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Bad Things Happen

Kris Bertin. Biblioasis (Consortium/Perseus, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $14.95 trade paper (202p) ISBN 978-1-77196-054-0

In this excellent debut collection of 10 stories, men and women are caught at precipitous crossroads in their lives. In the title story, two teenage girls break into a local heartthrob’s home to discover he’s not at all what they expected; in “Your #1 Killer,” a mother learns of her mendacious son’s true calling as a master exterminator. “Make Your Move” and “Everywhere Money” play with structure in interesting ways: the former includes multiple endings as if life were a noir-ish choose-your-own-adventure tale; the latter details in similar fashion the many ways in which people convince themselves to walk away from a life. “Is Alive and Can Move” and “The Story Here” both deal with perspectives in transition. In the first, a recovering alcoholic becomes convinced the college building in which he works as a janitor is alive and is physically moving and changing of its own accord; the second, the most affecting story in this collection, focuses on one woman’s awareness of her own family’s history as her father’s many divorces are contrasted with her dreams of the end of the world. This is a forceful, well-written collection with breadth of imagination—at times melancholy but never depressing. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Miss Jane

Brad Watson. Norton, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-24173-0

“Who can say what life will make of a body?” Watson (House of Mercury) asks in the affecting, nuanced story of a girl who “did not fear her own strangeness.” Jane, the youngest daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, is born with a genital defect that renders her incontinent and incapable of having children. A local doctor takes an interest in Jane’s case—as well as her father’s home-brewed apple brandy—and becomes a lifelong advisor and confidant to the “prodigiously contemplative” girl. Jane is most comfortable in the woods around her house, though she does tentatively engage with the world, knowing full well that “she would always be the odd one, the one with the secret.” She indulges in a girlhood romance cautiously, unsure about what, if anything, to reveal about her condition. Jane is a great watcher, and the novel wonderfully conveys the amorous intensity with which she experiences nature’s fecundity, “the burst of salty liquid from a plump and ice-cold raw oyster, the soft skins of wild mushrooms... the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom.” The story of Jane’s lonely, lovely life is more powerful because of its emotional reserve. With the exception of several stagey confrontations involving Jane’s older, coarser sister, Grace, Watson lets his ethereal heroine retain her quiet, dignified air of mystery. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Ithaca

Patrick Dillon. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-68177-155-7

Dillon’s vibrant retelling of The Odyssey is set during the aftermath of the Trojan War and centers on Telemachus, son of the Greek war hero Odysseus. The book deftly chronicles the 16-year-old’s feelings of abandonment, humiliation, and anguish as he tries to protect his mother, Penelope, and discover the whereabouts of the father he has never met. Penelope was pregnant with Telemachus when Odysseus left their island home of Ithaca for the battle of Troy to rescue the celebrated beauty Helen. The Greeks were victorious after many years because of Odysseus’s legendary act of subterfuge, the Trojan Horse. Back in Ithaca, Telemachus’s home is occupied by lewd, savage men who steal the family’s valuables, squat in their courtyard, and torment Penelope. Telemachus reluctantly decides to leave his mother and search for his father. Dillon’s (The Story of Buildings) use of the father-son bond and their parallel journeys—Odysseus’s traumatic, meandering trip toward home and Telemachus’s turbulent ascent to manhood—is as rich as it is complex. This is a smart and highly readable adventure, and a fresh take on a classic story. Agent: David Haviland, Andrew Lownie Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Hidden Letters of Velta B.

