Charles Baxter: The Soul Thief. I didn't care for this. I kept almost putting it down, letting it go, but then I'd hit an ndividual moment, an individual vignette, that was stunning enough to keep reading. In the end, though, I guess I didn't care. The setup is a little contrived, and while, yes, I know, most plots are, ultimately, contrived in some way (see, for example, "Maniacal one-legged captain obsessively hunts single whale while narrator contemplates free will, art, the soul, slavery, the nature of reality and the reality of nature," or "In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a man and boy try to survive grueling walk toward the sea"), I never got beyond the contrivance of this one.
(Note that Ahab is not pursuing an unmarried whale, but that he's after a particular whale. Sorry about the ambiguity).
Richard Russo: The Bridge of Sighs. I wasn't a huge fan of Empire Falls, but I loved Nobody's Fool, most of Mohawk and The Risk Pool, and Straight Man is a perfectly hilarious excuse for me never to pursue teaching at the university level (that, and, you know, like a doctorate and stuff). This one is good. Real good. I was a little worried that the whole "who were the man and woman outside the box" mystery might drive the plot too much, but that turns out to matter much less than the comparable "mysteries" do in Empire Falls. And Russo can write. Check out this passage:
The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we’re left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.
Okay, so the "new day is dawning; light is coming; with light comes epiphany" opening is a little tough to take, but after that? C'mon. Those two last sentences? They don't reach you?