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What We're Reading, March 16-22

Mar 16, 2010

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The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag So Much For That

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Linda Wertheimer hails a Dickensian novel of London in the boom days of 2007, before the banking bust. An encore by child detective Flavia de Luce (Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) is both creepy and laugh-out-loud funny. And So Much for That finds the hilarity in a relentless tale of runaway health care costs.

A Week In December

A Novel

By Sebastian Faulks

A former journalist and now an award-winning novelist, Sebastian Faulks has written nine books. The most recent before A Week in December was Faulks' venture into Ian Fleming territory, a new James Bond thriller called Devil May Care. A Week in December is about seven days in the lives of seven Londoners in 2007. The week is one organizing principle; another is the Circle Line, the subway that rings central London, enclosing the characters and taking them on their journeys. The book is partly a glimpse into what life in Britain's political, cultural and social capital is like today. It is also a powerful novel that weaves lives and stories together, with a focus on the electronic threads that often form the connections (and often not in a good way).

I raced through this book — twice. If you're a fan of Charles Dickens, A Week in December reads like a vastly entertaining new version of Our Mutual Friend, with a side order of Bleak House. Like Our Mutual Friend, High Society plays a satirical role in bringing a rich parade of characters before us. As in Bleak House, the book's villains are soulless manipulators of money, specifically a beyond-vicious hedge fund manager named Veals. Faulks says he began the book several years before it became clear just how heedless and destructive such people can be. Beyond the seven principals, Faulks has created more than 100 characters with names and back-stories. He looks at several views of Islam within the modern Western city, and at the real versus the virtual world — just two of many themes. He creates a reviewer who hates living writers and a woman who loves the life of her online avatar and is reluctant to admit that she also reads books. — Linda Wertheimer, senior national correspondent

Hardcover, 400 pages; Doubleday; list price, $27.95; publication date, March 9


The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag

A Flavia de Luce Mystery

By Alan Bradley

Eleven-year-old amateur chemist and detective Flavia de Luce first captured readers' hearts last year in Alan Bradley's debut novel,The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. This follow-up finds the young English girl embroiled in another mystery: a famous puppeteer visiting Flavia's hometown of Bishop's Lacey is electrocuted during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, and the junior sleuth refuses to believe it was an accident. With the help of Dogger (her father's handyman), Gladys (her bicycle), and a well-stocked chemical laboratory, Flavia bikes circles around the skeptical, but indulgent, townspeople and local law enforcement (when she's not being tormented by her insufferable big sisters.)

If you're skeptical about the premise of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, you're forgiven. A cute little girl who solves mysteries in a picturesque English country town in 1950, in a novel set partly in a vicarage? It could hardly sound more twee if Miss Marple showed up with a cup of tea and a kitty. But Flavia is more Wednesday Addams than Nan Bobbsey, and there's a surprising edge to both Flavia and her latest case. For example, Flavia contemplates poisoning her sisters and wants to write a book about the decomposition of corpses; the supporting characters include an abusive puppeteer, the insane mother of a possibly murdered child and a marijuana farmer. Bradley's second novel is both creepy and laugh-out-loud funny, and his style is as dark, witty and charming as Flavia herself. — Michael Schaub, NPR book reviewer

Hardcover, 384 pages; Delacorte; list price, $24.00; publication date, March 9


So Much for That

A Novel

By Lionel Shriver

Journalist Lionel Shriver could not have picked a timelier subject for her new novel — the turbulent waters of American health care. Into these depths plunges Shepherd "Shep" Knacker, a man Shriver describes early on as "constitutionally obedient." Shep has done all the right things. He's scrimped, saved and labored (as a professional handyman, no less) his way to a nest egg, all so he can realize his American dream: to retire to a sunny Third-World isle. Shep prepares to launch himself into this new life (what he calls "The Afterlife") with or without his prickly wife Glynis. But she meets his ultimatum with some explosive news of her own: She's been diagnosed with a rare and virulent form of cancer. This initial salvo is only the first of many; into the mix Shriver adds an ailing elderly parent, a freeloading sibling and a surgical procedure associated more with e-mail spam than legitimate medicine. So Much for That opens, quite literally, with an accounting of Shep's Merrill Lynch portfolio — a sum that he tracks through the course of the novel and one that, as the story unfolds, will be spent down to within a cell of his (and his wife's) life.

It's my job to obsess over the news of the day that drives the headlines of shows like NPR's Morning Edition. So why would I want a hefty dose of current events in my leisure reading? It's precisely because artists like Lionel Shriver have the ability to illuminate mere events and bring them to life. Her books get under your skin because they're so very grounded in the real world. (Prior to So Much for That I'd read an earlier book of hers, We Need To Talk About Kevin, in which Shriver seems to have had the school shooting at Columbine on the brain.) Shriver can be relentless when it comes to inflicting pain on her characters. As a reader, you sometimes wish she'd let you come up for air. But art, like life, doesn't always cut us the breaks we desire. If we're lucky — and in the capable hands of a writer like Shriver — we emerge all the wiser for it. And don't let the weighty subject matter scare you off: the spot-on, often hilarious characterizations kept me reading hungrily until the very end. — Shannon Rhoades, supervising senior editor, Morning Edition

Hardcover, 448 pages; Harper; list price, $25.99; publication date, March 9


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