The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasureby Jack Pendarvis
I'm always proselytizing for Pendarvis's work, especially this collection of short stories, especially the first story in the volume, "Sex Devil." It is at once the funniest and saddest story I've ever read. In it, teenager Randy White proposes a comic—Sex Devil—about a superhero who has many powers. Sex, martial arts, mind-reading, even dancing! ("Because of his secret mastery of bodily control he is also the best dancer anyone has ever seen.") But Randy White's true story can be gleaned from his feverish proposal, and it's a heartbreaker. It's been said that Pendarvis is drawn to losers, but I find his characters touchingly resilient.
Zuckerman Unboundby Philip Roth
Perhaps I'm a contrarian, but I've long preferred Roth’s earlier, wilder books to, say, the more proper, Pulitzer-endorsed American Pastoral. This one—the second book in a series about Nathan Zuckerman, published in 1981—follows the unraveling life of a Roth-like writer who has just published a Portnoy's Complaint-like book. Separated from his wife, uncomfortable with his new fame, he finds himself stalked through the streets of New York by Alvin Pepler, a disgraced quiz-show contestant. Pepler, it turns out, has aspirations to write and wants Zuckerman to read his analysis—of Zuckerman. "When the lion comes up to Hemingway with his review of The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Zuckerman thinks, "time to leave the jungle for home."
When Will There Be Good News?by Kate Atkinson
I get a little feisty when people make hard-and-fast divisions between literary fiction and crime fiction; the best crime fiction is as good as anything in literary fiction today. But Atkinson, who won the Whitbread Prize for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, simply doesn't fit within the crime genre no matter how much I would like to claim her for the team. She toys with coincidence while managing to play by the rules of detective fiction. And in this, her third book about private detective Jackson Brodie, she is clearly more interested in other, newer characters. I fell hard for Reggie, a teenage nanny with an intellectual bent. Working on a translation of the Iliad, she stops to consider: "There were an awful lot of the dead in Homer." Also in Atkinson, by the way.
Bury Me Deepby Megan Abbott
One of the up-and-coming stars in crime fiction, Abbott frequently uses real-life crimes to explore the inner lives of desperately sad and lonely people; this one was inspired by Winnie Ruth Judd, a doctor's wife accused of murdering two friends and stuffing their bodies into a trunk. The trunk was eventually discovered at the Los Angeles train station and Judd was dubbed "The Trunk Murderess," among other things. In Abbott's hands, however, this tabloid fare becomes distilled Dreiser. This book won't be out until July, but go ahead and free up an evening or two. Once you start it, you won't be going anywhere.
Marjorie Morningstarby Herman Wouk
I re-read this now-54-year-old novel every year, if only to figure out why I re-read it every year. I actually have very little in common with Marjorie and my life has been blessedly free of Noel Airmans, the elusive, maddening man that she thinks she wants. I guess I'm drawn to Wouk's depiction of Wally Wronken, the writer who yearns to throw his success in Marjorie's face. I probably know more than I should about writing as an act of petty vengeance. Unlike Wouk, I think it can be immensely satisfying. Note to some former bosses: I'm not through with you yet.