The fall crop of novels is as varied and crisp as a bushel basket of ripe fall produce.
Some tackle mysteries, as when a human-resource manager must discover the identity of a mysterious corpse in "A Woman in Jerusalem." Some take a bizarre scenario and manage to make it feel real, as "Simpsons" contributor Harry Shearer — voice of Ned Flanders, among others — introduces readers to a town that's pretending it's an Indian tribe (well, hi-diddly-ho, neighbor).
Not all of this fall's crop are tasty. Jennifer Egan's "The Keep" seems to have a surefire Halloween-timed premise, as two cousins with a mysterious past reunite at a creepy castle. But the story don't quite meld. And other books could have used an editor with a heavier hand.
Our fall fiction roundup guides you through what's fresh and what's skippable. —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, Books Editor
The manager's mystery
"A Woman In Jerusalem" (Harcourt; $25), from prominent Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, begins after the only character in it who will ever be named is already dead. Killed in a suicide bombing, she goes unidentified until the company whose pay stub she was carrying assigns its human-resource manager to figure out who she was. The manager, a former military man whose own personal life is tempestuous, initially resists the task, but becomes increasingly fascinated with the woman and her history.
Despite being nominally about a dead body, the book isn't morbid or even particularly grim, nor does it dwell on politics or the senselessness of the woman's death. Instead, it's the engrossing story of the manager, and his growing drive to see his mission through to its end. Similarly, the writing doesn't get in its own way: there are no enormous and blunt metaphors; there is no one final lesson; everything in the book does not represent something else.
The plotting of "A Woman In Jerusalem" feels effortless, as if the tale is simply revealing itself in stages. It's a book that's spare in its presentation but complex in its ideas, not so much about tragedy, but about what drives connections between strangers, even between the living and the dead. —Linda Holmes
My little townHarry Shearer's credits include "The Simpsons," "This Is Spinal Tap," and a famous "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which he and Martin Short played a synchronized swim team. He's a very influential satirist, so it isn't surprising that his first novel, "Not Enough Indians" (Justin, Charles & Co., $20), runs in the same vein.
Shearer sets the story in a dying New York town where there's no money to fix the sidewalks, and the ineffectual town government has failed even at groveling to Wal-Mart. An idea, therefore, is hatched: have the residents fraudulently declared an Indian tribe, and open a casino.
The uncomfortable premise could easily have fallen into the trap of trying to say something important about the ethics of Indian gaming. But Shearer is more interested in a "Northern Exposure"-like examination of petty town politics, and the book succeeds most on that level, as a study of small towns as beehive-like power structures.
There are places where the pace slackens, and the ending, while clever, may be too cute by half. Nevertheless, the book benefits from a virtue much needed and rarely observed in satirical novels: it knows enough to be 200 pages instead of 300 pages. —L.H.
Long climb up Agate Hill
“I am the only one left… who remembers these ghosts… and if I go then they will be gone too,” writes Molly Petree, self-described ghost girl and keeper of secrets, in Lee Smith’s “On Agate Hill” (Algonquin, $25).
Molly‘s post-Civil War-era tale weaves through the remnants of found documents — her own diary, journals of her educators, court records, and then back to her own words. Molly’s early writing reflects the stream-of-consciousness of a 13-year-old girl, but creates a narrative difficult to follow. Her style tightens up with her age near the end of the book, but too late for the reader already lost.
Interspersed throughout is the correspondence of the slightly dim Tuscany Miller, the convenient, modern-day discoverer of all these documents chronicling Molly's life. Tuscany’s presence serves more as an intrusion than to actually advance the plot.
There is plenty of foreshadowing but insufficient follow-through, leaving the reader hanging with nothing, or yearning for more. Major plot points are reduced to a single sentence, while improbable twists and rescues by miraculous benefactors strain credibility. The result is a hodgepodge of disjointed stories.
Smith's prose in her tenth novel, which follows the award-winning "The Lost Girls," borders on the lyrical, but the plot delivery devices seem unnecessarily contrived. Still, there is something compelling about Molly Petree that keeps the reader hooked until the very end, if for no other reason than to unravel a promised mystery that's never satisfactorily resolved. —Sara Astruc
Stormy weatherSonny Brewer isn't a bad writer. At times, in fact, he's very good; his description of a dead woman's hands in "A Sound Like Thunder" (Ballantine Books, $24) is lovely — concise, but full.
What Brewer needs is an editor who can protect him from himself. He's bitten off more story than he can chew, for starters: Rove, a teenage boy with an alcoholic sea-captain father, an unfaithful mother, and a crush on the principal's daughter, tries to make sense of his life on the eve of World War II. Rove's father alone is a novel's worth of material, but because Brewer's scope is so wide, characters don't have time to develop, and their actions don't feel credible.
Brewer tends to quote from authors like Cervantes and Emerson instead of executing his exposition himself, and his similes often get away from him ("as dangerous as the grit in a mummy's mouth" is one baffling example). A bombastically clichéd description of a sunset is followed by an entire chapter of impenetrable nautical terminology. The book reads like a first draft — there's a great story in there somewhere. —Sarah D. Bunting
Point UnclearThe plot of Jennifer Paddock's "Point Clear" (Touchstone, $13) certainly has potential: a woman rides out a hurricane in a shuttered hotel in Alabama, then crosses paths with a man who later disappears, all while fighting both vertigo and writer's block.
