Welcome to a session of Great Recession book buying. Nowadays, new hardback books, let's just say it, cost more than most of them are worth. Most people are pinching pennies in these times, and hardbacks' average price of $26 can seem a bit much. Not to worry, here's a guide to some meaty current paperbacks, each one priced at $15. Hope you find something you like.
American Lightning: Terror, Mystery and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum (Three Rivers Press, $15). The best narrative history manages to believably recreate entire eras while telling a great story, which is why American Lightning received so many rave reviews. Blum brings to life the struggles and contradictions of an often overlooked period in America, the turbulent early 20th century. Starting with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910 by a disgruntled labor union advocate, Blum resurrects a violent time in which big money interests ruled the roost; American workers were often treated as little more than cattle; anarchists wanted to "bring capitalism to its knees"; union members were brutalized by management-hired thugs; private detectives outshone the police and became celebrities; movies were just being born as an entertainment option; and attorney Clarence Darrow stoked fear among prosecutors nationwide. American Lightning is suspenseful, eye-opening, and filled to the brim with incredible real-life characters.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Picador, $15). A big, ambitious novel, and the first part of a projected trilogy, Sea of Poppies is a 19th century adventure story told by nearly a dozen main characters. In 1838, against the backdrop of the Opium Wars between China and the UK, the Ibis, a former slave ship, takes on passengers in Calcutta, bound for the island of Mauritius, off the coast of Africa. The passengers, including many indentured servants, or coolies, headed to work on Mauritius' sugar estates, are a financial, intellectual, legal and linguistic mishmash. The rest range from a widowed opium farmer and a disgraced Indian raja, to three disguised fugitives, and a mulatto second mate who is passing for white. The ship, which is owned by a powerful opium merchant, could also be transporting the drug along with its passengers, and rumors are rampant. The book has an epic feel, and becomes more than a story of a ship's voyage, encompassing a wide view of the era; a lively experiment with language as the highly diverse passengers bend the English language in order to make themselves understood; and a meditation on voyages themselves and their frequent role in various forms of exile. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and the overall thrust of the novel is fascinating, but at times, the hydra-headed plot can be daunting, if not baffling.
The Army of the Republic by Stuart Archer Cohen (Picador, $15). With the exceptions of Max Barry's Jennifer Government and Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem, I'm not usually a fan of "near-future" novels. The Army of the Republic, though, is being added to the list of near-future favorites. In America, corporate powerbrokers rule the country, wreck the economy, and ruin the environment (is this sounding familiar?). After national elections are rigged, and a national strike -- in response to the election -- is quashed by a Blackwater-esque group, bands of citizen-guerillas wage war on the corporate honchos in order to take their government back. If you enjoy dystopian novels layered with semi-justifiable paranoia and vigorous writing, then this is the book for you.
Serena by Ron Rash (Ecco, $14.99). This writer's favorite novel of 2008, Serena is that rarest of literary achievements: a genuine masterpiece that is as highly readable as it is deep and innovative. Blood, greed, history and hubris blend and bump together in powerful, explosive combinations in Ron Rash's talented hands. It's "Macbeth in the Smokies," as timber baron George Pemberton and his beautiful, ruthlessly ambitious bride, Serena, work and scheme to expand their empire in western North Carolina during the Great Depression. The Pembertons, gradually driven more and more by Serena's ambition and thirst for power, scheme to thwart the efforts of a budding conservation movement which, in real life, eventually brought about the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rash creates a fast-moving story for the ages, filled with Shakespearean levels of deception and cruelty, along with mountain-style retribution -- and featuring a female protagonist unique in American literature. Serena gallops to its inevitable searing conclusion, and ends with a clever addendum that brings the story full circle. National raves, and Rash's muscular writing and universal themes, may break him out of the "Southern writer" pigeonhole.