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All My Love, Detrick

Roberta Kagan. CreateSpace, $19.99 trade paper (434p) ISBN 978-1-5025-7148-9

This saga of two young, star-crossed lovers in Nazi Germany is insightful but disappointing. Even as a child in 1923 Berlin, Detrick Haswell was estranged from his father, an alcoholic. After a bike accident, seven-year-old Christian Detrick meets Jacob Abdenstern, a Jewish bicycle merchant, who becomes a mentor and father figure to him. Years later, Jacob’s daughter, Leah, and Detrick, who grows up to be handsome, strong, and principled, fall in love. When Hitler comes to power, and the persecution and deportation of Jews begin, Detrick finds a willing family to hide Jacob and Leah in their attic. Under suspicion because of his relationship with Jacob and Leah, Detrick joins the Nazi party to provide a cover for his true beliefs, and to help protect his parents and pay for Jacob and Leah’s quarters; later, he converts to Judaism. Although coverage of the entire World War II years and the travails of minor characters is ambitious, the timeline and narrative often feel shuffled. Marred by sentimentality and a too-brisk rhythm, the novel nonetheless has likable, engaging characters in Detrick and Leah. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Paris Street Tales

Edited and trans. from the French by Helen Constantine. Oxford Univ., $16.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-19-873679-0

Constantine’s anthology, her third in the City Tales series to explore Paris, features two centuries of stories focused specifically on Parisian streets. In the opening tale by Didier Daeninckx, “Rue des Degrés,” a man is found murdered, and the subsequent investigation uncovers an unsavory past filled with ambitions that led to his demise. Although crime is a common theme throughout the collection, a few stories reflect on the nostalgia and sense of comfort Paris can bring. In “Old Iron” by Émile Zola a shopkeeper gives a journalist a crash course in Paris history through his collection of junk plucked from the Seine. Many of the authors here will be new to American readers, while others—Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Aymé, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Georges Simenon—will be more familiar. In one of the collection’s most powerful stories, “The Street Is Not Enough” by Aurélie Filippetti, a community angrily complains about the poor underclass moving in, with an ending, that lands like a punch to the gut. Often moody and always eccentric, the collection—dedicated to the memory of Parisians killed in recent attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan—uncovers the dark and light corners hidden in a city of interesting characters and exuberant history. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Boy Who Escaped Paradise

J.M. Lee, trans. from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim. Pegasus, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-68177-252-3

Lee (The Investigation) begins this novel of lies and truths with a news story and a mystery: the body of a former North Korean citizen is found in Queens, N.Y., with mysterious numbers etched in blood around the body, and Gil-Mo, a mathematically gifted immigrant from North Korea, is arrested for the crime. Gil-Mo is unable to remember whether he did the murder, or how he arrived at the crime scene. Although he is reluctant to talk, he opens up to Angela Stowe, a CIA operative posing as the attending nurse. As a child in North Korea, he was a math prodigy before being sent to a prison camp with his father, where he falls in love, uses his mathematical skills to get close to a fearsome warden, and eventually escapes. Lee’s novel deals not only with mathematical truths and whether they can be manipulated, but also with the deceptions and connections of languages: “A beautiful thing in one language became something tragic in another.” Gil-Mo uses math to maintain his connection to the larger world while his own culture slowly dissipates. “The disappearance of our language means that a world, an entire universe, is vanishing.” Lee’s brilliant narrator is, paradoxically both unreliable and incapable of twisting the truth; despite a sometimes-halting pace, the novel is a smart, riveting read. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Sleeping Mask

Peter LaSalle. Bellevue Literary (Consortium, dist.), $16.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-942658-18-4

