In Brief

This Week’s Hot Reads: July 21, 2014

This week, a true-life crime drama set in a famous French vineyard, an impressive debut, and a refreshing spin on the supernatural thriller.

Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine by Maximillian Potter

In his camouflaged lair in the middle of the woods, a career criminal stirs in the dead of night to assemble his tools for a risky but potentially lucrative hit. The target, though, is not a person, but a grape. Shadows in the Vineyard, by Maximillian Potter, a contributor to Vanity Fair and the senior media adviser to the governor of Colorado, tells the dramatic story of a crime saga that played out several years ago in a few acres of the most fruitful wine country in the world, France’s Domaine de le Romanée-Conti. In 2010, a man under mysterious motives threatened to poison a priceless plot of the most rare and valuable grapevines in the world if he didn’t receive a million-Euro ransom, and then followed through when the money was not paid. The story here is a gripping crime drama more creative than most procedurals, and Potter does excellent working in fleshing out both the involved players and the historical context of the Burgundy region and its oenophiles. If he is occasionally guilty of over-writing (“No one understands the contours of a parcel of vines better than its vigneron …The way a husband understands the curves and mysteries of his beloved’s form”) he is only matching the tenor of the frequently silly wine-writing field, in which a glass of red liquid might be called “insouciant” or “pugnacious.” There is a good story here, but what might interest readers even more in the examination of the strange culture of wine collecting.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys TallBy Will Chancellor

To compare a debut novel to Infinite Jest is likely either too flippant or too generous, but consider the bona fides of Owen Burr, protagonist of Will Chancellor’s wonderful debut novel A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall: a young man preternaturally gifted in a sport favored by the elite prep school set (in this case water polo rather than tennis,) the child of one deceased parent and one cerebral academic, devilishly smart but also plagued by various strains of existential reservations and doubt about his place in the world. When Owen, a 6-foot-8 phenom of an athlete, loses one of his eyes and all of his Olympic potential in a freak accident, he absconds to Berlin to make it as an artist, despite having no real talent, and less practice. His father, a professor of classics at Stanford, sets out to recover his son from the shady set into which he eventually stumbles, his immense size and indefatigable gameness making him a natural lightning rod for those who might use him for their own devices. The allusions to Odysseus and Telemachus are more than implied; Owen carries with him his father’s copies of the Iliad and Odyssey. The term readability is often used backhandedly to describe unchallenging prose or cheap plotting, but real “readability,” the kind in which the reader finds his brain tethered to the page and drawn along as if in a current, is much more rare. Chancellor achieves the trick by striking a perfect balance between active plotting, heady prose, and plenty of grist for a “novel of ideas” all while poking fun, or real barbs, at large artistic ideas themselves. This debut, more than merely promising, is one of the best of the year.

The String DiariesBy Stephen Lloyd Jones

For the first several chapters of The String Diaries, the first novel from UK writer Stephen Lloyd Jones, the book presents itself as a frenetic and layered, if somewhat conventional, thriller: In the present day, a woman named Hannah speeds through a dark Welsh night with her husband bleeding out from two grievous wounds in the passenger seat, their daughter in the back, an unnamed but priceless parcel in the trunk. Meanwhile, in 1979, a professor at Oxford gets into a high-speed chase of his own, pursing a young woman and her mother who seem to be guarding a deeper secret along with their secret identities. Soon, though, Jones reveals, with a refreshingly restrained hand, an original element of the supernatural, drawing on Hungarian folklore. We learn of a race of not-quite-immortal shape-shifters able to impersonate other humans, and how we once coexisted, until one of their number, a boy with the clearly evil name of Jakob, becomes enamored with a human girl. When he fails to claim her as his own, he proceeds to stalk her female descendents down through the years (the “string diaries” being the passed-down collection of advice on how to detect and avoid him.) There is plenty of lively action here, and some good suspense, even if the plot fizzles somewhat and the adverbs become oppressive. Perhaps most laudable is the fortitude Jones displays in allowing his women to claim the lion’s share of the heroics.