Man With a Seagull on His Head
By Harriet Paige (Biblioasis, 200 pages, $19.95.)
This quiet, spooky and very good debut novel by English writer Harriet Paige has created a bit of a sensation in the world of indie books, eliciting comparisons to the works of Virginia Woolf and Kazuo Ishiguro. It's the strange story of Ray Eccles, a seemingly autistic or mentally ill office worker who is walking on a beach one day when a dying gull falls onto his head at the exact moment he is gazing at a woman on the beach. After the head injury, he begins obsessively painting the woman, and through a series of weird events becomes a celebrated "outside artist," although to him, "it was never just a painting to him. It was a hope."
The novel follows his story, as well as that of the woman he paints, and various characters in their lives. It's sometimes terribly sad, sometimes hilarious, sometimes absurdist, but always somehow completely believable. Beyond the narrative, the novel is about art, connections and missed chances, the complications of family and the mysterious workings of the human brain.
Paris in the Dark By Robert Olen Butler. (The Mysterious Press, 231 pages, $26.)
War correspondent Christopher Marlowe Cobb got his literary name from his actress mother and his undercover job from the U.S. government. It's 1915 and the United States is still on the sidelines of the Great War spreading across other continents. But the day is coming, and America wants one of its best spies on the scene, a man who speaks German and French — and can be counted on to use the Mauser he hides at the small of his back.
This is Cobb's fourth go-round at thwarting German interests, but now that he's in Paris, it is not clear that Germans are behind the bombings of a Montparnasse restaurant and a Métro station. Cobb sets to work finding out what's really going on, a mission that becomes personal as well as professional as he becomes more involved with the staff at the American Hospital.
This installment of the series finds the hero Kit Cobb maturing from the proto-James Bond stereotype in the first books, while Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler continues to deliver a gripping blend of historical fact and detective fiction.