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Category Archives: book reviews

ORIGINal Sin: Dan Brown’s Origin

Origin

I had promised myself that I was never going to read anything by Dan Brown, but huge posters for this book followed me all over the United Kingdom last fall as Amy and I made our way across the country by train, looming out of bookstore windows in every town except Oxford, where the main bookstore chose to highlight Allan Hollinghurst instead. (I think Oxford feels that Dan Brown is a bit beneath them. I agree with them.)

I’ll give Brown credit for one thing and one thing only. He knows how to keep a reader turning pages. He doesn’t do this by creating memorable characters, ones that you care about, or by writing in a compelling style, but by the simple trick of withholding information. From the beginning he makes it clear what that information will be about. It’s such a large, audacious and frankly ridiculous subject that he’s withholding information on that I kept reading just to see if, when it was eventually revealed, the revelation would be worth the buildup.

It wasn’t. It didn’t even come close. The whole premise seemed absurd throughout — at times, even Brown’s characters had to admit it was absurd — and at the end it turns out to have been a grand fake-out, a huge Maguffin that exists only to justify a mediocre chase thriller. (Another thing I’ll give Brown credit for is that he knows it’s important to keep putting obstacles in the path of the protagonist, even when those obstacles are rabbits that he pulls out of his threadbare but bottomless hat. It’s surprising how many authors don’t realize you need to do this, at least when you’re writing this kind of thriller.)

But at least I can say I’ve read a Dan Brown novel. It’s not much to brag about, but the next time I say something insulting about Mr. Brown, I’ll have evidence to back me up.

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A Mystery Writer Is Born, More or Less: Harry Starke by Blair Howard

Harry Starke - Books 1, 2, 3 (Harry Starke - Dark, Dangerous, Driven) by [Howard, Blair]

Sometimes I read books out of sheer whimsy. It’s a good way to discover interesting novels, though not always novels that are interesting in the way the authors intended.

Last October, my girlfriend Amy and I spent three weeks traveling across the United Kingdom by train. All those long hours parked at a dining table in a non-reserved coach provided a chance to catch up on my reading and I took full advantage of it. I didn’t read the books I’d intended to — now I can’t even remember what books I’d intended to read — but when I saw an ad in my Facebook feed for a series of books that were free to read for Amazon Prime members, I grabbed one on impulse. Or, rather, I grabbed three: the first trilogy of books in the Harry Starke series by Blair Howard.

A glance at the Amazon Look Inside told me a couple of important things about both Howard and the trilogy. The first is that his books are clearly self published. This interested me because, as an editor, I frequently take books by self-published authors and pound them into readable condition. Some of these books are inept and barely readable, which gives me a chance to flex my writing and editing muscles in ways that I find enjoyable and occasionally profitable. Others are fairly well written and allow me to collaborate with authors who need help from a professional but already possess many of the skills they need to go it on their own. It’s a pleasure to work with them.

The second thing I noticed was that Blair Howard knows how to write. The first few paragraphs told me that he could put together a sharp, punchy sentence, which is a more-difficult skill than most would-be writers seem to realize. And the novel had a gripping opening sequence. I decided to download the books and see if Howard knew what to do with a book once he’d started it.

It turned out that he didn’t. Once he’d put together the premise for the first book, titled simply Harry Starke, the story began to unravel. But the premise was strong: Tough guy cop-turned-private-detective Harry Starke sees a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman arguing in a Chattanooga bar with some dodgy-looking underworld types. He spots her again outside, in the wee hours of the morning, fleeing from unknown pursuers. When the woman spots Starke’s she freezes in her tracks — and jumps off a bridge to her death.

Starke understandably wants to know why the woman killed herself. Conveniently, he turns out to have an old friend on the Chattanooga police force, a gorgeous police detective named Kate Gazzara. She agrees to help him solve the case and, oh yeah, to have dinner with him at his luxurious apartment overlooking the city. (Starke, all-around sensitive tough guy that he is, has an unexpected talent for gourmet cooking.) Starke rounds up his staff of specialized investigators and asks them to learn as much as they can about the woman’s background. Soon enough he has a pile of clues and theories.

What’s missing is a real story. Starke sleeps with the gorgeous detective, with whom he has an ongoing relationship. He discovers a connection between the dead woman and a prominent politician. He investigates the politician and surmises that he might be behind the murder.

