Emma Donoghue, Michelle Huneven, Ward Just, Peter Matthiessen, Lawrence Osborne | Barbara’s Picks, Apr. 2014, Pt. 1

Donoghue, Emma. Frog Music. Little, Brown. Apr. 2014. 416p. ISBN 9780316324687. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316324663. CD/downloadable: Hachette Audio. HISTORICAL/CRIME
Donoghue caught everyone’s attention with Room, a visceral stunner that has sold more than 1.5 million copies and was a 2010 Man Booker Prize finalist. Her follow-up short story collection, Astray, a personal favorite, demonstrated her uncanny ability to turn historical fact into affecting fiction. She’ll doubtless do that again in this new novel, based on an unsolved murder in 1876 San Francisco. As the city is swept by smallpox and wrenching heat, Jenny Bonnet is shot to death through the window of a railroad saloon, and friend Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer, encounters the stuck-up wealthy to the desperately poor to the determinedly bohemian in search of the killer. Not surprisingly, there’s a 200,000-copy first printing and a ten-city tour to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Washington, DC, Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, and Raleigh.

Huneven, Michelle. Off Course. Sarah Crichton: Farrar. Apr. 2104. 304p. ISBN 9780374224479. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374710538. LITERARY
Huneven has always been a real writer’s writer, with a pair of New York Times Notable Books and a Whiting Writers’ Award to her name; to my mind, she proved herself definitively with her last title, the morally penetrating Blame, a National Book Critics Circle finalist. Here, in the Reaganomics-drenched 1980s, Cressida Hartley retires to her parents’ rundown A-frame in the Sierras to finish her dissertation on art in the marketplace. But she finds herself far more intrigued by the local community, first allowing herself to be seduced by a local lodge owner and then becoming involved with two carpenter brothers who are handsome, gifted, and married. Does she have a market price in this intriguing but ingrown community? Excellent for reading groups.

Just, Ward. American Romantic. Houghton Harcourt. Apr. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780544196377. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780544227644. LITERARY FICTION
This latest from the magisterial Just, whose novels always have a profound sense of history and place, opens in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, “when the war was not quite a war.…Their army was called a guerrilla force. Our army was called a Military Assistance Command.” Trying to make his way in early 1960s Indochina, fledgling foreign service officer Harry Sanders finds himself back in Washington, DC, after a secret meeting with insurgents goes awry—but not before he’s instigated a short but decidedly heated affair with a German woman named Sieglinde. Even as he marries the charming May and takes her on a round of increasingly challenging assignments in Africa, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean, Harry cannot forget Sieglinde. Passion and politics in a world that truly shaped our own; I’m really anticipating.

Matthiessen, Peter. In Paradise. Riverhead. Apr. 2014. NAp. ISBN 9781594633171. $27.95. LITERARY
In his first fiction since the 2008 National Book Award winner Shadow Country, which itself reimagined a trilogy he had published over the previous decade, Matthiessen boldly leaps into the big questions raised by the horrors of the Holocaust. What is the nature of good and evil? Can we bear to bear witness? Can beauty endure after the smokestacks of Auschwitz? These questions are pondered by a group of men and women who gather for a weeklong meditation retreat at the site of a World War II concentration camp, just as Matthiessen has participated in three Zen retreats at Auschwitz beginning in the 1990s. The author has long wanted to explore the consequences of the Holocaust but has stated that “as a non-Jewish American journalist, I felt unqualified to do so.” Given his humanist views and penetrating moral stance, I can think of few authors more qualified. Just announced.

Osborne, Lawrence. The Ballad of a Small Player. Hogarth: Crown. Apr. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780804137973. $25. LITERARY
Osborne’s The Forgiven, an Economist Best Book of the Year (and one of my personal Bests from last year, too), is as brilliant, unsentimental a rendering of contemporary East-West conflict and the imperfect human psyche as you are likely to find. His new work proceeds in that tradition. The ethically challenged English lawyer Doyle has fled to Macau and thence Hong Kong, where he drinks and gambles his life away as he watches his finances sail high and low. A beautiful Chinese woman named Dao-Ming promises both love and money, but will Doyle’s shady past smother him first? Don’t miss.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.