“Celine” by Peter Heller

CelineI read a lot of good books, but every year, there are a couple that I find myself enthusiastically recommending to people. The latest book added to my “You must read this!” list is Peter Heller’s Celine, a beautifully-written and engrossing novel featuring one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Celine is in her late 60s, an old-money WASP who makes her living as a private eye. The only type of case she takes is reuniting parents and children. At her side is her doting and taciturn second husband, Pete, who adores Celine and yet finds her an endless source of mystery (just how did she become so proficient with firearms?).

Celine’s latest client is a young woman whose father disappeared many years before, leaving her an orphan (her mother drowned when she was very young). Supposedly, the man—a skilled photographer who often worked for National Geographic—had been fatally mauled by a bear, but his body was never found, just some smashed camera equipment, blood on a tree trunk, and a few discarded pieces of clothing. The client is convinced her father faked his own death, and if he is still alive, she wants him to meet his grandchild.

Because Celine’s own father disappeared from her life when she was quite young, after his divorce from her mother, she feels a particular connection to the case. She and Pete head for Yellowstone National Park, site of the alleged grizzly attack. In the meantime, Celine’s son Hank is conducting his own investigation into his mother’s teenage years, a time she does not like to speak about.

In lesser hands, Celine could have been cutesy or too precious, but Heller’s style is always sincere, wise and open-hearted, with a pronounced tinge of melancholy. Early in the book, we learn that Celine’s two sisters have recently passed away, and the book takes place in 2002, when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 (Celine is a New Yorker) have recently left their mark. As she and Pete walk down a street at night in a small town, under a starless sky, she reflects on her chosen career:

It occurred to her as they walked that they were looking for a father who had disappeared more than two decades ago, but that he had truly left his child’s life long before that, that the young woman had grown up for all intents and purposes fatherless. As she did. That finding him now might resolve something in the woman’s heart but would not change the essential sadness. And that was the business she was in. She had had to accept it long ago: that her job was enabling just such reunions. That though they could not change someone’s childhood, still—there was a great raw need in her clients to know their parents and to meet them again. There was something in that resolution that was very important. To the child, and often to the parent. She certainly knew about that. And sometimes they—the parent and the child—started again. Rarely did it work, but sometimes it did. And then a child would have a mother and a mother a daughter.

The saddest part was that parents would keep disappearing, and children would cry themselves to sleep night after night, for months, for years. And that mothers would have their babies taken from them before they had a chance to smell the tuft of soft hair, their ears, before they had a chance to say, “Oh how I love you! Forever and ever.” That the baby was taken before she had a chance to kiss her and wrap her properly in her arms.

There are a great many mysteries in Celine, some of which get resolved and a few of which don’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this book and not wishing they could spend more time with its fascinating heroine. Indeed, Heller has revealed in interviews that Celine is based on his late mother, Caroline. “When I started writing this book, I wrote with the hope to spend another year with her,” he said. His novel is an extraordinary tribute, and very much worth reading.

“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah HawleyMy book group read Before the Fall a few months ago, but I was unable to attend that meeting—and when I saw that the book was about a plane crash, I decided to give it a miss. I can sometimes be a nervous flyer, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to read a novel on the subject shortly before I was due to embark on a 10-hour transatlantic flight.

When the book won this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, however, I figured I should check it out. Unlike every other mystery award, the Edgar is peer-reviewed, and the people on the committee read tons of books. As a result, the winning entry has to be interesting and different enough to captivate a group of readers who are accomplished writers themselves.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Before the Fall is how incredibly timely it feels, despite the fact that it was published a year ago and written well before that. The story deals with  the intersection of a couple of very wealthy families and a Fox News-type network, which is drumming up ratings by exploiting a family tragedy (shades of the Seth Rich story). I was half-expecting a politician with small hands and bad hair to show up.

The mysterious crash of the luxury private jet, which was flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, killed nine people and left two survivors: four-year-old JJ Bateman and painter Scott Burroughs, who had been invited aboard the flight by JJ’s mom Maggie. The wife of David Bateman, head of the Fox-like network ALC News, Maggie had taken an interest in Scott’s art and impulsively asked if he’d like to join them when she found out he was heading to the city for some meetings.

Not quite a starving artist, but not a terribly successful one either, Scott was trying to turn his life around after recovering from alcoholism. He had painted a series of large-scale works depicting disasters—an oncoming tornado, a house on fire, and even a plane crash—before stepping aboard the doomed aircraft. Scott’s unlikely survival, and the motif of his paintings, make him an object of suspicion to ALC News’ O’Reilly-like news anchor, Bill Cunningham (“the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world”). Ironically, before he died, David Bateman had made moves to push Bill off the air, because he’d been caught tapping the phone of a rival broadcaster. Before he could get rid of him, David died, and Bill immediately turned his old boss into a martyr, promising every night that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of what had really happened to that flight.