Gina Ochsner. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-25321-6

In Ochsner’s (The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight) strange, vivid second novel, a woman in a tiny Latvian village traces the magic-infused story of her life. Inara has known that her son, Maris, was special since the day he was born with “ears as large as soup bowls” and a superhuman ability to hear the very vibrations in the earth. Now, as she begins to lose her battle with cancer, Inara summons Maris to her deathbed to tell him her life story in an attempt to help him make sense of his origins. Through bizarre, often hilarious vignettes featuring a cast of colorful characters and slapstick moments, Inara’s tale comes to light: her early childhood under the final days of Soviet rule in Latvia, losing the family’s ancestral home, falling in love twice, and giving birth to Maris. Woven throughout are bits and pieces of the poetic, cryptic letters that her grandmother Velta wrote to her husband and secreted away inside the family’s home, folded neatly in a box as well as scribbled in the margins of newspaper hidden beneath the wallpaper. The letters provide a glimpse into Velta’s life during and after WWII, a blend of beauty and unspeakable tragedy. Ochsner has created an entire town filled with characters who display eccentric habits and engage in sharp-tongued banter, bringing a touch of believability to even the book’s most out-there anecdotes. Humor, mythology, and an immersive setting, as well as a few poignant and visceral moments as family secrets are revealed, render this a memorable tale. Agent: Julie Barer, Book Group. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn. Norton/Liveright, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-63149-176-4

A stormy family lives through Jamaica’s early 1990s drought in Dennis-Benn’s first novel. Delores sells trinkets at a tourist market; her daughter Margot, whom Delores pimped out when Margot was very young, now works as a front desk clerk at a hotel. Margot turns tricks after hours to make extra money to pay her much younger sister Thandi’s tuition at a Catholic school. Margot’s romantic yearning is directed towards Verdene, a rich woman considered a witch by their village because she is a lesbian. Thandi, the unhappy recipient of her family’s hopes, feverishly tries to bleach her skin white and to resist her attraction to her childhood friend Charles, whose poverty would impede her quest for upward mobility. The novel, with its knife fights and baroque blackmail schemes, often threatens to stray from operatic intensity to soap opera melodrama. But Dennis-Benn redeems it with her striking portrayal of a vibrant community where everyone is related and every action reverberates, and her unstinting description of how shame whips desire into submission. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Death of Rex Nhongo

C.B. George. Little, Brown, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-30050-6

Set in Zimbabwe’s sweltering stewpot of poverty, violent crime, and rampant corruption, George’s debut novel is a tragic tale of five crumbling marriages and the gun that unites them. That fateful weapon may or may not have been used to kill Rex Nhongo, the nom de guerre of Gen. Solomon Mujuru, whose remains were found inside a burned farmhouse in the village of Beatrice in August 2011 (the nonfictional event explained in the author’s preface). George is a brilliant storyteller, carefully weaving together Zimbabwe’s political instability in 2011–2014 with unhappy husbands and wives locked in marriages of resentment and indifference. Mr. Mandiveyi, a bumbling official in the secret police, loses a gun used in an assassination, jeopardizing his marriage and his life. Patson, married to Fadzai, is a cab driver who finds the gun and hides it out of fear. Jerry is a British nurse who is discouraged and angry with his life and his marriage to a minor British diplomat. Shawn is an opportunistic American hoping to cash in on Zimbabwe’s illegal mineral trade while he struggles to maintain his unstable family. And Gilbert, an idealistic man who is married to Bessie, Jerry’s housekeeper and Fadzai’s sister, cannot cope with big city violence. The gun ultimately ties the five couples together in a sudden conclusion, but other events connect them through adultery, political and criminal intrigue, alcoholism, and a suspicious mugging and arrest. This is a superbly intricate novel, but perhaps the best part of it is George’s vivid portrayal of Zimbabwe as a kleptocracy, a failed state ruled by fear. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Brightfellow