It’s clear that Howard, talented writer that he obviously is, has yet to master the art of plotting and had no idea how to advance the story beyond its intriguing but rudimentary set-up. There are no real surprises in the pages that follow. The only genuine plot twist, which comes fairly late in the novel, turns out to have nothing to do with the plot and seems to have been added merely so that the book could have a twist. The case essentially solves itself. Most of the conflict comes from Starke beating up suspects to demonstrate what a bad-ass he is and worrying that the gorgeous detective might get tired of his wandering eye and walk back out of his life and bed. By the time the novel looks like it might become compelling, it turns out to be over.

There are two more books in the package and I may or may not plunge ahead and finish reading the trilogy. (A reviewer on Amazon suggests that it starts getting good with the third book.) Howard’s main problem is that, through the miracle of self-publishing, he’s exposed his writing to the reading public before he’s fully honed his storytelling skills. When and if he does, he may become a major contributor to the American detective novel genre. I hope he gets there, but as of this book he’s little more than a talented dilettante. Still, if you find yourself on a long train trip and have an Amazon Prime subscription, you could do worse than to download this trilogy, if only to encourage him to stick at it until he figures out what he’s doing.

EDIT: After writing this, I discovered that Howard had written an earlier series of novels about the Civil War, which explains his proficiency with the written word. This is his first venture into detective fiction, though, and it’s clear that he doesn’t fully understand the genre yet. Detective writing is trickier than it looks and this novel makes it clear that Howard hasn’t learned the tricks yet. But give him time.

Funny How Time Slips Away: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Reading is like breathing — don’t do enough of it and your brain cells start to die. Not necessarily the brain cells responsible for walking, hanging up on telephone solicitors and calculating four-way tips on a restaurant bill, but the ones responsible for writing. And I do a lot of writing so it’s necessary that I read.

Dark Places

Dark Places: Don’t let the padlock fool you. There isn’t much inside.

Over the last year I’ve been remiss in my reading habits, as you can tell if you scroll down to the previous book review in this blog and note that it was posted on July 27, 2014. Not that I haven’t been reading since then. I have. I’ve been reading the beginnings of books that I never finished, click-bait articles that somehow wandered into my Facebook feed and the occasional magazine (though I’ve been falling behind in my magazine reading too, something I plan to remedy).

I also read two entire novels during the last year, which I’ve somehow never gotten around to writing about here. I plan to remedy that too, starting with this post, which is about Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember a whole lot about Dark Places, partly because it’s been close to a year since I read it and partly because, well, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Not that it was bad. I suspect that anything by Flynn is worth reading, which is why I picked it up, having been deeply impressed by the wit, plotting and deftly deceptive characterization in Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it three years ago. I read Dark Places looking for more of the same and to some extent I found it — at least Dark Places has the same acerbic, observational cleverness of Gone Girl and some of the same strong characterization, but in the matter of plot it felt like Flynn started with the spark of an idea that she never managed to kindle (no pun on my ebook reader intended) into an actual flame.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of the plot, but here’s what I can give you: Libby Day, a 30-ish woman who survived the violent massacre of her family when she was a child, has spent most of her life living on the charitable funds generated by the sympathetic stories about her that periodically grace the pages of magazines and true-crime newscasts. The charity is running out, however, and Libby, who has never worked for a living, finds herself with no marketable skills and no desire to develop the sort of likable personality that might get her either a job or a husband. It’s this desperation for funds that drives her to accept a paid invitation from a club of amateur crime solvers who enjoy revisiting particularly gruesome murder narratives and finding flaws in the original conclusions reached by the judiciary system.

Libby expects the club to consist of creeps and borderline psychos who get off on blood and gore, but they’re mostly harmless nerds who enjoy arguing about clues and courtroom testimony. The particular subgroup dedicated to the Day family massacre is largely convinced that the person eventually convicted of the crime, Libby’s older brother, is innocent — which comes as a surprise to Libby, because she’s pretty much accepted her brother’s culpability, even though he was probably the family member closest to her before the killings occurred. She never visits him in prison and is reluctant to do so even at the club’s request, until they offer her money to talk to him. Being on the verge of homelessness actually motivates Libby to discard her apathy — and, more importantly, to face up to the “dark places” in her brain that concern the crime — in ways that she hasn’t over the previous quarter of a century. The club members gradually convince her that her brother may in fact be innocent, and, um, things happen. There’s something about the brother’s former girlfriend and a lot about women with red hair, a hallmark of the Day family.

Wish I could tell you more — and I probably could have, back when I’d finished the book. Though I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve put off writing this review for so long is that I really didn’t have a lot to say about it even then. I remember finding the ending not entirely satisfactory; I felt that Flynn had thrown in one plot element too many, perhaps to throw red herrings in the reader’s path, more likely because she felt she was at least one subplot short of a novel.