Before the Fall is a dense 400-page novel, and it probably could have been cut by 50 pages if Hawley, writer and showrunner for FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo,” hadn’t spent quite so much time waxing philosophical. A random example: “We believe we have invented our machine world to benefit ourselves, but how do we know we aren’t here to serve it? A camera must be aimed to be a camera. To service a microphone, a question must be asked. Twenty-four hours a day, frame after frame, we feed the hungry beast, locked in perpetual motion as we race to film it all. Does television exist for us to watch, in other words, or do we exist to watch television?”

Because I read a lot of thrillers that are only trying to deliver the purest adrenaline rush possible, I actually appreciated a lot of Hawley’s flowery musings, but after a certain point, I just wanted to find out what had happened to the plane. But I’m guessing that willingness to grapple with The Big Questions is what made the committee select After the Fall for the award. Many years from now, this is the sort of book people will turn to in order to find out what life was like in this peculiar era.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.

“The Impossible Fortress” by Jason Rekulak

The Impossible FortressA few months ago, I reviewed Matthew Amster-Burton’s 90s-set novel Our Secret Better Lives and remarked that “some of the experiences the college-age characters have seem like they belong to a time as far removed from 2016 as ancient Greece.” Well, The Impossible Fortress goes back even further, to the far-off world of 1987. That spring, nude photos of “Wheel of Fortune” letter turner Vanna White appeared in Playboy magazine, sending young men across America into a tizzy. If you didn’t have an older brother or “cool” uncle who could buy the magazine for you, you were out of luck. There was no World Wide Web yet, and thus no way to Google “Vanna White” +Playboy to find those precious pics.

In the town of Wetbridge, NJ, only one store stocks Playboy: Zelinsky’s Typewriters and Office Supplies. Unfortunately, the proprietor is a stickler for the rules, and is not about to let a bunch of 14-year-old boys buy a copy. So Billy Marvin and his two best pals, Alf and Clark, embark upon a series of schemes to try to get one. After failing miserably, they come up with a long-shot idea: Billy will attempt to get close to Zelinsky’s chubby daughter Mary in order to talk her into revealing the store’s alarm code; that way, they can break into the store, take some magazines, and leave a $20 bill behind. No harm, no foul, right?

Mary, who is Billy’s age but attends a Catholic girls’ school, turns out to be a genius-level computer programmer, and Billy is also fascinated by computers, so the two form a genuine bond as they start working on a game called The Impossible Fortress. The goal is to submit it to a contest sponsored by Rutgers University, which is offering a prize of an IBM PS/2 (“With a sixteen-bit processor and a full megabyte of RAM”).

Sometimes, The Impossible Fortress is just a bit too cute (a scene in which Billy battles obstacles in an attempt to get a message to Mary at her school is structured like a video game), but fellow Gen X’ers who were into computers back in the days of CompuServe and “Trash-80s” will no doubt have feelings of nostalgia throughout. I kind of wish the book had featured an “Animal House”-style epilogue showing what happened to all the characters; as a young teen, Billy may have been a screw-up with poor grades, but the triumph of the nerds was just a few years away.

“The Hating Game” by Sally Thorne

The Hating GameThere’s a thin line between love and hate. That’s the premise of Australian writer Sally Thorne’s first novel, The Hating Game, which pits two uber-competitive office workers against each other as they both angle for the same promotion at a publishing company.

Lucy has always dreamed of working at a publishing company; Joshua fell into his job after dropping out of medical school due to squeamishness. Bitter rivals, the two are constantly trying to sabotage each other. However, despite their mutual loathing, there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension that becomes more and more difficult to ignore.

To Thorne’s credit, this isn’t the type of book where the protagonists finally declare their attraction to one another on the final page; the romantic sparks between Joshua and Lucy are pretty obvious early on, and a kiss in the elevator at work further complicates their relationship. Both have vowed to quit if the other one gets the promotion, and when Lucy begins to date another employee, things get even more twisted.

The Hating Game reminded me a little of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It, another book where we watch the couple move from antipathy to amour. (Seriously, does that ever happen in real life, or is it just a rom-com trope?) But while Parker’s novel had a rich background in the world of the London theater, Thorne leaves the setting of her book as something of a mystery. At first I just assumed the author was British and that it took place in London, until a receipt with a price in dollars was mentioned. It’s definitely not set in Manhattan, since everyone drives their car to work. When I read that Thorne was Australian, I kind of wished she’d been more specific about the location and given the novel some local color; the huge success of Liane Moriarty’s Oz-set books have proven that readers elsewhere in the world will enjoy fiction set in the land down under. But on the whole, The Hating Game is a fun, light read with a couple of appealing lead characters and a satisfying resolution.