LaSalle’s languorous story collection rarely engages the reader’s attention fully. Despite the book’s Borges epigraph, fans of the Argentine master will find the imitations in “Southern Majestic Zone” and “Boys: A New African Fable” lacking. Rather than getting readers to buy into its Orwellian conceit, the former never convinces, and both stories tend toward whimsically simplistic voices. The personal histories are better, with moments of nostalgia obscured by unfortunate narrative choices, as in “The Flight,” where the sudden disappearance of a plane full of people manages to have less significance than the baseball glove the speaker once bought for his son, and “A Late Afternoon Swim,” in which the narrator’s recollection of a swimming excursion with his mother is undercut by an exhausting description of the French dictionary that she may have had in her bag that day. A literature professor’s fairly successful date (“A Day in the Life of the Illness”) is pleasant and the standout of the collection. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Fire by Night

Teresa Messineo. Morrow, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-245910-7

Messineo’s historical novel, his debut, dovetails the hardships of friends Jo McMahon and Kay Elliot, who serve as military nurses on separate ends of the Earth during World War II. After surviving a hard childhood and enduring the reign of a rapist doctor alongside Kay in their New York hospital, Jo fights off despair by committing herself to saving the six soldiers stranded with her in a makeshift hospital tent in France. With the rest of her medical team dead, Jo single-handedly navigates illness, lack of supplies, and the threat of both Axis and Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in the Pacific, Kay is captured and held as prisoner, during which time she witnesses many atrocities. Messineo’s writing style, in which scenes often play out without extensive explanation but are later elucidated, adds to the feel of wartime chaos and works well with the story’s disjointed time jumps. Glimpses into Kay’s brief happiness become a welcome necessity as tragedy piles on tragedy, though Jo’s love story feels tacked on and unconvincing. The object of Jo’s affections, a soldier, spends the majority of their time together delirious with typhus and fever. The novel’s strength lies in how well it conveys—mostly without sentimentality—the selflessness and bravery of nurses during the darkest hours. The narrative remains engaging throughout, though the plot ultimately feels like it stops mid-sentence. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Futures

Anna Pitoniak. LB/Boudreaux, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-35417-2

Set amid the 2008 financial collapse, Pitoniak’s assured debut explores the cost of realizing—and misinterpreting—one’s dreams. Evan Peck, the son of grocery-store owners in remote British Columbia, needs student loans and a hockey scholarship to afford the Ivy League, while Julia Edwards hails from Northeastern privilege. Meeting at Yale, they fall promptly in love despite their different upbringings. Upon graduation, Evan lands a plum job at a Manhattan hedge fund fighting to survive the deepening Wall Street meltdown, as Julia, unsure of her calling, settles for a low-level job at small nonprofit. Soon, the couple seems to share little more than their cramped apartment. An exhausted Evan worries when the deal he’s working on turns out to have a shady underside; Julia finds in a charismatic journalist the sense of promise that neither work nor Evan gives her. As the distance between them leads to betrayal, they must face the ways they have sabotaged each other and themselves. Navigating terrain—love and youth, college and city life—that’s often oversimplified, Pitoniak eschews cliché for nuanced characterization and sharply observed detail. Evan and Julia ring true as 20-somethings, but Pitoniak’s novel also speaks to anyone who has searched among possible futures for the way back to what Julia calls “the person I had been all along.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Huck Out West

Robert Coover. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-60844-1

With gusto and a rollicking plot, Coover tackles the daunting task of crafting a sequel to a Mark Twain classic. Using a line from the original novel’s penultimate sentence—“I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest”—Coover (The Brunist Day of Wrath) takes Huck, the wide-eyed adventurer, to the Plains states, with much of the story set in “Minnysota.” Huck admits he’s “sometimes homesick for the Big River,” but he rarely looks back, save for a passing reference that helps ground the reader. He and Tom ride for the Pony Express for a few years, before Tom leaves him to marry Becky Thatcher. Huck even has a surprise reunion with Jim, who has found Jesus, been freed from slavery, and is currently looking for the rest of his family. This is American Indian country, mostly Lakota but also Cherokee, the latter of whom Huck calls “Southern gentlemen, living high off the hog.” After Tom leaves, a savvy Union soldier named Dan Harper takes Huck under his wing, before he and his company are massacred by the Lakota. The characters are colorful, with names such as Pegleg, Yaller Whiskers, and Eyepatch. Huck finds love and there’s the inevitable return of Tom, whose adult mischief is more sinister than his teen antics. A lively and fast-paced encore for a beloved American hero. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dark at the Crossing

