Michael Schaub

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.

Rabih Alameddine's novel The Angel of History begins with a conversation between Satan and Death. The two are sitting in the home of Jacob, a poet in the midst of a mental breakdown; long after the death of his partner from AIDS, he's begun hearing voices (again), and is currently trying to check himself into a mental hospital.

When 49-year-old artist Eleanor Flood wakes up one weekday, she makes herself a promise. "Today will be different," she vows. "Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different."

Here is what happens in the first 100 pages of The Wonder: Lib, an English nurse in the mid-19th century, is sent to a small town in Ireland, a country whose people she instantly hates, to keep watch over a young girl who claims she has lived without food for four months. Lib watches the girl and thinks unkind things about the Irish. The girl does not eat. That is it.

There's a moment in Peter Ho Davies' novel The Fortunes in which a Chinese immigrant to America, a teenage boy named Ling, experiences a painful epiphany. He's been working as a valet to Charles Crocker, the 19th-century business magnate who first began employing Chinese workers as railroad workers. (Crocker's colleagues initially thought him crazy; they believed the Chinese were ill-suited to such backbreaking labor.)

With all due respect to Marco Rubio, Pitbull and Tim Tebow, the most famous export from the Sunshine State these days is Florida Man. He's not a real guy, of course, but the subject of a popular Twitter account that compiles news stories about the sometimes bizarre antics of certain assorted oddballs living in America's third-largest state.

In 2008, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history. It took just hours for the catastrophic effects of the company's failure to become apparent to ordinary people all across the world, even ones who had never before heard terms like "subprime mortgage" and "collateralized debt obligation."

Editor's note: This review contains language some may find offensive

There aren't many lucky people in the fictional Jamaican town of River Bank, the setting for Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel Here Comes the Sun. A long drought has robbed many residents of their livelihoods, and their homes are being threatened by developers who want to build yet another huge resort, one where rich, white tourists can sequester themselves away from the reality of the poverty-stricken villages that surround it.

"Stories can be true even if they're not real," muses nine-year-old Alex Torrey. His whole life has been steeped in stories: His parents were the stars of a cult favorite science fiction television show, Anomaly, and both have continued their acting careers somewhat successfully. Alex is a budding writer and voracious reader, devouring each installment of a Harry Potter-like young adult book series.

"No matter how long they've been there, the people who live out here believe that whatever life demands of them they can meet it on their own," writes Larry Watson in his new novel, As Good as Gone. "Here" is the badlands of eastern Montana, a famously desolate and unforgiving region; those who inhabit it tend to learn self-reliance quickly, and by necessity.

On the first page of Girls on Fire, author Robin Wasserman asks us to imagine a group of teenage girls on a bus. "Give in: Pick a pair of them, lost in each other, a matched set like a vision out of the past," she writes. "Nobody special, two nobodies. Except that together, they're radioactive: together, they glow."

If you're reading this section of the site, there's a better than good chance that at one time, you've read a book that changed your life. For literature lovers, that's not hyperbole — occasionally, books have a way of finding you when you most need them; they really can alter the way you look at things, the course of your life. It can feel a lot like magic.

Anyone who's lost a family member knows the feeling of unreality that follows. Psychologists call it "denial," but it's something more than that — it's a sense that you're not really there, that you're living in an alternate world, that the pain you're feeling can't possibly be real. Grief is a powerful thing, and it can temporarily turn people into walking ghosts.

Or, as Dana Cann writes in his debut novel, Ghosts of Bergen County: "This was life: you're here. And this was death: you're not. And then you're here again, haunting some stranger. And none of it matters."

Everybody makes mistakes, but some people manage to turn it into an art form. Take the characters in John Jodzio's new short story collection, Knockout. There's the young man who lets himself be talked into stealing a tiger and selling it for meth. There's the guy who moves into a duplex and discovers, too late, that his new roommate is a sadistic kidnapper. And then there's the woman whose boyfriend talks her into letting him pick up women at a speed-dating event, then tying them up until they give him their ATM codes.

Most writers would give everything they own to have just one masterpiece to their name. British author Helen Oyeyemi is barely 31, and she already has at least three of them. That includes her last two novels, Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird, both of which received extensive critical acclaim in the U.S. and around the world.

It also includes her latest book, the short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. The book contains the same sly humor, gorgeous writing and magical characters as her previous efforts. It is, in a word, flawless.

"Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep." That's the first sentence of Blackass, the debut novel from Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett, and if it sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that. The book is a long, bizarre riff on Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in which a salesman wakes up to find he's become an insect.

