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Reasons to Be Cheerful: Books to Look Forward to in 2015

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Detail from the cover of Stuart O'Nan's West of Sunset

One of the things that differentiates humans from the rest of the animal world is our ability, indeed, our inclination, to plan for and ponder the future. It works two ways. We need to know that we’re not going to drive over a cliff, bounce a check, step in front of a bus, or miss a deadline. (Even if we agree with the late Douglas Adams, who quipped, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”) We need to anticipate the future for sheer self-preservation.

But we also have to look into the future for amusement, for reasons to keep on slogging through traffic to the office, spend another 8 hours in our cubicles, wash our clothes, wash the dishes, and in general keep our lives on track. At the end of those days, if we’re lucky, and indeed in this age we are incredibly lucky, we can have a good book waiting to be read. Books provide a continuity from our past to our present and into the future, no matter how much the format mutates.

To this end, in the immortal worlds of Ian Drury, “Why don’t you get back into bed?” and read a book this weekend. You should have a stack from this year, and there are plenty of all varieties to look forward to next year. There’s a book for every taste in the year to come, big, small, intense, lovely, imaginative – and more. “Reasons to be cheerful – one, two, three…” (Why don’t you get back into bed?)


Uncle Janice

by Matt Burgess

Janice Itwaru is seventeen months into an eighteen month probationary period as an NYPD undercover narcotics officer, which is referred to as an “uncle.” She’s caught between competitive cops, a B.S.-ified bureaucracy, career criminals, street thugs and her own ailing mother. It’s a glorious mess, and fantastic fun to read in Matt Burgess’ second novel, Uncle Janice. Reading should be fun and here’s the proof, a hilarious, intense novel full of guns, drugs, rock and roll, and armor-piercing dialogue.


Burgess confronts the uglies and makes them walk, talk and sing like birds. This is a 99-proof, grain-fed police procedural, chock-ablock with sound and fury, signifying everything we fear to be true about the great cities in this great nation. Burgess nails us and them to a wall and makes us laugh even as he makes us see, turning the pages ever-faster to catch a glimpse of the life down under the underclass. Pretty soon we’ll all be here, once the wealthy have skimmed off the rest of the American riches. Better to get down now with Burgess and scope out the view from your next rung down the economic ladder.


The Brothers

by Masha Geeson

“It can’t happen here.” These words are a lot less likely to be heard these days, because it has happened here. Bestselling, award-winning, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen gets us as close as possible to the Tsarnaev brothers in her forthcoming book, The Brothers. Coming in April, Gessen unfolds and explores an American immigrant nightmare come to life. Like any great work of literature, this is a story about people, and Gessen traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Dagestan, and Chechnya researching this story. She interviewed all the people in the lives of these men, their friends, neighbors, family, teachers and co-workers. She went inside their lives.

Like the Tsarnaev brothers, Gessen came to the Boston area as a Russian-speaking teenager. She returned to live and work in Russia in her early twenties, experiencing first-hand the transformations that wracked the former Soviet Union. Gessen covered the Chechen diaspora and the internecine wars in Russia as a reporter. Moreover, she’s a consummate storyteller, putting the facts together with the skill of a novelist. This is gripping, intense reading, a thriller that is terrifyingly true. It’s the sort of book that will make you lose sleep while you read – and continue to do so after you have finished.


Future Crimes

by Marc Goodman

This is the kind of book that, when it arrives, you want to sit down and read immediately, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, this is utterly fascinating stuff, and it is growing around us as we speak. Look to this week’s headlines. The very nature of crime is changing and expanding, as is the damage done. The connectedness of our world offers us a power that is unparalleled in history. It has changed the way we work, live, love and more, not always for the better. But with great power comes, not great responsibility (NOT ME rides again!), but rather great vulnerability. We are so easily undone.

Goodman organizes his book well, offering present-day examples and unpleasantly plausible extrapolations. The benefits of a wireless pacemaker crash up against the risks; you’re now potentially in the cross hairs of a remote control – forget the rifle. All those Silicon Valley start-ups promising us the connected house, car and baby monitor will be followed by a wave of start-ups promising to protect us from those who will hack them. And the real problem is almost at our doorstep. How do we know that those offering a solution to these susceptibilities have not created them in the first place? Goodman weds the joy of geeky technology with the tension of true crime. The future of crime prevention starts here, in February. The author will be in town. Don’t say you were not warned.


We Are Pirates

by Daniel Handler

The day after the groundhog does his shadow check, we can look forward to the new novel from Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket. We Are Pirates does the unthinkable, and puts pirates in the San Francisco Bay, with very unpredictable results. Handler is a master of shifting a few minor things in our workaday world in just the manner required to turn the ordinary into the fantastic.

Phil Needle is a radio producer who is trying to keep his grip on a career that seems past its sell-by date with a daughter who is clearly too young to worry about any date. It’s the present day, and anything is possible, even pirates. Handler manages the neat trick of writing a novel that is at turns funny, dark, full of extroverted action and lots of high-order kookiness, but at the same time capable of peering into the unhappiness of our discomfited lives. His patented ability to find the quirk in the world is on fire here. Readers can look forward to blasts of laughter interspersed with bouts of un-blissful insight. Moreover, Handler lives in S.F., so plan on plenty of opportunities to see him live, which is itself a wonder to behold. Reasons to be cheerful? More than three in this one book!


