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Megan Sullivan, Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., and Bookdwarf One book that leaps to mind immediately is The Exquisite (2006) by Laird Hunt. It's one of those books where at the beginning, you have no idea what is going on, and you keep wanting to put it down—but you can't. It tells two stories with some of the same characters. The main character, Henry, stages fake murders in one story; in the other he is a patient in the hospital. The best way I've heard it described is that the stories are echoes of each other. It's a fascinating book. The other book I'll mention is Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails. It's the story of former child sleuth Billy Argo, who just got out of a mental hospital. Haunted by the suicide of his sister, he's determined to solve the mystery of her death. He gains the help of two children living across the street. It's too simple to call it a dark Nancy Drew. That detracts from Meno's great writing.
Carol Wald, Three Lives & Co., New York Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog (2005) should've had more readers. A window on the devastating and terrifying war that's consumed Congo for years, through alternating stories of 16-year-old child soldier "Mad Dog" and Laokole, a 16-year-old high-school girl, both caught in the maelstrom. Two extraordinary portraits in chillingly page-turning prose. Another great book is Edward St. Aubyn's Some Hope (2003), the dazzling U.S. debut of an author already well-known in the United Kingdom (and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year for his 2005 follow-up, Mother's Milk). This is the story of a privileged young man's headlong descent into squalor told with sparkling wit and brilliant verve—in the words of Sam Lipsyte, an "exquisitely harrowing" read.
Dave Weich, Powell's City of Books, Portland, Ore. I recommend The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006). It would not be unfair to call Hempel a writer's writer, but it might be misleading—she's a reader's writer, too. Some of her stories contain only a few lines; few run longer than 10 or 12 pages. None rely on high-concept mechanics or lofty language. She demands very little of her readership, and then delivers in spades. Hempel has been called a miniaturist—fair enough—but if her stories tend to be small in scale, they drill as deep as fiction goes. Emotionally charged, fantastically precise, an Amy Hempel story is a miracle of articulation.