ARUN RATH, HOST:
For a writer, putting together a short story collection can be a chance to combine all of your most creative ideas. But for a reader, all of that creativity can be overwhelming. It's often helpful to have a guide, a character who stays with you or a theme that remains constant. Reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin is that kind of reader, and he says the stories in "Isle of Youth" by Laura van den Berg hang together perfectly.
ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: In a way, each one is a detective story, sometimes literally and sometimes not. But the main character is always a youngish woman trying to figure out what the heck happened to her life. One time, she's in Antarctica investigating her brother's death. Next, she's a gumshoe in Florida spying on a cheating husband. There's one story where she's part of a teenage bank-robbing gang, another where she follows acrobats around Paris. But what links all these narrators is a vulnerable self reliance, her private-eye detachment from events.
There are one or two duds in here, when you can tell van den Berg spent more effort writing than storytelling. But when the book gets rolling, she's completely on her game. My favorite was the last piece, the title story. It's about a pair of identical twins, one wild, one dull, who barely talk to each other. We find out the wild sister once tried to steal the plain one's husband. But now she needs her twin to swap lives for a couple days in order to fool a drug lord. And the ensuing events are full of delicacy and surprise.
Plenty of authors write with this kind of detachment. It can be divisive, sometimes too cool to love. I'm thinking of writers like Joan Didion, Haruki Murakami or Mary Robison. But for those of us who do love them, Laura van den Berg is a new name to add to the list.
RATH: The book is "The Isle of Youth" by Laura van den Berg. Our reviewer is Rosecrans Baldwin. His latest book, "Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down," is out in paperback. This is NPR News.