Whatever, my enthusiasm for Flynn’s writing remains undimmed, but it still largely hinges on the deep impression that Gone Girl made with me. Eventually I’ll go back and read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and probably be even more disappointed, but as a stylist Flynn is engaging enough that even her lesser works, like this one, are worth reading.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from Amazon.com and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.

 

Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response — a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.

The Old New Weird: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

The cover should really be weirder than this.

Weird fiction was a genre of fiction even before there was such a thing as genre, which is really more a publishing term that tells bookstores what shelves they should put books on and gives self-published e-book authors some area of fiction that their books can excel in on Amazon.com’s many bestseller lists. The term “weird fiction” was coined by 19th century Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who specialized in what we would now call mystery and horror fiction, but which were then just part of the general mainstream of literature. Weird fiction encompasses ghost stories, horror stories and just about any stories in which something unusual and distinctly creepy is going on, whether or not it has a supernatural element to it. It lent its name to one of the greatest of all early 20th century pulp magazines, Weird Tales, probably best known today for having published most of the major work of that towering master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, with whose death in 1937 the popularity of weird fiction died too, leaving it as a niche genre that only a few writers, like Robert Bloch (better known for writing the novel Psycho than for his weird fiction) and Ramsey Campbell, continued to work in. In recent years, though, the genre has undergone something of a revival, much of it in a form called the New Weird, which nobody is able to define but everybody seems to agree is what’s being written by authors like China Miéville.

Jeff VanderMeer is an expert on weird fiction, having not only edited (along with his wife Ann VanderMeer) several collections of old weird and new weird fiction, but having written quite a bit of it himself, including the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen and the novel Finch. I grew up on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and read quite a bit of the old weird fiction in my teens but have really only become aware of the renaissance in weird fiction recently, mostly from reading the introductions to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthologies (which you should read — the introductions, I mean — if you want to know more about weird fiction than I’m telling you here, though this Wikipedia article is also helpful). I had been meaning for some time to explore the newer contributions to the field and when I noticed that Jeff VanderMeer had begun a new trilogy of weird fiction novels collectively called The Southern Reach, it seemed like an ideal place to start. I’ve now read the first novel in the series, Annihilation  — the second novel, Authority, will be published this May and the third novel, Acceptance, will be published in September — and can report that, while I’m not sure whether it belongs to the old weird fiction or to the new weird, it is unquestionably, undeniably weird.

Based on my own acquaintance with the field, I can tell you that weird fiction doesn’t emphasize a lot of the things that traditional fiction does, like character and plot, and only emphasizes setting to the extent that a story’s setting can contribute to its overall weirdness. H.P. Lovecraft occasionally introduced memorable characters into his stories, but by far his most memorable tended to be the frequently unnamed first-person narrators of his stories and their voices always seemed to be the voice of Lovecraft himself, though without the sense of humor he frequently displayed in his letters to friends. What is paramount to weird fiction is mood and the most common mood in weird fiction is dread, which can be either mild or so extreme that it causes the characters to become insane. Lovecraft was fond of saying that his narrators escaped insanity only through a form of denial, “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” as he puts it in his most famous (though far from best) story “The Call of Cthulhu.” (Sometimes they also resorted to morphine, which I gather was easier to obtain in Lovecraft’s day.)

In Annihilation, Vandermeer makes his priorities clear. He doesn’t even bother to give his characters names, referring to them only by the roles they play in the expedition that makes up the novel’s plot: the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor. The narrator herself — all of these characters are female — is simply “the biologist.” The goal of their vaguely defined expedition is to explore a mysterious region known as “Area X” and it’s never clear where this region is, not just where it is on our planet, but whether it’s actually on our planet or even has a physical existence at all. It could well exist in the characters’ minds, given that nobody (with the possible exception of the psychologist, who seems to be running the expedition for the explorers’ “superiors,” a government agency known only as the Southern Reach) even seems to know how they arrived there. They crossed something called “the border” while in a state of hypnosis induced by the psychologist, who apparently also induced in their minds certain keywords that would cause them to respond in pre-programmed ways, including keywords that would cause them to commit suicide if necessary. We gradually learn that this isn’t the first expedition into Area X and that nobody seems to be sure how many previous expeditions there have been or whether the explorers returned from them. (Some of the explorers, like the narrator’s husband, did return, but with such altered personalities that the narrator is convinced that at some point in the expedition he was replaced by someone, or something, else. The narrator believes, based on notes she finds that her husband left behind in a mysterious location called “the lighthouse,” that he actually headed off even more deeply into Area X in search of a boat that he could use for further exploration.)

