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Posts Tagged ‘Nickolas Butler’

I can’t remember the last time I thought of H.P. Lovecraft or read one of his weird horror tales. But then Samantha Bee recently invoked Cthulhu on her TV show, displaying his tentacled visage on the screen. And then I picked up Paul La Farge’s new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, digital galley), in which the peculiar Lovecraft is a central character, along with his young acolyte Robert Barlow, who lived over near DeLand. Why did the middle-aged writer spend two months in Florida in 1934 with the teen science-fiction fan and then make him his literary executor on his death two years later? Scholars and Lovecraft devotees alike have speculated for years, and La Farge slyly mixes fact and fiction in his wildly entertaining tale of obsession and identity, our need to impose stories on our lives.

In his layered telling, a posthumously published Lovecraft diary depicts a romantic and physical friendship. A hoax is suspected, but freelance writer Charlie Willett believes that the Canadian man behind the diary is actually Barlow, who must have faked his death as a suicide in 1951 in Mexico City. Charlie’s outing of Lovecraft and Barlow eventually lands Charlie in a psychiatric hospital, from which he escapes and disappears, supposedly drowning in a lake. This is actually the story’s beginning, because Charlie’s psychiatrist wife Marcia, who narrates The Night Ocean, doesn’t think Charlie is dead and so begins retracing his links to Lovecraft and company, fitering truth from lie. This may sound complicated, and it is, but the nesting doll-like narrative reads like a head-spinning detective story.  Oh, the twists, the turns! Still, trying to figure out this puzzle box could lead to Cthulhu — oh, the horror, the horror! Enjoy.

Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale and First Impressions, writes diverting bibliomysteries that playfully blend historical fact with inspired fiction. In The Lost Book of the Grail (Viking, digital galley), a 40-year-old British academic who grew up on the tales of King Arthur has his life upended by a 26-year-old American digital librarian, a missing medieval manuscript and the possibility that the Holy Grail is hidden not in Glastonbury but in Barchester Cathedral. (Yes, Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barchester). Arthur Prescott, who quotes P.G. Wodehouse to himself, is slowly working on a visitor’s guide to Barchester and the treasures of its library, but is hampered by how little is known of its sixth-century founder, Saint Ewolde. Fortunately, Bethany Chase, who has arrived to digitize the library’s ancient manuscripts for a private foundation, turns out to be a fellow Grail enthusiast and first-rate researcher. Together, they may yet save the fortunes and future of the monastery. Onward!

Lovett intersperses their lively contemporary treasure hunt with passages about the monastery’s history and the monks charged with keeping its secrets over the ages as Christianity and then Catholicism pass in and out of favor. As Arthur and Bethany decipher clues and a tentative romance blooms, their discoveries intersect with the historical episodes. Thomas Malory and Tennyson are among those making credible cameos, and their works play into several “Aha!” moments. Nicely grounded in Lovett’s scholarship but not overburdened by it, the story feels authentic, if occasionally farfetched. Maybe it’s just a tall tale, but I’d still like to believe in The Lost Book of the Grail.

Other good novels I’ve read the last month include Kayla Rae Whitaker’s remarkable first novel The Animators (Random House, digital galley), which charts the highs and lows of the friendship between two women with opposite personalities and a shared creative passion; Elinor Lipman’s new comedy of manners On Turpentine Lane (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which juggles dysfunctional families, friends and lovers, and which made me chortle; and Nickolas Butler’s heartfelt The Hearts of Men (HarperCollins, digital galley), which introduces eventual hero Nelson Doughty as the 13-year-old bullied bugler at a Wisconsin Boy Scout camp and then follows him through four decades.

Lastly, there’s Dan Chaon’s  disturbing Ill Will (Ballantine, digital galley), in which horrific crimes — the possibly ritual slaughter of a family and a series of drownings of young men — are separated by years but linked in the life of a middle-aged therapist. His wife dies of cancer and his younger son slips into heroin addiction after the death of a high school buddy. At the same time, his older brother, wrongly imprisoned for the long-ago murder, is freed, and one of his patients, an ex-cop, becomes obsessed by a phantom serial killer. So many bad things happen in Chaon’s beautifully written story that I thought at one point, “No one is getting out of here alive.”  Here’s horror.

