BBC Culture

Between the Lines

The 10 best new books to read

About the author

Jane Ciabattari is a journalist and book critic based in New York and California who has written for The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast,, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, and the Paris Review. She is a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, having served as its president from 2008-11, and is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire.

  • Robin Black, Life Drawing

    Black showed in her story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) that she can be breathtakingly acute about loss and the pain people inflict upon each other. In her debut novel she captures the various pains and pleasures of love, and how betrayal distorts and damages, with superb subtlety. Married artists Augusta (Gus), a painter, and her writer husband, Owen, leave Philadelphia to live in an isolated farmhouse in the countryside, still bruised by her infidelity two years before. Their equilibrium is shaken, then shattered when the newly divorced Alison moves in next door and her luscious college age daughter Nora, an aspiring writer and fan of Owen's work, comes for a visit. Gus tells her story in retrospect, because "you cannot see a landscape you are in." Black's command of the story carries us swiftly through ever more dangerous rapids. (Random House)

  • Amy Bloom, Lucky Us

    Bloom follows the unexpected adventures of a pair of half sisters in her kaleidoscopic new novel, set in 1940s America. Eva is very young (12 when we first meet her), a chameleon when it comes to surviving after her mother drops her off at her father's house "like a bag of dirty laundry". Her 16-year-old half sister Iris, a budding starlet, lures Eva into running away. They take a bus from Ohio to Hollywood, where Iris barely gets a speaking part before she is caught up in a Hollywood sex scandal. Then their father Edgar, whose charm disguises layers of lies, tracks them down. Lucky Us has a mesmerizing plot, indelible characters and an improvisational eventfulness that unfolds so artfully it mimics real life. (Granta Books)

  • Lewis Buzbee, Blackboard

    "The first day of school was a simple but ritual occasion in my childhood home," writes Buzbee at the beginning of his heartfelt non-fiction ode to learning. Buzbee knows the arc of the last half century in California's school system as a former student, as the father of two students and as a teacher. He revisits his classrooms, describes the dilemmas parents face at each stage of the educational system and, most importantly, shows how badly America is failing today's students. He tells of his teacher Mrs Jouthas, who asked him for a five-page report on The Grapes of Wrath, and how reading Steinbeck was the beginning of a life dedicated to writing. Buzbee compares his education in California, when he was nurtured and sustained by teachers, to today's defunded public schools, where parents are fundraisers for even the most basic supplies. (Graywolf Press)

  • Stuart Dybek, Paper Lantern

    Nine new short stories about love from an award-winning Chicago writer whose lyrical power continues to grow. "We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs," Dybek writes in the incendiary title story, which compresses memory flashes from multiple time zones into one erotically charged gem. In Seiche, atmospheric conditions are right for a potentially fatal tidal wave in Lake Michigan. The narrator, a caseworker for the Cook County Department of Public Aid, keeps his eyes trained on "the formless dark," waiting. The story Tosca begins with a firing squad and asks the question, "Given a choice, what would I ask for my last glimpse of life to be?" (Farrar Straus Giroux)

  • Alan Furst, Midnight in Europe

    In his 13th historic espionage novel, set in the interwar period when fascist and Nazi forces were gaining strength, Furst introduces Christian Ferrar, a Catalan-born lawyer raised in France. Based in New York and Paris, Ferrar helps his firm advise the French government in an attempt to purchase 5,000 American warplanes. His anti-fascist sympathies lead him to help an arms dealer named Max de Lyon supply the Spanish Republican Army by accompanying a crucial arms shipment to Gdansk. "If it failed, the war was lost," Furst writes. Ferrar enjoys Poulet de Bresse, followed by a brandy and a Gitane. He loves women: Eileen Moore, a New York crime writer, and Maria Cristina, an elegant marquesa. And he's realistic enough to rent a West End apartment to relocate his parents and grandmother from their Paris suburb when World War II breaks out. Furst is a master at creating the ominous prelude to destruction. (W&N)

  • Mary Gordon, The Liar’s Wife

    The Liar’s Wife is a book-lover’s dream: one of our best writers, at the top of her game, tracing interconnections between the US and Europe in four collected novellas, including two about iconic writers (Simone Weil in New York and Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana). Gordon captures Weil in the autumn of 1942, through the eyes of Genevieve, a former student who has given up her own intellectual ambitions to become a wife and mother. In a few brief meetings, etched with exquisite subtlety, Genevieve discovers the flaws in the teacher she once idolised. Mann’s visit is narrated by the sex-obsessed teen chosen to host Mann during a 1939 visit to his high school. Now 90, he recalls how in preparation he learned about anti-Semitism, Hitler’s Germany, and, in reading Death in Venice, the difference between sex and eros. He elaborates upon the electrifying effect of Mann’s message and its surprising aftermath. (Pantheon Books)

  • Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land

    Grossman's fantasy-quest trilogy is perfect for Harry Potter fans now ready for sex and single-malt Scotch. The Magicians (2009) followed Quentin and his nerdy friends through five years of training in the magical arts and their journey to Fillory, a magical land akin to Narnia. In The Magician King (2011), Quentin grew bored with being a Fillory royal. In search of a new quest, he entered the dangerous world of "hedge witchery," an underground magic movement. As The Magician's Land opens, Quentin is now a Fillory outcast, nearly 30, teaching at his alma mater and struggling to get back into magic. Grossman brings back old friends, introduces a younger magician with a special heritage and deftly solves lingering mysteries, as Quentin seeks a spell to create his own fantasy universe. Quentin's self-discoveries are shaded by his awareness of his flaws. Challenges come in ways he doesn't expect, and so do the rewards. (Viking Books)

  • Richard House, The Kills

    Richard House’s ambitious espionage novel, inspired by Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart, is comprised of four tightly linked books. He opens with an image of scorpions in a jar and a mysterious directive: “Listen. There’s a problem and it can’t be solved. You need to disappear.” The message comes from Geezler, an executive for HOSCO, a civilian company contracted to run burn pits in Iraq’s Amrah province that destroy the weapons of war. The company’s target: the man who has taken the pseudonym Sutler, who is blamed for a $50m theft of funds targeted for a massive reconstruction site. House sets up echoes that detonate throughout the subsequent books. It all adds up to an astonishing saga. (Picador)

  • Adam Rogers, Proof

    Proof is an entertaining and enlightening non-fiction search for the science, art and magic that lead to "perfect bar moments." Adam Rogers writes of the miracle of yeast, the basis of ales; sugar, "the most important molecule on earth"; fermentation, "the way yeasts convert what they eat to energy"; the physics of distillation and ways a new generation of small distillers speed up the alchemical mysteries of aging. He explains the latest research on how drinking affects the brain and what causes hangovers. (Dehydration? Acetaldehyde? Methanol? An inflammatory response?) He invites a couple of hard-drinking friends over for a night of foolish imbibing to test a variety of hangover cures. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

  • Tiphanie Yanique, Land of Love and Drowning

    In her first novel, inspired by her own Caribbean family history, award-winning short-story writer Yanique spins a series of seductive tales covering six decades and three generations. She begins with Owen Arthur Bradshaw of St Thomas, captain and owner of a cargo ship. "Men who spend their lives on water understand that magic is real," Yanique writes. It's 1917, when Denmark is transferring the Virgin Islands to American control. The captain's wife Antoinette, is from the coral island of Anegada ("the drowned land"). Life there is fishing, swimming and eating lobster twice a day. An ancient curse commences when his mistress Rebekah, a market lady and healer, gives birth to his son. Yanique's distinctive cast of characters tell of shipwrecks, hurricanes, wartime and the roiling energies of love. (Riverhead Books)