consuming struggles, that it’s just as likely Viola will die alone, at night, held only by the chemical grip of morphine under the crackling blue light of an infomercial.

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Note of Grace Among an Unhappy Family: ‘The Loved Ones’ by Mary-Beth Hughes

The Loved OnesEven if Tolstoy was right about happy families, unhappy families in Western literature often bear striking resemblances to one another. The unfaithful, existentially-tormented husbands; the beautiful, unfulfilled wives; the precocious yet emotionally unformed children caught up in family affairs far beyond what they are capable of properly assimilating into their senses of self—we recognize these tropes partly because they are, sadly, representative of many actual families, but mostly because, also sadly, they make for instantly recognizable and compelling dramatic structures. It is, perhaps, unfair to levy such a generalization against the many writers who choose to tackle dissolute spouses and dissipating family units, but it is certainly incumbent upon these writers to bring something new to the table, if only for the reason that it is one heavily laden with offerings. Mary-Beth Hughes’s new novel, The Loved Ones (Grove/Atlantic; 289 pages), is in many ways a familiar portrait of a family tearing itself apart through avarice and ennui. But its contribution to the genre is its unflinching and intelligent exploration of the ways in which the characters—particularly the women—attempt to keep their pain from spreading to those around them.

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Old Souls and Deep Sadness: ‘In Another Country’ by David Constantine

In Another CountryReaders of British author David Constantine’s In Another Country (Biblioasis; 277 pages) may identify in his stories certain hoary elements of style and material that have been all but abandoned by contemporary U.S. writers seeking to depict modern life in all its fragmented complexity. Absent are the ingratiating narrative voice, the frenetic observation, the satirical punches to the gut dealt to unworthy characters. Constantine’s characters have souls, and do such un-ironic things as write long letters to one another, which they send via mail. The stories are simply plotted, harrowing, and enduringly powerful; the prose is uncompromisingly lyrical yet rarely overwrought. Constantine’s old-world sensibilities imbue his stories with grace and seriousness, and his characters seem to exist not in any recognizable world, but in their own personal Limbos, wherein ancient forces and quotidian difficulties converge to create an immense pressure threatening to tear them apart. There is a pronounced fatalism through many of the stories, yet Constantine’s great skill lies in his ability to create moments that feel not like authorial intrusions but rather fleeting recognitions, whether of insurmountable loneliness or inchoate hope.

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Deceptions of an Iraq War Memoir: ‘A Big Enough Lie’ by Eric Bennett

A Big Enough LieEric Bennett’s first novel, A Big Enough Lie (285 pages; TriQuarterly Books), is fiction within fiction. The novel opens with best-selling author John Townley sitting in a studio green room, waiting to discuss his war memoir, Petting the Burning Dog, for the second time on the Winnie Wilson Show. There’s just one problem. The memoir is a fabrication, written under the name Henry Fleming, who happens to be a real second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Fleming is missing in action in Iraq and was the leader of the “Babylon Seven”—a platoon captured and executed on video. Townley suspects his second appearance will expose his lies on national television; the show’s second guest is Antoine Greep, the platoon’s sole survivor.

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Peering through the Haze of Digital Commotion: ‘All This Life’ by Joshua Mohr

unnamed (3)_0Is loneliness the de facto spiritual condition of the Information Age? This is the central question that seems to loom over All This Life (Soft Skull Press; 294 pages), the latest novel from Bay Area author Joshua Mohr. In the book, Mohr trains a scathing lens upon our 21st century culture, one that craves personal connection and yet seems to have forgotten the value of face-to-face interactions, opting instead for a constant stream of YouTube videos, live Tweets, and Facebook status updates. “All that matters is content. New content. More content.” The setting is San Francisco circa 2013, a city where zealous Apple employees “swarm like Jehovah’s witnesses” and promise “video quality that looks better than the real world,” a place where a booming tech industry has driven rent prices up toward Manhattan levels and has dismantled “every bit of strangeness that once made San Francisco extraordinary.”

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Struggling Among So Much Splendor: ‘The Wonder Garden’ by Lauren Acampora

The Wonder GardenIt takes a skilled writer to make us see the familiar as something new. In her first book of fiction, The Wonder Garden (Grove; 386 pages), Lauren Acampora turns an anthropologist’s discerning gaze on the everyday sights and sounds of suburbia. In doing so, she creates the impression these commonplace scenes and images are imbued with some hidden meaning, whether it be a foreign girl visiting for the first time a mall, where she “touches the clothing in Aeropostale as if it were powdered with gold dust,” or the markings on a “wooden coffee table that still bears the scars of children’s homework.”

