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The Casual Vacancy

J. K. Rowling

(Little, Brown & Company; US: Sep 2012)

The Casual Vacancy
J. K. Rowling

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It comes about so naturally that after a few pages you even forget what it is you are witnessing. J. K. Rowling should by all rights have spent the rest of her years counting her loot and approving different Harry Potter merchandising deals. Instead, she soundly closed the door on her YA fantasy career by delivering this crisply visualized and thoroughly adult multiplayer melodrama. Set in the small British town of Pagford, where the socioeconomic strata is laid out with the exactitude of the periodic table and no slights are ever forgotten, Rowling’s novel is a vinegary satire that revolves around one of those snowball events (an empty seat left on the town council) that turns into an avalanche. In leaving behind seemingly childish things, Rowling hangs on to some of the tics that leavened out the overplotting of the Harry Potter books, like her Dickensian flair for comic grotesquerie and sensitivity toward societal outcasts, and proves that not only does she have a post-Potter career, it will likely outshine her wizarding background.  Chris Barsanti


 

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Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

Chris Hedges

(Nation; US: Jun 2012)

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
Chris Hedges


Days of Destruction chronicles the lives of the people who were once analogous to the machines and natural resources that were exploited to yield the highest financial gain. It’s a harrowing account of the exploited American underclass living in what the author defines as “the sacrifice zones” (xi). These are the forgotten vicinities where American citizens, workers, and natural resources are utilized and commodified to the extreme in the name of capitalism. These are the stories of the individuals who slaved to achieve the chimerical American dream, but were ultimately exploited, alienated, and deemed expendable. Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent Chris Hedges unites with Joe Sacco’s award winning graphic and comic arts to rematerialize these lost voices and movingly communicate their testimonies while painting a portrait of enduring destitution. It’s powerful,  remarkable, and arguably one of the best books of the year. Elisabeth Woronzoff


 

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Enchantments

Kathryn Harrison

(Random House; US: Mar 2012)

Enchantments
Kathryn Harrison


In Kathryn Harrison’s latest novel, we get a fictionalized account of Rasputin’s eldest daughter, Matryona Grigorievna Rasputin. When we meet Masha, she has just learned of her father’s death, which required great efforts on the part of his assassins. The year is 1917, and Russia is in upheaval. Rasputin, known to many as a saintly healer, is revered by the peasantry and the ruling Romanov family. Masha fervently believes in him, recounting his selfless acts of healing, his enormous physical strength, his sexual prowess, the unshakable constitution making him nearly impossible to assassinate. But most importantly, he alone can heal the Tsar and Tsarina’s son, the tsarevich Alyosha Romanov, a hemophiliac. Harrison’s portrait of Rasputin and the Romanovs is surprisingly sympathetic and winning. Even as resentment and class hatred grow around this wealthy family, her Romanovs are people detached from the citizenry. They are not unkind, simply oblivious, a situation those close to them are happy to maintain. As the walls close in, they are less angry than bewildered. When their inevitable demise comes to pass, Masha manages escape it, but at a price: “No one escaped Russia with his or heart intact.” Diane Leach


 

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The Fault in Our Stars

John Green

(Penguin; US: Jan 2012)

The Fault in Our Stars
John Green


I’ve been strangely getting into young adult fiction in a pretty big way in recent years, and I think a large part of that is, when you’re writing for teenagers, there’s very little pretense. What you get, usually, is a crackling good story without the literary fireworks. Well, John Green is a young author with an impressive backcatalogue, who dropped an absolute stunner early in the year (January). The Fault of Our Stars is a tale of a budding romance between two young cancer survivors, written from the female perspective. Now, there is a twist to the tale that jaded adult readers will see coming before even cracking open the book, which less savvy young readers may not twig into until it actually happens in the novel, but, as an updated Love Story for the teen set, this is frankly a beautifully written, mature tale – there’s even Venn diagrams employed here (a very adult, business-like touch) – about doomed young love. I liked it more months after I read it when I realized that it was funny and poignant in equal measure, and it puts a real human face on a terrible disease. My high school years weren’t the greatest, but The Fault in Our Stars almost made me want to go back and re-experience true love for the first time during that tumultuous time of my life. Almost. At the very least, the book was compelling enough to make me go out to the library and start snooping around Green’s previous books, and it suggests there’s a very bright future for this gifted author of YA whose works even adults can enjoy. Zachary Houle


 

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Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 1)

Alex Raymond

(Titan; US: Sep 2012)

Flash Gordon: On the Planet Mongo: The Complete Flash Gordon Library (Vol. 1)
Alex Raymond


Flash Gordon debuted on 7 January 1934 with the words, “WORLD COMING TO END” stretched across the first panel, an announcement to readers that, from that moment on, comics would never be the same. This collection follows Flash’s adventures through 18 April 1937, and in that time the story’s panels grew to accommodate the wide screen imagination of artist Alex Raymond. From the very beginning, the story is action-packed, with Flash, Dale Arden, and Doctor Zarkov crashing into the planet Mongo and finding themselves constantly at odds with hostile natives, deadly animals, and the planet’s emperor, Ming, the Merciless. The persistence of these characters gives them their richness today, but the weekly appearances in the ‘30s gave readers time to embroider the characters lives with ideas of their own. Film, radio, and television brought the characters to a wider audience, spreading their influence and giving them new life. For many of us today, the world of the early 20th century seemed like it was black and white, but there were bursts of color everywhere, on planet earth and beyond, as evidenced here. Jeremy Estes


 

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Flight Behavior

Barbara Kingsolver

(Harper; US: Nov 2012)

Flight Behavior
Barbara Kingsolver


The meek will not inherit the Earth in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Kingsolver trained as a biologist, and like Margaret Atwood, is a passionate advocate of ecological sustainability, using her writing to entertain while educating, thus sugarcoating an otherwise bitter pill.  Depending on your point of view, the weather, which by any measure has gone haywire, indicates the end of days, one more insanity in a world gone mad, or the ineluctable effects of global warming, an event that sits squarely on human shoulders. Whatever your feelings about global warming, we caused it, and we’re paying for it. The ecological devastation humanity has wrought seems to be past repair. Now all we can do is try and salvage what’s left, though this would require sacrifices many are unwilling to make. Here, Kingsolver entwines environmentalism with human relations. She is especially gifted at rendering the unique speech patterns of Appalachia into print without seeming twee or affected: instead, speaking patterns help define individuals and their place in a community. Any nascent writer could strip everything else from Flight Behavior and get a master lesson in dialogue. Diane Leach


 

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The Gods of Gotham

Lyndsay Faye

(Penguin; US: Mar 2012)

The Gods of Gotham
Lyndsay Faye


I’m normally not a huge fan of mystery novels, but I was looking for something of a light read on my Kindle earlier this year, and started seeing this book called The Gods of Gotham being pushed very heavily on bookstore shelves. I decided to give it a go, and I was glad that I did. The Gods of Gotham is much more than a historical mystery novel: it delves into the plight of the struggling Irish during the 1840s in New York City, and there’s a bit of political backstory to the novel as well. What makes this book particularly amazing is that Faye takes a very unsavory plot element – a serial killer is at work dispatching child prostitutes and a novice new police detective is charged with bringing the perpetrator to justice – and somehow makes it palpable, real and non-sensational. Faye infuses her setting with slang of the times (necessitating a rather lengthy glossary at the start of the book) and period detail, and gets it pretty much right. For those looking for a breezy read with serious overtones, you should look no further than this. Zachary Houle

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