“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai

All Our Wrong TodaysWhere are our flying cars? We should have had them by now, right? Those of us who grew up watching “The Jetsons” on TV were sure that by the time we were old enough to get our licenses, we’d be zipping around in airborne automobiles instead of boring old Corollas.

The clever premise of All Our Wrong Todays is that the America of 2016 should have had flying cars, as well as “robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases.” (That the book is mostly set in the annus horribilis of 2016 is a masterstroke that Elan Mastai could not have anticipated when he wrote the book, unless he is a time traveler himself.) Unfortunately, one man, Tom Barren, screwed it all up, ensuring that instead of “a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder,” we have… well, those black tubes that you can use to order a pizza or play the latest Drake song. In other words, things we could have accomplished just fine with creaky 20th century technology like a landline phone and a record player.

Tom had the misfortune of being a thoroughly average child of a super-genius father, a man so intelligent that he invented a working time machine. The purpose of the machine would be to send a chrononaut to observe the single greatest moment in human history: the launching of the Goettreider Engine in 1965, the device that enabled all of those futuristic dreams to come true. The Engine generates “unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy,” and was invented by Danish-American inventor Lionel Goettreider, “the most famous, beloved, and respected human on the planet.” Unfortunately, Goettreider died of radiation poisoning shortly after the Engine was switched on, meaning he never knew how his invention would change the world.

Through a series of wacky misadventures, Tom winds up being propelled back to Goettreider’s lab instead of the chrononaut who should have made the trip, the brilliant Penelope Weschler. Things go wrong, there is no Goettreider Engine thanks to Tom’s interference, and he finds out what would have happened had the Engine never been switched on: he is no longer Tom, sad-sack loser, but John, a successful architect; his dad is a friendly, lovable professor instead of a cold, impossible-to-please genius; and Penelope is Penny, a down-to-earth Toronto bookstore owner. Tom realizes that he needs to try to fix things so that the Earth can return to the techno-utopia it was meant to be, but the problem is that he really likes the way things turned out for himself in the alternative timeline. Still, “it’s monumentally selfish to condemn the rest of the world, reality itself, to this wrong existence just because my little life has been improved. I’m not important, not compared to the billions who have never known how things should be.”

Will Tom figure out a way to fix his massive mistake? Mastai, a screenwriter, tells the story in short, breezy chapters (most of which are only 2-3 pages long, making the book a quick and easy read). If he doesn’t quite stick the landing, at least for readers like me who can’t handle too much science in their science fiction—”I don’t know how much more patience you have for semi-lucid explanations of time-travel physics,” he writes at one point near the end of the book (my answer is not a lot)—it’s still a delightful debut.

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

commonwealthOne small decision can change everything, reverberating for decades to come. That is the central theme of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, her sprawling family saga which tracks the members of two different families that come together and fall apart, beginning in the early 1960s.

The fateful decision was made by Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Wanting to escape from his own large family, he opts to crash a christening party he’d heard about in passing, bringing a large bottle of gin as a gift. The child in question belongs to Fix Keating, a cop, and his movie-star-gorgeous wife, Beverly. An encounter between Bert and Beverly leads to a kiss, and the next thing you know, Beverly and Bert have left their respective spouses for each other, complicating the lives of six young kids (her two, his four). There is a move to Virginia, the commonwealth of the title, and a death that shakes the families’ world.

There’s no denying that Commonwealth is a beautifully-written book, with lots of perceptive things to say about families, aging, love, and the randomness of life, but I sometimes found myself wishing I’d drawn a family tree as I read, because there are a lot of characters to keep track of: Fix and Beverly, Bert and his first wife Teresa, their offspring, plus a gaggle of spouses, in-laws, stepchildren and lovers. Did there really have to be so many children? I would mutter as I tried to remember which kid came from which parents. The book demands attentive reading, as it does not follow a linear timeline.

In the end, it just sort of stops (I was reading Commonwealth on an e-reader, so I was unaware of how many pages were left), and I had the sense that Patchett could have kept going for another hundred pages, filling in details of characters we hadn’t come to know as well as others. (Beverly’s eventual divorce from Bert and subsequent remarriage to her third husband is mentioned in passing fairly early on, but I had forgotten about it and was surprised to encounter that spouse in the book’s final chapter.) If you’re a Patchett fan and plan on reading this book, do so with a pen and paper next to you and create a list of characters; I’ll bet you’ll find yourself referring to it several times along the way.