Funny Girl

by Nick Hornby

Title and author all you need here, but I’ll offer a few details, just because, well, we like our futures to have some sans-spoiler high points. Yes, it is true, Nick Hornby has revealed far too much about the way men think to the women of this world. In novel after novel, men’s flaws, frailties, foibles and fantasies have been laid bare for all to see, for all to know and for just about 50% to keep in mind when dealing with us. If his books were not so entertaining, even to those of us whose secrets he lays bare, we’d have found a place for him in a cubicle years ago.

So look out ladies, he’s turning his keen insight in your direction, even if he’s winding back the clock to 1960’s London. Sophie Straw ascends from provincial ingénue to TV comedienne. Hearts are broken, lives are made and unmade, and the minds of men and women revealed in all their self-conflicted glory. Humanity is a wonderful species in the hands of a writer like Nick Hornby, who will also be coming to the Bay Area in February. Get in line now! Having written the screenplay for Wild, Hornby has found even more ways to be popular.


Get in Trouble

by Kelly Link

Kelly Link is seven kinds of brilliant, and then just when you think you have your brain wrapped around all of them, another pops up. For all that her stories traffic in the unusual, she’s really a very American institution. After all, it no less a cultural icon than Rod Serling who invented The Twilight Zone, America’s answer to the Greek Myths reborn in the 20th century. Kelly Link offers the same sort of vision for the 21st century. Sure, these stories start in our backyards, only to inform us that there are things in our backyards not yet accounted for by our philosophy.

And that notion – that we, and all the everyday things around us, are the great undiscovered country – is what Kelly Link reveals with joy, sadness, hilarity and eventually the sort of raw honesty that enables the weird to achieve expression. The stories here offer ghosts that will become more real to readers than the person sitting next to them, a superhero with the powers of Thomas Mann and deserted theme parks, among other mysterious and magical things. Link has the literary skills to remind us that as much as we like to think the edges of our world are all touchable, they are in fact the products of our hyperactive imaginations.


Arrows of Rain

by Okey Ndibe

Last Year, Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc turned more than a few heads with its story of a Nigerian cab driver who finds himself selling gods to an art dealer in Manhattan. That was actually his second novel. His first, Arrows of Rain, arrives next month, as does the author himself. Given the themes of his work – the interconnectedness of this world (see Future Crimes above), it’s only appropriate that he comes to the source of much of the technology behind that interconnectedness, even as he proves to be a powerful chronicler of the ruin that follows in its footsteps.

Ndibe sets this novel in the fictional country of Madia, standing in for Nigeria. Fiction has its uses. Bukuru is the last man to see a now-dead prostitute, and in his trial he makes some injudicious statements. In jail afterwards, he tells his story. Ndibe has a knack for crafting characters who speak for nations, and stories that speak to history. But he also writes one hell of a page-turning story about people we believe in and care about as well. This novel does what great novels are supposed to do. It creates a new world that, bigger than ours, closer than ours, more intense than ours, brings us back to where we live with a better understanding of just what our lives mean to those we will never see, touch or know.


West of Sunset

by Stewart O’Nan

A great American novelist writes about a great American novelist. There’s risk in that equation, and who better to bring it off than Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing and Last Night at the Lobster. With West of Sunset, O’Nan brings us the twilight of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers who enjoyed Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (and The Great Gatsby itself) can rejoice as O’Nan nails the decline of a man who never gave up, even as he fell into what he had every reason to expect might be obscurity.

The novel begins in 1937, long after Fitgerald’s moments in the sun. The Jazz Age is over, and the movies are grinding up America’s greatest novelists and turning them into Hollywood hacks. O’Nan has the chops to take on Fitzgerald and turn the man who crafted indelible characters that became American icons into a character himself, to look inside the man who made us look inside ourselves. O’Nan will be in the Bay Area and he is every bit as engaging as his work. There’s beauty in despair, and in America, and O’Nan takes readers to the place where those two meet.


The Dead Lands

by Benjamin Percy

Post-apocalypse America used to be the province of adult novels, until teenaged girls overran it. Benjamin Percy stakes his claim for adults with The Dead Lands, elevator-pitchable as Lewis and Clark after The End. Percy’s last novel, Red Moon, was an ingenious take on werewolves and terrorism, on red-baiting and homeland witch-hunts. This time, he takes on similar themes in a different, but wonderfully wrought wasteland in the ruins of the 21st century. A frontier is always a frontier.

Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark live in what was once St. Louis, but is now called the Sanctuary, and offers respite for fear, not from it. A lone rider brings word of something better, but not without danger, beyond the walls. Lewis and Clark set out to see if indeed the grass is greener, but the Sanctuary is not so keen on rivals. And the outside world is just as dangerous as the one they are trying to leave behind. Percy is a master world-builder, de-constructing today’s world brick by brick and putting it back together in a way that tells us more about it than the reality might.


The Fifth Heart

by Dan Simmons

Simmons is one of America’s great writers who never gives himself a break. He writes award-winning science-fiction (Hyperion and its sequels optioned by James Cameron and now Bradley Cooper), then walks away from them to write hard-boiled mysteries, American horror novels, historical fiction (The Terror, optioned by David Fincher and Ridley Scott) and in his latest, something nobody can easily describe. The Fifth Heart begins as Henry James stands on a bridge over the Seine River contemplating suicide. He’s joined by another Englishman, also contemplating the end. This man, in a hiatus during his career as the world’s first consulting detective, has just deduced that he is a fictional character. Sherlock Holmes is indeed unhappy, but a mere ten pages into the book, readers will be delighted.


Simmons sends the two to investigate a suicide that may be a murder, and leads readers into the heart of historical meta-fiction. He knows how to craft an intricate, dense historical world and play with our perceptions of the real and the unreal. This is a novel that manages to be both deadly serious and giddy fun at the same time.

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