The Secret Goldfish: Stories by David Means

This inventive collection of stories, The Secret Goldfish (Fourth Estate, 224 pages), revolves around the off-kilter — either something happens that cannot be explained or the characters are bewildered about how they came to be where they are. In the title story, a goldfish survives for nine years despite the odds in a murky, nearly airless tank while a marriage disintegrates. “Blown From the Bridge” tells of the last moments a young man shares with his lover before she and her car are blown off the Mackinac bridge, her fate sealed by a mysterious dedication to her father. The main character of “Lightning Man” cannot escape a lifetime of lightning strikes, but he continues anyway through his ruined and Continue reading

The Deadwood Beetle by Mylene Dressler

This wise and gorgeously wrought novel The Deadwood Beetle (Blue Hen Trade, 256 pages)┬áhad me by the heart from its first sentence. Tristan Martens, a retired entomologist in his seventies, has discovered by accident the blackened pine sewing table once owned by his mother in the Nazi occupied Netherlands. As he recognizes it in the New York antique shop – “this ghost, this small, lost thing, floating like a piece of impossible wreckage toward me” – he knows he must possess it to keep its secret from the world. The owner Cora Lowenstein, who has misinterpreted the childlike scrawl on the table’s underside, stands in his way. The table Continue reading

Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s stories are the contemporary descendants of those of the Brothers Grimm, with their surrealism laid on top of human desire and need. In both her previous collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and this newest one, Willful Creatures (Doubleday, 224 pages), her fiction adopts the tone of fairytales through the straightforward storytelling of the bizarre. Instead of a sausage growing on the end of a nose, Bender gives us potato children and a captive miniature man. Instead of a wicked stepmother, she conjures a collective group of predatory teenage girls. The “willful creatures” of the Continue reading

Garner by Kirstin Allio

In the opening pages of Kirstin Allio’s debut novel, Garner (Coffee House Press, 232 pages ), young Frances Giddens is found by the town’s postman drowned in Blood Brook. It is 1925, and the town of Garner, New Hampshire is struggling financially. The postman, Willard Heald, is obviously troubled by Frances’s death even as he labors over his handwritten history of the town. His wife watches him with suspicion, for she suspects him of having harbored a crush on the spirited teenager. The summer boarders staying at the Giddens family’s house remain silent, as do those who lift her body out of the stream. No one dares utter the questions lurking in the reader’s mind: Did Frances kill herself or was she murdered? And why? Continue reading

My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain

Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You (Penguin, 464 pages) is a coming-of-middle-age tale about Irish women across decades looking for “something to love.” While the novel is overtly about passion, it also explores the meaning of coming home and leaving it, of familial ties, of friendship, and, most poignantly, of growing older. Fiftyish Kathleen de Burca finds herself bereft and alone when her best friend Jimmy dies, and she begins to question the choices she has made. A persistent memory of a former lover and his “gift” to her of court documents prompt her to quit her job as a travel writer and to research the scandalous affair between a Continue reading

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss’s astonishing novel The History of Love (W. W. Norton & Company 252 pages), about a manuscript that survives the Holocaust, a flood, broken friendships, a plagiarist, misunderstanding, and obscurity has all the heart and intelligence of the best fiction being published today. Elderly Leo Gursky is afraid of dying unnoticed, and he plans his days so that people will see him and remember him. Among other schemes, he makes a scene in Starbucks and poses nude for a drawing class. Leo wasn’t always this lonely. Decades before, in a small town that was then part of Poland, he fell in love with a girl named Alma. He wrote a book Continue reading

The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure by Jack Pendarvis

In The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 183 pages), Jack Pendarvis has the kind of wit that ambushes you – and then bludgeons you until you can no longer suppress the laughter. This collection of nine stories and a novella mocks bad writing and moronic thought through a complete submersion in each, with protagonists believing in absurd premises (like the dead-beat husband who imagines himself as a famous historian and the unemployed drinking buddies who want to be writers without doing the work.) The subtitle – “Curious stories” – Continue reading