Ethical quandaries of grand proportions are Dennis Lehane's specialty. He has been hailed as one of the greatest American novelists in any genre, but he is best known for his authentic, gritty Boston crime novels staring detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. "In Gone Baby Gone, it was about a good man who made a very, very terrible decision, and did very, very terrible things to then try to clean up the mess caused by that decision," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "Patrick is always haunted by the fact that the people he really liked in that case [were the bad guys]," he adds, "and the action he really wanted to take was not the action he took. And that's the dramatic fuel." Now, after more than a decade, Lehane addresses the consequences of the decision that Patrick is ultimately forced to make in the anticipated sequel, Moonlight Mile.
Stripped down, Karen Russell's debut novel is one more young writer's saga of a dysfunctional family. But Russell is a rare talent. Her book has its roots in "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," a short story from her first collection, 2006's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The outlandish and fading coastal Florida theme park from which Swamplandia! takes its title is inhabited by a clan of "Bigtrees," a self-invented showbiz tribe costumed in buckskin vests, headbands, feathers and gator "fang" necklaces. Russell — recently included on The New Yorker's "20 under 40" list of standout young writers — takes us through a breathtaking series of spins, as the star alligator wrestler faces ovarian cancer and the rest of her family tries to compensate as the theme park falters. Powered by Russell's vivid wordplay and imaginative energy, Swamplandia! is a continuously alluring phantasmagoria.
Anne Fortier's retelling of Romeo and Juliet is a contemporary fairy tale that mixes medieval and modern mystery; a time-shifting, semihistorical maze that unravels the "unknown" story of feuding families in Verona. Fortier's protagonist, 25-year-old Julie Jacobs, inherits a key to a safety deposit box in Siena, Italy, where she travels under her birth name, Giulietta Tolomei. She quickly discovers an ongoing feud between the Tolomeis and other powerful families in Siena, who have been at each other's throats since the 14th century. While unraveling the history of her ancestor, the original Giulietta Tolomei, Julie meets descendants of the rival Salimbeni family, allowing Fortier to use her character's journey to explore the way in which Romeo and Juliet's story might have actually happened. But Juliet is intentionally light on historical research and more focused on applying the love story to the modern day.
Prolific crime author and U.K. Labour Party peer Ruth Rendell once told an interviewer that she has read all of Freud's works — and it shows. Her novels (some of which are written under the pen name Barbara Vine) plumb the depths of paranoia and the grip of obsession and all sorts of irrational compulsions with uncommon insight. Portobello is set in a colorful street market in London's Notting Hill, which attracts some of the city's most peculiar characters. Among them is a thief who's gotten into religion, his layabout nephew, a morbidly depressed young man and an art dealer who's a candy addict. Like a master puppeteer, Rendell lets each of them indulge their obsessions in a plot that "unfolds with the bleak gravity of Greek drama while following the insane logic of French farce," as the New York Times put it.
Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash, has had a remarkable career of her own as a singer-songwriter. But in spite of her professional successes, Cash's life has not been without difficulties: a miscarriage, losing her voice, brain surgery and the deaths of her parents. In Composed: A Memoir, Cash writes about those events as well as others that have shaped her. At times, Cash's writing has a certain cadence to it, her stories rendered like the lyrics of a good country song. In an interview with NPR's Michele Norris, Cash remembers a haunting roadside encounter on a cold night in 1981, which appears as a chapter in the book. She chillingly closes the story by saying, "This is how the heart sounds when it's broken open."