Fiction Only

This Week’s Hot Reads: May 28, 2013

From a book steeped in all the strange junk that we’re obsessed with in the contemporary world to a novel of the Cold War experience told through ghost stories.

Note to Self By Alina Simone

A goofy, sweet coming-of-age story that captures life among all the strange trash in the modern world.

Reading Alina Simone’s novel Note to Self sometimes feels like browsing a catalog of the strange trash in this modern world. Simone’s funny protagonist, Anna, is suspicious, jumpy, and self-critical. She thinks she’ll get fired from her office job for time theft, fixates on Craigslist ads for fetish parties, and parrots life-coach jargon about goals and wishes. A period of unemployment throws her into a tailspin, so she jumps into a cultish art collective under the impression that it will give meaning to her life. Simone is a talented chronicler of all the crap that narcissists think is precious metal. She notices the absurdity in spam emails with lines like “tiny bubbles of discontent surround me because I feel as lonely as a shark in the deep blue ocean.” Anna is a case study in focus—how we lose it, how we regain it, how we lose it again—and through her, Simone explores 20-something narcissism. Note to Self is goofy, sweet, and all the things you want in a coming-of-age story. There’s redemption in all this quotidian depravity.

You Are One of Them By Elliott Holt

A novel of the Cold War experience told through a ghost story.

Perhaps the Cold War experience is best told through ghost stories. Ghosts are in the shadows; they have secrets big enough to warrant hanging around. Elliott Holt’s debut, You Are One of Them, capitalizes on this by putting the death of a childhood best friend at the heart of a story about isolation, loss, and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Sarah, the main character, finds clues to suggest that her long-disappeared best friend is still alive, and so she sets out to discover the truth in mid-’90s Moscow, where everyone is hiding something. You Are One of Them is obsessed with the fragility of unions, the idea of nuclear disarmament, and holding on to the past. These are juicy themes. But Holt’s ending doesn’t provide enough closure to thaw the frost. You hope that the narrative will go off the rails, but Holt sticks to the boundaries of a ghost story. You feel just as cold and haunted as Sarah is, and you’re left wanting to know more.

Graveland By Alan Glynn

An investigation into the murder of a CEO reads like an action-packed film.

The movie Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, came from Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, so it is no surprise that Graveland is a thriller in the mold of films you have seen but only sort of watched on airplanes, at airport sports bars, or otherwise in transit, going somewhere else. It’s cheaply cinematic in its bare-bones prose style, line break after line break all but signposts for jump cuts. The characters are casting couch types—uncooperative bitch, schlubby loser, disdainful finance shark—in lieu of subtler portraits. It’s boldly ephemeral in its use of slang (“WTF” marks a deep emotional reaction). And the plot is action-packed: it revolves around the murder of a Too Big to Fail corporation’s CEO, who is shot by terrorists during his morning jog in Central Park. The would-be protagonist is a gritty investigative reporter named Ellen who turns to this mystery because she feels underused and isolated covering political campaigns. All of this is fun, but it feels a bit weightless and transient. The dialogue isn’t up to Richard Price’s level of banter, and there’s no George Clooney to give it a Michael Clayton sheen. Graveland is the sort of thing you might leave on your seat as you get up to catch your next flight. But it is engaging, of course.

The Adventuress By N.D. Coleridge

A social-climbing seductress sleeps her way to the top of society.

Like a great tabloid headline, The Adventuress by N.D. Coleridge promises a lurid story that spares no detail. It’s a beach read if there ever was one, about a beautiful social climber named Cath Fox, who sleeps her way to the top of society. Cath changes her name depending on the situation and whomever she wants to seduce; her identity is fractured and reflective, and her ambition goes one way only. There are plot points involving boarding schools, rich husbands committing adultery, the royal wedding, and glamorous vacations. But Bonfire of the Vanities this is not, and that is unfortunate, though the cultural references might be spot on. In Coleridge’s storytelling there is little whiff of verisimilitude that would make this more than a passing diversion. You end up being less than worried about Cath Fox and how she’ll reconcile all the various alluring parts of her personality. Her successes come easy enough to her that any obstacles seem surmountable.

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Idiopathy By Sam Byers

Three unlikeable characters go through depression, love affairs, and work frustrations.

Idiopathy, the debut novel from Sam Byers, reminds the reader of coming-of-age stories like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in its overall mood. You get the sense that there is a generational problem being worked through via the characters and their depression, love affairs, and work frustrations. There are three confused young people who are struggling to understand their place in the world and with each other. But these characters—Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan, in a love triangle of sorts—are much older than those in Perks or Pittsburgh. Whereas most coming-of-age stories involve teens and coeds, this one focuses on people who have office jobs and are already in the real world. There has been a lot of talk about “likable” characters in fiction lately. Do they need to exist for a novel to work? Whatever the answer, the inverse desire for unlikable characters—truly despicable ones—is interesting. The answer is perhaps not in Idiopathy, but the effort is appreciated. Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan are quite unlikable people, stuck with one another, whining to their friends and family. These kids aren’t all right, but they’re also kind of boring.