Rikki Ducornet. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-56689-440-1

Ducornet has made an estimable career mining often bizarre, horrifying, or otherwise unpredictable territory. This novel is perhaps her most accessible book, which she achieves without sacrificing the trademark fluidity of her language or her penchant for making heroes out of odd and unlikely figures. The hero is Stub, a damaged and orphaned teenager who hangs around a college campus, masquerading as a student named Charter Chase. He eats food he steals from houses and lives in the storage room of the library. There, Stub/Charter becomes the devoted reader of a reclusive and ignored philosopher named Verner Vanderloon, whose works of eccentric anthropology include Primates in Paradise and Cannibal Ways; Stub also becomes fascinated with Asthma, the child of a local history professor. In the singular and enchanted Asthma—who lectures her toys, speculates on the religious leanings of the beetles in her backyard, and renames Stub “Brightfellow”—Stub finds a dreamer like himself. After he is adopted by doddering professor emeritus William Sweetbriar, the two become a sort of ersatz family to the young imposter. But Stub is harboring secrets no one suspects, and just as the discovery of his charade comes to seem inevitable, his obsession with Asthma takes a darker turn. Ducornet has written the oddest of varsity novels, one that anchors its charming caprice, philosophical fancy, and thriller-like pace to the psychological horror that lurks just beyond childhood innocence. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Siracusa

Delia Ephron. Penguin/Blue Rider, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-399-16521-4

Ephron (Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)) undertakes a seductive and edgy dissection of two imploding marriages—and an unhinged mother-daughter alliance—alternately narrated by two ex-lovers who recount how a lifetime of small disappointments and delusions leads them to share a twisted secret. Ephron builds the mesmerizing suspense around Lizzie, a journalist, and Finn, a restaurateur, now each unhappily married: Lizzie to famed and flamed-out author Michael, and Finn to controlling and insecure Taylor. The couples’ shared vacation in Italy, which includes Finn and Taylor’s shy and manipulative 10-year-old daughter, Snow, unravels like a Greek tragedy in Siracusa, where Michael’s mistress shows up to force his breakup with Lizzie. Each of these toxic relationships puts the characters on course to careen headlong into a dark place of deceit and rage in Ephron’s brilliant takedown of marital and familial pretense. “Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride,” Lizzie says at the outset of her narrative. At its end, she marvels “at the person I turned out to be.” Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Floating Is Everything

Sheryda Warrener. Nightwood (Partners Publishers Group, U.S. dist.; Harbour, Canadian dist.), $18.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-88971-315-4

Warrener (Hard Feelings) charts wide territory in this collection of meditations on connection, isolation, bereavement, and firmament. Through three interconnected sections, Warrener traces the orbits of celestial and terrestrial bodies while navigating longing and remorse. Warrener's language is crisp and controlled, though that ends up working against the book more than for it: much of the poetry skims the surface of its subjects. Readers are always taken aloft by Warrener's work, but seldom does it soar, and the return to earth is neither generous nor gentle. Even that grounding—that potentially heady impact—has no weight to it. The entire collection feels on the cusp of something but never quite achieves it. As an aspirational endeavor, the collection is a good effort but not an efficacious one. The last line of the book sums up its contents too well: "Just past the sun deck there's something invisible worth having." In the poetry, as in that sentiment, there's great earnestness, but the engagement with the work is always just out of reach. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Mayor Snow

Nick Thran. Nightwood (Partners Publishers Group, U.S. dist; Harbour, Canadian dist.), $18.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-0-88971-314-7

This collection from Thran (Earworm) is at times intensely personal, and at others deeply sardonic. Through three sections—"Carapace," "Mayor," and "River"—Thran interweaves keen observation with melodic prose through prose poems, found poetry, and an array of other free and more established forms. The poetry follows similar themes regardless of section: identity, family, loss, politics in wide scope, and slow transformations. The most varied of the sections is "Mayor," each piece using a different fictional mayor to address various themes stemming from political bases, but "Carapace" is arguably the most arresting section due to its largely internal and self-exegetical approach. In the latter section's "A Drone's-Eye View of Roblin Lake," Thran tells readers of his residency in the late Canadian poet Al Purdy's A-frame home (where this book was composed): "Dug my stay here,/but I will shake him off me." Thran both does and doesn't; much of the book is informed deeply by Purdy's voice. It can be hard to tell where catalyzing elements end and Thran's voice begins, unless the reader is already familiar with Thran's prior work, but that periodic overshadowing of voice is the only marring in an otherwise excellent work. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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