Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey, 2016)
I am happy to report that another excellent new science fiction writer has entered the scene. This writer is not from New Jersey like the ones in my recent posts; he is French-Canadian. The story takes place primarily in the United States, but one of the characters is a French-Canadian linguist. It’s hard to say exactly who the “main” character is. The physicist who initially discovers the giant robot hand doesn’t survive to the end of the book. The linguist plays an important role but the ex-military pilot has a bigger one. The one character who appears throughout is the unnamed person who conducts interviews with the others. This book is subtitled “Book 1” because the story is clearly left unfinished at the end. The giant robot has been assembled from buried pieces found around the world, and the pilot has learned to operate it using the helmet and gloves, but international politics have put a halt to further exploration of the robot’s rather scary capabilities. I look forward to reading the next installment when it comes out.
Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh (Harper Collins 2016)
This book may have the distinction of being the first novel about the impact of fracking on the lives of ordinary Americans. Fracking is a new technology for extracting natural gas from deep in the earth which has disrupted the lives of residents of Pennsylvania, New York, and the Dakotas over the past ten years. Heat and Light is set in western Pennsylvania, in a fictitious town in the region of the Marcellus Shale geological formation. Jennifer Haigh tells the story from the points of view of several people: a worker in the fracking industry, a local prison guard and his family, a fracking activist, and a couple that owns a dairy farm. The local residents are initially thrilled to be offered money by the company that wants to drill under their land for natural gas, but there turn out to be unforeseen consequences.
The Assistants: a novel by Camille Perri (Putnam, 2016)
Although this novel starts out like one of those chick-lit stories about a young woman working in New York City, it turns into something different. There is a romance, but it’s not the main point of the book. The plot turns around an embezzlement scheme involving a number of educated young women who have been working as assistants to rich people for enough years that it no longer seems glamorous. They are fed up with their huge student loan payments, their tiny run-down apartments, and buying luxuries for their bosses on a daily basis with sums of money that could make a big difference to their own lives if it was theirs. The main character, Tina, falls into the scheme accidentally, but makes a conscious choice to continue it. She only avoids jail because she obtains evidence that her boss has done much worse. But in the end she makes it all good.
Britt-Marie was here by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2014 – translated by Henning Koch)
Not many novels by Swedish writers make it to American libraries, but this one clearly stood out. I saw a review of it in Book Page and decided it was worth a read. The title character is a socially awkward Swedish woman of late middle age, who has left her husband after discovering his affair. Since she hasn’t worked outside the home in decades, the only job she can get is a caretaker (janitor) of a recreation center in a small town. She gradually makes friends, and gets talked into coaching a kids’ soccer team though she is completely unfamiliar with soccer. But the kids need a mother figure and she needs someone to need her. This is a fascinating and funny story which you have to experience for yourself.
Emma: a modern retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014)
I have read that there is a project among fiction publishers where modern writers retell Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in twenty-first century settings, as some kind of homage to Austen. This novel is Alexander McCall Smith’s contribution. In my opinion it’s better than the original, but I’m one of the few people in the world who hated Pride and Prejudice, so this is not a high bar. Although I am normally a fan of Alexander McCall Smith, I disliked this book for many of the same reasons I disliked the original. There’s no real plot; it’s just a lengthy and boring description of the lives of rich British people who are looking for husbands (for themselves and their peers) to help them continue their privileged lives. The main characters are just as unlikable as Austen’s original ones, although Smith does work in some commentary on their lack of understanding of the lives of the less affluent. Obviously I was unimpressed, but readers who love Jane Austen’s work might well enjoy this novel too.
The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin (Flatiron Books, 2016)
This is frankly kind of a disturbing novel. I had to read it all in one evening because I was afraid I would have nightmares if I went to sleep before I finished it. The concept is that when children die violent deaths and their souls are reincarnated, the babies remember their previous lives for their first few years. If they remember long enough to be able to talk about it, they may persuade the adults in their life to help them find their former families. Even though the premise is impossible, the writer draws you in and makes you believe it for a little while. The story may be all about forgetting, but readers are going to have trouble forgetting this one. I’m not so sure I’m glad I read it.