By Bob Minzesheimer, Jocelyn McClurg, Lindsay Deutsch and Whitney Matheson)
Looking for a new novel to read? USA TODAY highlights four titles, with settings ranging from Oxford, England to dystopian Baltimore.
The Last Enchantments
By Charles Finch
St. Martin's Press, 336 pp.
*** out of four
Early in Charles Finch's gracefully written and atmospheric novel, its narrator, a 25-year-old American studying literature at England's class-conscious Oxford University, pauses to ask readers, "Have I lost your sympathy?" He's just betrayed his politically connected American girlfriend. Eventually, the restless narrator becomes more sympathetic after much drinking, lusting and "hooking up," as he puts it. The novel is set in 2005, a year after its patrician narrator, William Baker, worked in John Kerry's losing presidential campaign which left Baker with a hatred for George W. Bush, even if they attended the same prep school and college. Finch, who writes freelance book reviews for USA TODAY, assembles a colorful and varied cast of international students. His story is more complex than a typical coming-of-age novel. Baker learns much, including, "When you're finally a grown-up, one of the things you find is that there are no grown-ups." -- Bob Minzesheimer
The Last Days of Anna Mandrigal
By Armistead Maupin
Harper, 270 pp.
What's being billed as the "ninth and final" novel in the much-loved Tales of the City series (begun in 1978) just had to focus on Anna Madrigal, the pot-smoking, transgender landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, San Francisco. Now in her early 90s (!), Anna goes on a road trip to her Nevada hometown, and readers learn why the boy who liked to dress as a girl ran away from the whorehouse where he grew up. Less compelling is a competing subplot in which other LGBT (and straight) series regulars trek to the Burning Man festival, and Michael Tolliver has a health scare during an orgy. It's enough to make longtime fans feel really, really old. Maupin says a gentle, fitfully amusing goodbye, and it seems like time. So long, friends. -- Jocelyn McClurg
On Such A Full Sea
By Chang-Rae Lee
Riverhead, 352 pp.
In an NPR interview with Diane Rehm, Chang-Rae Lee put it best himself: "Immigrant fictions are dystopian fictions, at least to the newcomer." Lee seamlessly marries the two genres in On Such a Full Sea. He describes a grim but surreal future in which abandoned American cities (in this case, Baltimore -- re-imagined as B-Mor) have been turned into labor settlements full of descendants of foreigners (in B-Mor, Chinese). All the pieces are here: a factioned, classist system under an oppressive force. And a strong, complex heroine in the form of 16-year-old fish tank cleaner Fan, who leaves her community and embarks into the great unknown. The parallels to today's anxieties (climate change, global economy) are clear, but Lee, with his poetic prose, delivers his message unobtrusively. -- Lindsay Deutsch
By Adam Sternbergh
Crown, 256 pp.
In a searing debut, Sternbergh maps a bleak future for New York City: desolate, desperate and hopeless. After a dirty bomb wipes out much of Manhattan, a former garbageman named Spademan begins his own kind of cleanup as a killer for hire. When he's asked to murder the pregnant daughter of a popular evangelist, he's forced to do some grim detective work, leading to a plot that deftly tangles religion, crime and the power of technology. Though the dramatic premise doesn't quite lead to a satisfying payoff, noir fans will appreciate the stark dialogue and high-volume grit, which Sternbergh enhances with sci-fi and dark humor. With a second novel and movie in the works, his shady antihero may have a long life ahead. -- Whitney Matheson