Much of the story concerns the discovery of a large hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into it, a frequent trope in Lovecraft’s work. Everybody calls this “the tunnel,” except for the narrator, who calls it “the tower,” insisting on seeing it as rising even though it’s distinctly descending. As the explorers climb down the staircase, they find phosphorescent writing on the wall relating (in English) a semicoherent narrative apparently being written by some creature that has worked its way down to an even lower level of the “tower.” Before they descend more than a short distance, the explorers decide to branch out in small parties from their base camp (which is simply the point at which they found themselves when they awoke from their hypnotic transition to Area X) and explore nearby points of interest, but gradually…well, I won’t give away any more of the plot, though VanderMeer is so obviously reluctant to make any coherent sense of this story that I’m almost hesitant to use the word “plot” to describe it.

As an introduction to weird fiction, I can’t think of a better place to start than this novel. It’s short — 56,000 words, which is barely more than half the length of one of the Hunger Games novels — adeptly written and distinctly evocative of, well, weirdness. If you prefer your fiction a bit more conventional, though, you’d be better advised to avoid it, because conventional is one thing VanderMeer is very intent on not being.

My Compliments to the Chef: The Dinner by Herman Koch

About a year ago, while making excuses for laying aside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after only about 40 pages or so, I discussed how much I dislike reading books in translation. The loss of the original text and the substitution of a new one waters down the author’s unique voice, destroys the direct sense of mind-to-mind connection that even mediocre novels can provide, and inflicts on the reader the voice of a translator who probably isn’t as good a writer as the one that he’s translating, else he’d be writing great novels of his own.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, proves how wrong I was. I don’t know what the author’s original voice was like, but I don’t care. Garrett has done such a fine job of rendering the book into English that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Koch’s mind, Garrett’s mind or a combination of the two that I’m connecting with. The book’s prose is seamlessly readable and I find it hard to imagine that it could have been significantly better in the original Dutch. It reads as smoothly and as intelligently as any well-crafted English-language novel I’ve read in recent years — better so than most — and that’s certainly good enough for me.

My friend George, who brought the book to my attention a few weeks ago when he praised it on a Web forum I frequent, said that the book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I can see why. It has the same acerbic, observational wit, the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of someone who notices telling details about the way we live, details that ring with ironic and often caustic truth. Also like Gone Girl, it has a major plot revelation about halfway through, but it’s not the kind that snaps your head around and causes you to rethink everything that’s come before, as Flynn’s was. In fact, Koch prepares you so thoroughly for the revelation that it doesn’t even come as a surprise and certainly doesn’t qualify as a plot twist.

What Koch does is something much subtler. I suspect that there will be, and probably have been, reviewers who will describe the novel’s first-person protagonist as an unreliable narrator, but he really isn’t. Nothing he tells you is misleading and when he omits information — as he frequently does — he tells you that he’s omitting it and assures you that he’ll fill in the details later — as he also does. What Koch does instead is to take advantage of the reader’s automatic tendency to sympathize with a first-person narrator and gradually, so slowly that you almost don’t notice that he’s doing it, subverts that expectation. I finished the book almost unsure of what I had just read or what any of it meant and when it finally came over me I realized that I was almost reluctant to accept it. Not to give too much away, but in the end the novel amounts to a major political statement — something that sounds quite boring but isn’t in the slightest — that addresses an issue that I find myself pondering during every major election: Why do people vote for things that are almost inhumanly cruel and harsh and then assume that these things don’t — and shouldn’t — apply to themselves?

What happens in the course of the book is that Koch alters your initial perceptions of the characters until you gradually realize that they are precisely the opposite of the people you thought they were in the beginning and that the character you most disdained throughout the majority of the novel is in fact the only person at the table — as its title implies, the novel takes place during the course of a single dinner — who is worth giving a damn about, the only one who isn’t a hypocrite and certainly the only one who has something resembling a conscience. And Koch does this so scrupulously that he never at any point betrays the reader’s trust in the integrity of his storytelling.

But while it is these gradual realizations that make the novel great, it is the witty, sharply observed prose and vividly drawn characters, as well as the way Koch draws out his revelations while always letting you know that they’re coming, that make it readable, even riveting, from the very beginning. If anything was lost in the book’s transition from Holland to America, it probably wasn’t worth having in the first place.