"Anansi Boys" and "Smoke and Mirrors" both by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins)
"Get Down" by Asali Solomon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
"Get Down" is a debut collection of stories about young African Americans, set in 1980s Philadelphia. "Talking to Frances was like pushing a heavy grocery cart with a trick wheel," observes the narrator of "Twelve Takes Thea," a carefully judged and nuanced story of girl-teen angst that carries real punch at the end. Solomon's observations are quiet, but they're fresh and true. She's good on social and racial dynamics, but she also gets inside her characters: "William is dancing, and it is not a good experience." Spot on.
"The Beast Within" by Émile Zola (Penguin)
A jealous railway station master forces his wife to help him murder her lover. Unfortunately, the act is witnessed by a man who is himself a serial killer who then falls in love with the wife. Disaster is as inevitable as the steam locomotives that belch and roar in the background. Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang both filmed this novel, and James M. Cain was inspired by it. Zola shades in a portrait of 19th century French society while telling an intimate family drama. His startling ferocity blazes off the page in this new translation by Roger Whitehouse.
"All God's Children" by Fox Butterfield (Vintage)
"We all descend from the past and no individual exists free from his or her own patriarchy," writes Fox Butterfield in this contemporary classic of American reportage, echoing a sentiment that Zola explored in "The Beast Within." Butterfield's subject is also murder. He tells the story of Willie Bosket who, at only 15, with a genius-level IQ and a history of 250 armed robberies and 25 stabbings behind him, shot and killed two strangers on the New York subway. Butterfield digs deep into Bosket's family background, discovering there a lineage of abuse and violent death, a series of human train wrecks that pose tough questions about race and social, as well as familial, paternity. Butterfield's style is straightforward, but the linked narratives build with heartbreaking force.
"Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky" by Patrick Hamilton (New York Review Books)
While still a young man, Patrick Hamilton achieved wealth as a playwright, penning "Rope," based on the Leopold-Loeb murder case, and then "Gaslight," two hugely successful melodramas that were both made into famous films. His real gift, though, was for fiction, as the chronicler of twisted urban hope and desperate urban humiliation. The three novels collected here, in this famous trilogy, center on a pub, the Midnight Bell, and the lives of the characters who meet there and become ensnared in their creator's tortured version of love, much more pain than gain. Hamilton is great on the perils of drink -- a subject he understood only too tragically well -- and, especially, on the shiftless anomie of lower middle-class life in pre-World War II London, a milieu he evokes with more tenderness and accuracy than even Graham Greene. His novels have a feel that is unique. Newly introduced here by Susanna Moore.
"More Than Night" by James Naremore (University of California)
There are hosts of books about film noir, but this is a really good one. James Naremore is excellent both in his analysis of specific films, including Wilder's "Double Indemnity" and Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," and in his laying out the various social, literary and iconographic streams that came together to form an indelible style. "Is there any way to win?" Jane Greer asks Robert Mitchum in "Out of the Past." "No. But there's a way to lose more slowly," Mitchum replies. There you have it. Naremore gets into his subject with academic rigor and a thankfully uncluttered style.
"The Diving Pool" by Yoko Ogawa (Picador)
"If I could have one of the tragic histories so common at the Light House," muses Aya, the young narrator of "The Diving Pool," one of three novellas collected here, "then I would have been a proper orphan." Aya is neglected by her parents, who run the orphanage, and she obsesses about the handsome and good-natured Jun, who has grown up with her. Ogawa writes in a lean, muscular way that goes deep, exploring how malevolence co-exists with everyday impulse. This is her first book appearance in English, although the bleak and mysterious "Pregnancy Diary," another of the novellas, appeared in the New Yorker a couple of years back. She's a disturbing writer; she creates a memorable unease.
"The Underground City" by H.L. Humes (Random House)
H.L. "Doc" Humes was a co-founder of the Paris Review and, in short order, published two novels in the late 1950s. Then he went off the map, and off the rails, for the remaining 30 years of his life. The coruscatingly brilliant and egotistical Humes, who died in 1992, is now the subject of an excellent and moving documentary, directed by his daughter, the filmmaker Immy Humes. Prompted by the occasion, Random House has reissued the novels, the punchier "Men Die" and also this one, Humes' first -- a huge, sprawling, monstrously ambitious story of an American's involvement with the French Resistance in World War II. It's an uneven fiesta of writing, sometimes boring, often dazzling and inspiring. Now we know what the fuss is about.
-- Richard Rayner