THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR (Dial, $26) is the incomparable Allegra Goodman at her peak: evocative, richly detailed settings (the exuberant 1990s and the wonderfully funky neighborhoods of Boston and San Francisco); characters that are funny, questioning, and smart (dot-com prodigies, philosophy majors, hippie Hasids, and disgruntled booksellers); and dialogue that is so precise and true you often forget you’re reading. Add a fascinating subplot about a rare cookbook collection and the history of taste, and it’s easy to see why this study of financial, romantic, and culinary appetites is one of the best novels of the year.
A riveting examination of the futility of war, MATTERHORN (Atlantic Monthly, $24.95) follows marine lieutenant Waino Mellas as he begins a grueling 13-month tour in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam. When they aren’t fighting the enemy, Mellas and the Marines under his command contend with racism, boredom, weather, and bureaucracy. When they are fighting, they have to deal with every imaginable horror: sadistic commanders, shooting at an enemy they can’t see, natural predators, and friendly fire. Karl Marlantes, a decorated war veteran himself, imbues his characters with humanity, capturing the complexity and contradictions of men at war. As the Marines pack up and vacate the hilltop they fought so hard for and for which so many died, the absurdity of their actions resounds.
While his own country is in the midst of revolution, young aristocrat Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont explores the newly christened United States with Parrot, a rough-at-the-edges British artist, bodyguard, and spy for the marquis, benefactor of Olivier’s family. Together this unlikely duo traverses early-19th-century America, ostensibly to study prison reform, but they soon find themselves caught up in a series of picaresque misadventures. Told in alternating points of view, Peter Carey’s Man Booker-nominated PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA (Knopf, $26.95) is a comic tour de force, rich with period detail and unforgettable characters.