It might be counted as a minor miracle that Emma Donoghue sold more than a million copies of her disquieting 2010 novel Room, which is narrated by a 5-year-old boy held captive with his mother by her kidnapper and rapist. Donoghue's ambitious new collection, Astray, isn't exactly a beach read either. Its array of characters--a pet elephant cruelly sold off to the circus in 1882, an attorney taken for a ride by a con woman in 1735, a Texas slave who absconds with his master's wife in 1864--includes wanderers and bunglers, victims and outcasts. (The stories are all inspired by true events, and a postscript after each explains the nature of the author's source material.) Donoghue's affinity for yesteryear's untold tales is charming, and her talent for dialect is hard to overstate, which is why it's the first-person stories in Astray that shine brightest. (A white writer's interpretation of black vernacular is potentially cringeworthy, but the aforementioned slave's speech rings genuine, not gimmicky.)
Each and every one of Donoghue's characters leaves an impression; the same cannot be said for Harold Silver, the narrator of A.M. Homes' darkly funny new novel May We Be Forgiven. Silver, a Nixon scholar, is an affable nonentity: "Mostly I don't have feelings," he jovially declares. The fates do their damnedest to rile him; the indignities and ordeals unfolding around him include murder, sudden-onset psychosis and a controversial kiss. And that's just the first 15 pages. The result is that Silver must assume responsibility for two teenagers, a challenge to which he ineptly but tenderly rises. The moments shared between this ad hoc family are the novel's most endearing and yet totally Homesian--that is to say, grotesque. Homes' signature trait is a fearless inclination to torment her characters and render their failures, believing that the reader is sophisticated enough--and forgiving enough--to tag along.