IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

New novels lean to the dark side

Grief and fear dominate new fall fiction

If there's a pervasive feel to the new novels in our fall fiction roundup, it's serious, thoughtful, dark, a world away from the light, summery we reviewed in June. So many books focus on death, so many display their protagonists grieving, dealing with losses. And as we as a nation do the same thing, watching with stunned eyes the devastation on the Gulf Coast, it almost seems fitting.

Bad-boy novelist Bret Easton Ellis even tries his hand at a bit of a scare, playing Stephen King while he takes a look at his own fame in "Lunar Park." Joyce Carol Oates' "Missing Mom" follows the life of a woman whose mother is murdered. "The Widow of the South" has the highest death toll, as based-on-a-real-person Carrie McGavock provides graves for 1,500 fallen Civil War soldiers.

Not everything is bleak, though. The delightfully fast-moving "Creepers" paints a picture of an abandoned hotel that doesn't seem to want to let go of the few living things it gets its hands on. And Francesca Lia Block's beloved Weetzie Bat returns in "Necklace of Kisses," though her usual sunny spirit is damped by midlife crisis.  And sometimes, it's the bleak that makes for the best tales.     —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

‘Creep’ showSometimes all you want is a good, smart thriller, a scare that sets your heart pounding and your hands flipping the pages frantically to see what happens next. Such a book may not stick with you forever, but it doesn't need to. David Morrell's "Creepers" (CDS Books, $25) fills the bill perfectly.

In "Creepers," a professor, three students, and a newspaper reporter gather to break into a mysterious boarded-up hotel that's about to be demolished. The hotel has its share of secrets, and so do several of the Creepers. You won't get to know them as more than shells to hang a plot on, but in this kind of book, that doesn't matter. "Creepers" sets up a novel premise, sketches in an eerie setting, and then takes the storyline and starts twisting. Once things start rolling, there's no way out of the hotel for the characters, and no way to put the book down for a reader.

The book's action scenes are its weakest, but then every book of this genre needs an almost superhuman hero. Those scenes may attract the Hollywood crowd looking for their next action movie-meets-horror film — it's easy to picture this book on the big screen. But it's the setting and the well-thought-out backstory that sets "Creepers" apart. You'll almost want to have a tetanus shot before wandering around the dilapidated hotel, which decomposes almost before the characters' eyes. Had it come out in summer, this would have made a fine beach book, but horror-thriller fans heading on a fall plane trip can be sure it will make those airport hours fly by. Just don't read it before bed — not because it's nightmare-scary, but instead because you'll want to finish it in one grueling sitting, and are likely to see 3 a.m. peeking onto your clock before you're finished.    —G.F.C.

In the ‘Jungle’In "The Jungle Law," (MacAdam/Cage, $25, publishes Oct. 2) Victoria Vinton's first novel, newlyweds Caroline and Rudyard Kipling live just up a rural Vermont road from the Connollys, who regard the Kiplings' affluent flights of fancy with mingled envy and distaste.  Addie Connolly takes in their laundry while her distracted son Joe befriends the author, who has just begun penning  "The Jungle Book" and eagerly solicits the boy's help in fleshing out the character of Mowgli. 

Joe's father, Jack, is an embittered and broken man, a perennial failure of a farmer scraping by on a few acres.  Jack is wary of Joe becoming like Kipling, a useless woolgatherer, just as Kipling believes it would be a tragedy if imaginative Joe grew up to be his father, his spirit stunted by profitless drudgery.

The fairy-tale cadence of Vinton's storytelling evokes the work of her subject without aping him; she sets beautiful scenes, and deals in complicated themes such as class barriers and the intense vulnerability of children.  Kipling's introspection takes him from the sultry India of his childhood to the third-floor London walk-up where he met Caroline to the house they are now constructing at the peak of a hill.

Ominous portent hangs like heavy vines across the pages, though; Baloo's Jungle Law, after all, allows animals to live peaceably together, but "the beast that shall break it must die."    —Kim Rollins

The two BretsThis Bret Easton Ellis fan admits, part of the fun of reading Ellis' latest, "Lunar Park" (Knopf, $25) is separating the real bad-boy author from his fictional counterpart. I suppose it's possible he wrote "Less Than Zero" in an eight-week meth binge, but I know there's no way, even at the height of his 1980s fame, that he appeared on TV show "Facts of Life." (Although he could have inspired wannabe writer Natalie, I suppose, or been lectured by Mrs. Garrett about the evils of, well, eight-week meth binges.)

Ellis is poking fun here, at his own semi-legend, and especially at the uproar that surrounded his bloody awful "American Psycho." He does it by creating a Bret Easton Ellis who takes a path the real Bret would never travel — marrying the mother of his son, settling down in the suburbs, trundling in for school conferences. And then, just to keep suburban life from being too boring, strange things creep in through his mansion windows. Toys seem to come to life, nearby murders seem to be echoing those in "American Psycho," Bret's long-dead dad seems to be haunting him, and you don't even want to know the fate of the loyal family dog.

