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EDWARDIAN PARTY CRASHERS
Set in England in 1912, Sadie Jones’ third novel, The Uninvited Guests, brims with sophisticated charm. The scene is an elegant old estate called Sterne, where the Torrington-Swift family is preparing to celebrate the 20th birthday of daughter Emerald. A glittering celebration has been organized, but plans go off course when a train accident occurs near Sterne, and some of the people involved arrive at the estate in search of assistance. The presence of strangers of the wrong sort (they were all traveling third class!) lowers the tone of Emerald’s special evening. A storm brings extra tension to the proceedings, as does a questionable parlor game. When Smudge Torrington, the family’s youngest daughter, launches what she calls her Great Undertaking, she caps off a night that won’t soon be forgotten. Jones has written a delightful novel that cleverly dissects the stuffy social mores of Edwardian England. Her depiction of a society and a family in flux feels picture perfect.
Charlotte Rogan’s novel, The Lifeboat, is a suspenseful and provocative debut set in 1914. Grace Winter, the story’s narrator, is 22 years old and freshly married to Henry, a man of substantial wealth. When the luxury liner carrying them from London to America is rocked by an explosion, Henry jeopardizes his own well-being to help Grace escape to a crowded lifeboat. On board, Grace joins forces with John Hardie, a seasoned sailor who coldheartedly refuses to rescue other survivors from the water. Grace, as it turns out, makes it through this nightmare only to face another kind of catastrophe: She and two other survivors face criminal charges when they return. Rogan has woven a knotty tale about survival, self-sacrifice and human motivation with a complex figure at its center. Grace is at once canny and somewhat naïve, a woman with a sharp wit and an iron will. Rogan, a new author who possesses the narrative instincts of an old pro, writes about the natural world and human nature with equal facility.
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A finalist for the National Book Award, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain takes on the media and the military as it tells the story of Bravo Squad, a celebrated Army unit, and one of its heroes, Billy Lynn. Caught in a firefight in Iraq that’s documented by an embedded Fox News team, the members of Bravo Squad are instant heroes. Back in the states, they embark on a Victory Tour that takes them to Texas Stadium and a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football game. The Bravo boys experience mixed emotions in the midst of this media blitz. Billy recalls comrades who died overseas even as he’s distracted by a Cowboys cheerleader. The celebratory moment is further diluted by the prospect of a return to Iraq. Expertly crafted in exuberant prose, this intelligent, funny novel offers an inside look at the soldier’s life while questioning the nature of patriotism and celebrity. A late bloomer in the literary world (he published his first book, a short story collection, at the age of 48), Fountain proves himself a writer to watch with this timely novel.