The total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to approach $6 trillion, but it will be decades before we know what we've truly lost. We have a generation that's never really known peacetime, and thousands upon thousands of service members who have returned to the country wounded in ways the rest of us might never understand. The wages of sin might be death, but the wages of war could be something even worse.

There's no shortage of contemporary writing about New York. While that's not surprising — it's the largest city in the country, and has always had a special hold on the American imagination — it sometimes seems like it's hard to find new fiction not set in the five (but usually just two) boroughs. That's a problem for aspiring novelists who couldn't care less about the city, but it's also one for New York writers struggling to find something new to say about their hometown.

It's the dead of winter in a small town in northern Michigan, and Carletta James is missing. Again. Her 16-year old daughter, Percy, isn't exactly surprised — it's not unusual for Carletta, a meth addict, to disappear for stretches of time, strung out and unconscious somewhere. But Percy's more worried than usual this time; there's a winter storm on the horizon that's threatening to bury Cutler County under a blanket of snow. "I missed her and I was tired of my waiting-around, worried-sick life," Percy thinks. "Carletta had to be got."

On the edge of a town called St. Nils sits the Burrow. It's a low mound of earth, just like any other burrow, but with a front door and six windowless apartments inside. It's not clear when it was constructed; some speculate it was built as a secret bunker, others think it was put up as an entrance to a tunnel used by drug smugglers. The townspeople can't agree on its origins; they can't even agree on how to pronounce the name of their town.

"Twenty-seven may be too young to die," muses Tim Sunblade, the narrator of Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel. "But it isn't too young to die like a man." Tim has death on his mind frequently — he's an escaped prisoner determined to do whatever it takes to stay out of jail. He'll kill if he has to, and he'd much rather wind up in a coffin than in a prison cell. This, of course, makes him very, very dangerous.

On Nov. 30, 1999, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization conference being held at the city's convention center. It didn't take long for the situation to deteriorate; after some protesters started smashing windows and occupying intersections, police officers began to use tear gas and pepper spray in an effort to disperse the crowd.

Herman Wouk's new memoir opens with two stanzas from "The Wreck of the Old 97," the famous ballad about a 1903 train crash in Virginia that killed 11 people. Initially, it seems an odd choice — while Wouk's most famous novels have dealt with tragedy, they've been mostly focused on war, not locomotives careering down the tracks at unsafe speeds. But Wouk explains, with his trademark droll humor: "Gentle reader, that railroad folk tune is sure haunting your durable storyteller, aged ninety-seven."

The American writer Edgar Allan Poe might have invented detective fiction, but it's been a long time since the United States has had a monopoly on the genre. In the past few decades, Americans have fallen in love with mystery writers from as far away as Iceland and Japan.

In less than two weeks, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. At least, some of them will — about 40% of eligible voters, if past elections are any indication. This year's races have already made stars — some rising, some falling — out of Americans hoping to represent their states and districts.

Some, like Kansas Senate hopeful Greg Orman and Georgia governor candidate Jason Carter, may pull off surprising victories. Others, like Wendy Davis in the Texas governor race have seen their once bright lights fade.

For months now the Ebola virus has been wreaking havoc in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. More than 700 people have died, and it seems that doctors are near-powerless to help. With the threat of the disease tearing communities apart, it's hard not to think of a legendary novel from almost 70 years ago.

It's probably not true that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the hands of a great biographer, it can be just as compelling. Novelists can create unique and unforgettable characters — there's never been anyone quite like Jane Eyre or Ignatius J. Reilly — but there's no shortage of fascinating literary protagonists who just happened to exist in real life.

"The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie," admits Binx Bolling, the hero of Walker Percy's 1961 novel The Moviegoer. It's the same for a lot of us — cinema affects us in ways we don't always understand, and even the worst films appeal to our nostalgia and sense memories in manners that defy the normal rules of taste and logic. (Currently, on my DVR: La Dolce Vita, a classic I know I should see at some point, and Gymkata, a truly terrible 1985 martial-arts flick I've watched a dozen times.

It's been five years since the Amazon Kindle started one of the most enduring literary controversies of recent times: the fight between e-books and printed books. If you're a devoted reader, you're probably already sick of the back and forth between the excitable technophiles and the stubborn Luddites. The proponents of e-books rave about the unexplored avenues, the hypertext, the entire world of literature accessible with just one click. The rest of us — well, we like the way books feel and smell, OK? It might seem sentimental, but that's falling in love for you.

"I am guilty," admits Harold Silver, the protagonist of A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. "I am guilty of even more than I realized I could be guilty of."