It's hard not to read the spooky parts of "Lunar Park" and feel that Ellis is trying for a Stephen King vibe (he even makes a "Shining" reference), though the horror elements felt to me more like an attempt at "House of Leaves." There are no real King-like scares, but there is a thrillingly building sense of menace. It's fun to watch one of Ellis' oh-so-cool, oh-so-rich characters confused and terrified, and it's even more fun because the character is so close to the author's well-known persona. It's tougher to trace Ellis' difficult relationship with his late father. It's gone over so often in the book's 320 pages that a reader may expect a cleaner resolution than is given. Ellis' father never comes to life, nor does the relationship with which his son obviously still struggles.

Ellis' latest won't make anyone forget "Less Than Zero." But fans will relish the quirky, half-fictional, half-truthful spotlight turned on an author who continues to fascinate.    —G.F.C.

More than mom is ‘Missing’Gwen Eaton, the "Mom" in Joyce Carol Oates' latest novel, "Missing Mom" (Ecco, $25.95, October 1st), is brutally murdered in her own home, leaving daughter Nikki forlorn. 

Oates has always had a breathlessly sloppy, impressionistic quality to her voice — see her adolescent girl-gang of "Foxfire," or her Marilyn Monroe in "Blonde" — however, it doesn't quite work issuing from Nikki's mouth.  Nikki reads much younger than her 31 years, and unbefitting her profession(newspaper reporter), she's repetitive, unsympathetic, obsessed with her own feminine allure, and pointlessly defiant.

"Missing Mom" isn't a mystery (the killer is immediately revealed to be a meth addict Gwen hired for odd jobs), nor a tale of Nikki's reconciliation with her "bossy older sister", the only family left to her (this reunion never comes to pass), nor a story of letting go (Nikki opts to live in her childhood home and dress in her mother's things), nor a courtroom drama (we are promised a trial, but the killer plea-bargains out abruptly), nor a discourse on the morality of extramarital affairs (Nikki has few qualms about her dalliance with the married Wally, only cutting off contact upon discovering she is not his only mistress). 

There are a half-dozen discontinued subplots, but no progression in any of them; real conflict resolution is always sidestepped.  Late in the book, Nikki tellingly muses "Maybe I suffered from ADD."  It seems likely.    —K.R.

Kiss me, kiss meIf you're not familiar with the beloved character Weetzie Bat from the series of young-adult books, you're unlikely to want to pick up "Necklace of Kisses" (HarperCollins, $22), Francesca Lia Block's latest. But if you've already been inducted into Weetzie's sweet, fantastical world, here you'll find her at 40, a mom of adult daughters, estranged from My Secret Agent Lover Man, and going through a magic-sprinkled midlife crisis.

Booklist describes the Weetzie Bat series as "a gentle punk fairytale," and that's as accurate as anything. Weetzie lives in L.A., but it's an L.A. of mermaids, of angels, of fauns, or magical hotels. Block wraps even the most everyday in glitter — Weetzie gives names to the best pieces of her fabulous wardrobe, and the book lingers jealously over the description of what, in another book, would be just your basic hotel room. Los Angeles is magical here, but not in the tired way the movies claim; in a fresh way, as sparkling as bubbles in ginger ale and almost as effervescent.

But a sadness pervades "Necklace of Kisses." My Secret Agent Lover Man, now goes by just "Max," and he's been crushingly depressed ever since Sept. 11. When Weetzie leaves him and checks into the magical hotel to find herself, even her spritely demeanor can't raise the tone of the book. Sure, she meets up with crazy creatures and moves slowly towards a reunion with Max, but this reader didn't come away from "Necklace" with the pervasive sense of joy of Weetzie's original book.  Maybe even in a punk fairytale, midlife crises are just tough.  —G.F.C.

Fascinating ‘Country’ journey
A riveting tale of good, evil and the thin line that divides them, Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” (Knopf, $25) is the author’s first book since his beloved Border Trilogy. In this novel, Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon a group of dead drug dealers, a truck full of heroin and $2 million cash. He decides to take the money, not realizing that the murderous Chigurh will soon be right behind him.

McCarthy writes present-tense action better than almost any writer around. Moss and Chigurh never even have time to reflect on what’s happening — they just go, go, go — and the reader speeds right along with them. The prose in their sections is spare and almost Hemingway-esque in its precision. Which is not to say that there’s no reflection in this novel. The book in anchored by the character of Sheriff Bell, who harbors a dark secret about his former life as a soldier. McCarthy intertwines chapters of Bell’s introspection with the action of Moss and Chigurh, letting Bell’s sections in slowly at first, until finally, they become the story. There’s a great moment late in the book where Bell reflects, “I didn’t know you could steal your own life.”