Elliot Ackerman. Knopf, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-101-94737-1

The second novel from Ackerman (Green on Blue) presents a stark and multifaceted portrait of the civil war in Syria. After working as an interpreter for a Special Forces unit during the Iraq War in exchange for five years in America and citizenship for him and his sister, Iraq-born Haris Abadi travels to the Turkish border with Syria in hopes of joining the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime. But the border is closed. Then his American passport and possessions are stolen, and Haris is forced to remain in Gaziantep, Turkey. There, he finds shelter with Amir and Amir’s wife, Daphne—two Syrian refugees who fled their homeland after their daughter disappeared in a bomb blast that also destroyed their apartment building. The more time Haris spends with the couple, the more he learns about their past—Amir’s former ties to the revolution and Daphne’s fervent belief that their daughter is still alive. Haris’s quest for a cause to believe in takes a deadly turn when Daphne asks him to accompany her to Aleppo in secret to uncover what actually happened to her daughter. Flashbacks to Haris’s experiences during the Iraq War provide context and motive for his restless searching. Ackerman’s station in Istanbul, where he has covered the Syrian civil war since 2013—plus five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan—aptly inform this timely and unsettling novel. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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4 3 2 1

Paul Auster. Holt, $32 (880p) ISBN 978-1-62779-446-6

Almost everything about Auster’s new novel is big. The sentences are long and sinuous; the paragraphs are huge, often running more than a page; and the book comes in at nearly 900 pages. In its telling, however, the book is far from epic, though it is satisfyingly rich in detail. It’s a bildungsroman spanning protagonist Archie Ferguson’s birth in 1947 to a consequential U.S. presidential election in 1974. Some warm opening pages are dedicated to the romance of the parents of Ferguson (as the third-person narrator refers to him throughout), Rose and Stanley. In its depiction of the everyday life of its hero, the book also gives a full history of America during this period through the eyes of Ferguson who, not coincidentally, is roughly the same age as Auster. He roots for the nascent Kennedy administration, sees Martin Luther King’s peaceful resistance, and recognizes both the greatness and the iniquity in L.B.J.’s actions as president. These national events are juxtaposed against Ferguson’s coming-of-age: he goes to summer camp, has a sad first love with a girl named Anne-Marie, and gets an education via his beloved aunt Mildred. One of the many pleasures of the book is Ferguson’s vibrant recounting of his reading experiences, such as Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, Voltaire’s Candide, and Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1960. Auster adds a significant and immersive entry to a genre that stretches back centuries and includes Augie March and Tristram Shandy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Complete Madame Realism

Lynne Tillman. Semiotext(e), $17.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-58435-190-0

Tillman’s (What Would Lynne Tillman Do?) latest genre-bending collection, which gathers writing from as early as 1984, introduces a new set of readers to three of her fictional personas: Madame Realism, Paige Turner, and the Translation Artist. Madame Realism, whose stories compose the bulk of the book, attends museums and gallery openings and muses not only on art but also on the people she sees and the conversations she overhears, leading her to question and theorize on the cultural and historical implications of everything she observes. With a wise and comical voice, Madame Realism allows readers to experience the world as she does. Her recurring interests and obsessions include history, memory, reality, and consciousness. Paige Turner, in her own way, shares these interests, but her vision is not as clear as Madame Realism’s; rather, she is lost in her world, questioning her beliefs and finding no concrete answers, allowing readers to feel her confusion. In the third and final section of the book, Tillman’s critical essays on artists such as Joan Jonas, Cindy Sherman, and David Wojnarowicz provide fresh readings on how we can interpret art. These witty, insightful stories and essays press readers to rethink how they interpret and process their beliefs in an entirely original way. A distinct pleasure. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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