The Wonder Garden began as a novel until Acampora realized her story’s central protagonist was too passive of a character to carry the weight of hundreds of pages. Thankfully, she discovered that several of the novel’s supporting players possessed fascinating interior lives worth exploring. Acampora ultimately resurrected the project as a series of interwoven stories set around the affluent Connecticut community of Old Cranbury. These are characters who appear “stuck,” paralyzed by indecision while at the crossroads of middle-age, young adulthood, or new parenthood. The pleasure of reading The Wonder Garden comes not from watching these people escape the traps they may or may not have set for themselves, but in witnessing their struggle and seeing, despite the extreme wealth on display through the book, a mirror of our own lives.

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When a Storm Might Turn You into Pulp: ‘The Paper Man’ by Gallagher Lawson

The Paper Man Gallagher Lawson’s first novel, The Paper Man (261 pages; Unnamed Press), opens with a scene you might expect in a coming-of-age tale: a sheltered young man has just arrived by bus to an unfamiliar city, eager and more than a little anxious to start the next chapter of his life. The difference here is that our protagonist, Michael, is a walking and talking paper mache’ construction. Given his unusual appearance, Michael is dreadfully concerned with fitting in his new surroundings. Fortunately for him, he might not be the strangest resident of the novel’s unnamed seaside province: his arrival in town is heralded by the appearance of a dead mermaid in the middle of the road. The sight proves an ill omen as Michael soon finds his belongings stolen by an eye-patch-wearing talk radio host and his paper form marred by a sudden rainstorm. Early in the novel, Michael reminds himself that “he was the stranger here,” and, given the existential horror prevalent in The Paper Man, one senses Gallagher Lawson would hardly be unpleased if this phrase brings Albert Camus to mind for his readers.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard: Whose Struggle Is It?

My Struggle Volume FourWhen Karl Ove Knausgaard was in San Francisco to promote the U.S. release of the fourth book in his six-volume My Struggle series, he was quietly and generously discussing a project that had been completed several years ago, but whose trajectory among English speakers is still tracking with a fervor rarely seen in the literary world. My Struggle: Book Four (Archipelago; 485 pages; translated by Don Bartlett) deals primarily with the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard’s time as a schoolteacher in northern Norway; as in each of the first three volumes, he painstakingly chronicles tiny yet unendurable humiliations, fleeting moments of elation and revelation, and the abiding shame and existential dread that, for Knausgaard, are the costs of being alive. He employs a flatness of style, an insistence on detail, and an overwhelming candor to produce an effect few authors have ever been able to achieve, and whose qualities I can only compare to the experience of reading as a child: total immersion in a story, and the sense that the rhythms of writer and reader have been synced, producing a cosmically unlikely pleasure that hits like a fierce wave of energy.

Comprising Knausgaard’s admirers are novelists of every ilk and age; respected reviewers; and, judging by the sales, around one-in-nine adult Norwegians. Reckless hyperbole about his accomplishment abounds (such as that in the preceding paragraph), much of it merely in service of figuring out how he achieved what he did, which is to make interesting and appealing 3,600 pages of hastily-written, baldly autobiographical prose about a handsome, intelligent, successful man who describes the birth of his daughters and his bowel movements with equal reverence.

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A Vision Stretching Over Centuries: ‘The Memory Painter’ by Gwendolyn Womack

The Memory PainterGwendolyn Womack’s first novel, The Memory Painter (320 pages; Picador), is a historical and scientific thriller fueled by themes of reincarnation and identity. World-famous painter Bryan Pierce is at the mercy of sudden trance-like states wherein he is able to paint moments of beauty and pain from his past lives. His art acts as a distress call, and it’s answered by Linz Jacobs, a neuroscience researcher. When Linz visits an art gallery and recognizes in one of Bryan’s paintings an image from a recurring childhood nightmare, an immediate connection to the artist soon becomes an exploration of shared history and past mysteries.

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The Potential of Formless Beings: A Translation of Anne Garréta’s ‘Sphinx’

sphinx_intro_rgbBeyond the elegant, geometric design of its cover, Sphinx (Deep Vellum; 120 pages; translated by Emma Ramadan) is an ambiguous, multifaceted beast. With its third publication, Deep Vellum, an eclectic Dallas press, brings the work of French writer Anne Garréta to English readers for the first time. Nearly thirty years after its original publication, Sphinx also marks the first English translation of a female member of Oulipo (short for ouvrir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop for potential literature”), the exclusive, prestigious writer’s workshop that included George Perec and Italo Calvino among its members. (Garréta is the first member of Oulipo to be born after its founding.) The goal of so-called potential literature is to restrict or manipulate language structures to open up the narrative possibilities of literature. And, indeed, there is something both freeing and unsettling about the prose of Sphinx. Though the sentiments at the heart of the novel are universal–love, passion, and melancholy–the agents of such feelings are strikingly absent, phantom-like forms that refuse to be pinned to the page and examined as specimens.

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