Much like Flannery O’Connor, McCarthy also seems to believe that ultimately, a truly good, uncompromised man is indeed hard to find. And those who do the most searching are ultimately, characters like Bell, who feel the most compromised or those like Moss, who’re just trying to improve their lives by any means necessary.     —Paige Newman

No clowning around
Salman Rushdie takes on Muslim fundamentalists, the Indian army and even glitzy Los Angeles in his latest novel, “Shalimar the Clown” (Random House, $26). His story brings three people together: Max Ophuls, a former American ambassador to Kashmir; Shalimar the Clown, a Muslim from Kashmir and Ophuls’ assassin; and India, Max’s daughter, who doesn’t know anything about her real mother or the country in which she was born.

We meet them all at the moment of Ophuls’ assassination and then we go back. Back to learn who Shalimar the Clown actually is, back to the start of the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, back to when Shalimar fell in love with a Hindi dancer named Boonyi Kaul.

Though the central mystery the story is about why Shalimar kills the ambassador, the real thrust of the story is about lost innocence. Rushdie creates a sense of Kashmir almost as a Garden of Eden that gets spoiled, its inhabitants cast out to fall prey to their desires, their anger and their fears. Rushdie is equally hard on both the Indians and Pakistanis and the West — we see members of the Indian army brutally rape some of the women from Shalimar’s hometown, while the Pakistani insurgents force the women apart from the men and back into burkas. Everyone is implicated. Rushdie even goes so far as to have a writer very much like himself assassinated during a brief interlude in the novel, so that not even he gets off scot-free.

Rushdie has a way of completely immersing the reader in the time in place he describes. When India travels to see Pachigam, the town of her mother’s birth, Rushdie describes it this way, “The decaying houses actually seemed to be built of poverty, the unrepaired roof of poverty, the unhinged windows of poverty, the broken steps of poverty, the empty kitchens of poverty, the joyless beds.” He has an admirable ability to build a town and characters and then document their decay. Rushdie here is more witness than fiction writer, daring us to look at what he sees.     —P.N.

Until I Find’ ... an editor?
On NPR’s “All Things Considered,” John Irving said that he wrote “Until I Find You” (Random House, $28) in the first person and then changed his mind about the narrative and re-wrote the entire 800-page novel in the third person.

It’s hard not to be curious about that first-person version when you read Irving’s bloated, frustrating and distancing novel. The book tells the story of Jack Burns, the son of a tattoo artist mother and a missing church organist father, who travels the world, gets molested and/or abused by women in his life and becomes a famous actor. This being an Irving novel, Jack Burns also finds time to briefly wrestle in Maine.

Yet Irving never gives a reason for the reader to feel invested in what happens to Jack. He’s a fairly passive character who things happen to, and even when he turns into a bit of a lothario, we’re never close enough to the character to fully experience it. And the novel's second half is basically a re-telling of it's first, with the truth of about Jack’s childhood coming out. It’s hard to understand why Irving felt the need to go so in-depth here — the third-person narrative provides him with ample opportunities to expose the truth, but instead, readers are taken through the same world once again. And none of the revelations are surprising. When we finally meet the missing father, even that seems like a bit of a letdown. Everyone in Jack’s life is notably quirky — and guess what? His dad is, too.

This seems like a major misstep for such a talented American novelist. Let’s hope next time he finds a better editor.     —P.N.

Civil War rememberedIn 1864, the Battle of Franklin left 9,200 dead on a Tennessee field. “The Widow of the South” (Warner, $25) is Robert Hicks’ fictionalized tale of the real-life Carrie McGavock, who provided a final resting place on her own nearby land for the remains of 1,500 unclaimed fallen soldiers.

Carrie has buried three of her own children, grief leaving her numb, isolated, emotionally estranged from her husband, and secreting a lethal dose of laudanum. But the Civil War comes to her doorstep when the McGavock manor is commandeered for use as a Confederate hospital, and one of the men she nurses, Zachariah Cashwell, arouses her empathy.

In the process of keeping him alive she recognizes the selfishness of her private mourning, and takes on that of a nation.

Hicks adroitly fleshes out the Southern archetypes: Carrie, whose starched crinolines house an ironclad will, and Cashwell, the uneducated wise man.  Much of the book is compellingly narrated by its characters; Cashwell’s passages have a Hemingway quality in their dispassionate recounting of the horror of war. Some third-person chapters are infected with overly-florid prose, and a few scenes do veer towards grandiose melodrama, such as when Cashwell first lets slip that he loves Carrie and she strikes him in frustrated passion. Nevertheless, it's a promising debut from this novice southern writer.   —K.R.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor. Paige Newman is MSNBC.com's Movies Editor. Kim Rollins is a writer in Seattle.