That potential isn't realized. Paddock's protagonist, Caroline, isn't neurotic in an interesting way, and her dizzy spells — which come and go when it's thematically convenient — are an amateurish metaphor for her attempts to find herself as an adult and as a writer.
The book is a chore, cluttered with overly detailed and uninspired descriptions (Caroline shopping for tennis clothes; Caroline figuring out how to use microfiche) that don't advance the story. Paddock seems more intent on proving that she researched various topics thoroughly than on telling a compelling story, and her time would have been better spent developing an ear for dialogue (the average tennis pro does not describe the act of writing as "having a Holy Communion with yourself").
"Maybe by facing the truth about herself and her past, the severity of her vertigo would be reduced." Maybe. But with inelegant exposition like that, why should readers care? —S.D.B.
Not much to ‘Keep’Ever close a novel and realize what you just read was sprinkled with little bits of interesting nuggets, but nothing truly substantive? Jennifer Egan's “The Keep” (Knopf, $24) seems like a short story, padded and plumped. Read it, and you’re hungry again for literature an hour later.
Two cousins, with an incident from their childhood lingering between them, reunite at a mysterious European castle. One has an almost pathological need to feel connected with society — he grooves to the static on a walkie-talkie. The tale weaves in all the elements of a traditional gothic ghost story — a decrepit castle, an even more decrepit baroness, a double drowning. The pieces are there, but each lacks substance.
Egan, a National Book Award-winner, can turn a phrase (“The feel of her hand made him shudder: twigs and wire floating around in the softest pouch of skin he’d ever touched — like a rabbit’s ear…”), but falls prey to a series of conceits that serve only to pull the reader from the story. Two — or is it three? — storylines start out separately, then converge, all the while throwing a huge stop-and-start wrench into the suspense. Dialogue is presented like a transcript, without quotation marks. Lists of information pop up in a jarring fashion. Really, “The Keep” isn’t about the plot at all, but the unconventional method the author uses to tell the tale.
As the book unfurls, it makes more and more sense why Egan wrote it that way. But you still wish she hadn’t. —Brian Bellmont
‘Trout’ debuts swimmingly
Dennis Pratt may have low expectations for his life as a Minnesota hazardous-waste disposal worker, but he’s not entirely unhappy. “He was doing what millions of Americans did; go to work, keep the house up, fool around with his wife now and then, watch a little television,” says debut novelist John Salter of his protagonist in “A Trout in the Sea of Cortez” ($24, Perseus Books).
Pratt’s neuroses ratchet up in anticipation of a vacation to Mexico with his wife, who is tanning and losing weight to impress friends on the beach trip. She also may be having an affair with the smarmy family dentist. Soon, Pratt is contemplating some infidelity of his own, dealing with a mysterious cargo of toxic mercury left in his care and discovering that all his emotional problems may be due to a simple medical condition. While Pratt at first seems like too much of sad sack character to sustain the book, Salter redeems his initial lugubrious pace with a breathless last 50 pages set on the Mexican coast. “Trout” builds to an unexpected murder mystery that somehow still feels satisfying despite an absurdly melodramatic villain.
While “Trout” won’t make Carl Hiassen shake in his sandals, it has enough literary ambition and maturity to carry it through its improbably plotted final act. Early in the book, Salter writes, “He wasn’t about to take Viagra but he was glad it was there for the future, like his Roth IRA.” In breaking out of his middle-age rut, Pratt comes off more heroically than you’d expect for a guy who spends a good chunk of the novel learning to play golf. —Omar L. Gallaga
Love and marriage
Sympathetic protagonists managing personal calamity with humor seem to be Lolly Winston’s metier. Her bestselling debut “Good Grief” offered a plucky young widow, whose spiritual sister has arrived in Winston’s sophomore effort, “Happiness Sold Separately” (Warner Books, $22).
Attorney Elinor Mackey defines modern marriage, postponing love for career until she meets husband Ted at 35. When they decide it’s time to have a baby, Elinor’s body doesn’t accommodate. Years of infertility treatments take their emotional and sexual toll on the couple. When Elinor discovers Ted is having an affair, a love triangle ensues — rapidly expanding to a messy love hexagon and beyond as ex-boyfriends, neighborhood suitors and a troubled 10-year-old enter the fray.
Winston is wise not to hand around any moral pitchforks or haloes. Ted and his mistress are as complicated as any real humans, and even the betrayed Elinor can wryly acknowledge her role in Ted’s loneliness. Instead, "Happiness" deftly captures the minutiae that define a marriage — right alongside the tiny things that whittle it away. If the occasional broad plot device or minor wacky character rings less than realistic, it is almost relief from the granular discomfort of the thousand emotional cuts weathered by the main characters.
If the niche Lolly Winston wants to inhabit is fiction about women with big problems and sharp wits, there is room for success; her authentic notes keep “Happiness” poignant and funny. Let’s just hope she doesn’t run out of legitimate crises to bestow. —Tracy Edmondson