 

 

 

 

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casebookMiles Adler-Rich, the likable teen narrator of Mona Simpson’s involving new novel Casebook (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) reminds me a bit of Harriet the Spy as he eavesdrops on the adults in his life, especially his mother Irene, “pretty for a mathematician.” Of course, he finds out more than he really wants to know, beginning with his parents’ divorce and their worries over him and his younger twin sisters. But Miles can’t stop spying, and with the help of his best friend Hector, graduates from rigging walkie-talkies and listening at open windows to tapping phones and rifling drawers. Their detective work intensifies when Irene becomes involved with the enigmatic Eli Lee, whose suspicious behavior leads Miles and Hector to a real private eye for investigative help. They also collaborate on a comic book, casting Eli as the chief villain and giving themselves superpowers to rescue incorrigible pets.

Framed as a memoir written by Miles in early 20s and footnoted by Hector, Casebook focuses on their middle and high school years in Santa Monica, the boys’ misadventures and the mystery of Eli. The conceit works for the most part; Simpson has an eye for the trenchant detail and knows her way around family dysfunction. The pacing’s uneven, and the supporting cast shadowy, but Miles’ perceptions ring true. Often funny, sometimes sad, Casebook makes for sweet dramedy.

shotgunNickolas Butler’s first novel Shotgun Lovesongs (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is itself a love song to small-town America and long friendships. It’s an ensemble piece, with the narrative fluidly moving back and forth in time and among five friends who grew up together in the Wisconsin farming community of Little Wing. Now in their early 30s, they’re facing that second coming-of-age where they’re starting to second-guess past choices and wondering what comes next. Hank runs his family farm with quiet competence and is a happily married husband and father. His wife Beth knows her high school sweetheart is a good man but a small piece of her heart still belongs to Leland, Hank’s best buddy who has found fame as an indie rocker. Despite his wandering, Lee keeps returning to Little Wing. Kip, a successful Chicago broker, is also back, ready to develop the closed mill into a commercial enterprise. Another friend, Ronny, was a rodeo cowboy before drink and a disabling accident sent him home to Little Wing, where his old pals can keep an eye on him at the VFW.

There are four weddings in the book, but the only funeral is for the lost dreams and missed opportunities among the group. Butler writes with lyric ease, but his characters are carrying around an awful lot of nostalgia to be so young. They may think it’s the Big Chill, but it’s really just an early frost.

sacredJulia Glass’s new novel And the Dark Sacred Night (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) takes its title from Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World.” It’s appropriate — the world Glass’s sympathetic characters inhabit is richly realized, full of both heartbreak and joy. Unemployed art historian Kit Noonan’s midlife search for his biological father animates the story, but he’s the least interesting of the main characters. The most inexplicable is his mother Daphne, who in this day and age still refuses to divulge the name of his father to Kit, although readers are soon privy to her youthful affair at a summer music camp with a character from Glass’s award-winning 2002 novel Three Junes.

Kit’s search for his father leads him first to Jasper, his former stepfather, a Vermont outdoorsman who eventually points him to Lucinda Burns, glimpsed in Three Junes. Lucinda, the patrician wife of a New England senator, is the heart of the book. As Kit’s paternal grandmother, she’s long been aware of his relationship to her family and the chance to finally acknowledge him allows her to reconcile past and present. It’s not necessary to have read Three Junes to appreciate this one, although its readers also will welcome the return of bookseller Fenno McLeod and the chance to catch up with him and his partner Walter. If only Kit was as faceted as his father . . .

byrdAddie Lockwood’s unexpected pregnancy is just the first surprise in Kim Church’s Byrd (Dzanc Books, paperback ARC), a beautifully written first novel about love, choice and chance. Growing up in a small North Carolina town in the 1980s, bookish Addie finds a soulmate in musician Roland Rhodes. They go their separate ways after high school, pursuing their own dreams with mixed results. When they briefly meet again in their early 30s, Addie becomes pregnant. She decides to have the baby — Byrd — and give him up for adoption without telling Roland. The secret will reveberate through their lives and those close to them.

Church tells her story, past and present, through vignettes, longer set pieces and several letters. The narrative seems a bit disjointed at first, but then Church’s seductive prose takes hold and doesn’t let go.

 

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