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The Sunlight Pilgrims

Jenni Fagan. Random/Hogarth, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-553-41887-3

It’s 2020, and the coldest, harshest winter in 200 years is about to pummel the United States and Europe. In London, Dylan MacRae closes his family’s deeply-in-debt boutique cinema for the final time, and, carrying the ashes of his recently deceased mother and grandmother with him, he heads north to a small caravan park in Clachan Fells. His mother left him a caravan home there, and he plans to stay until springtime, when he can spread her and his grandmother’s ashes further north. Upon arrival, Dylan quickly befriends Stella, a 12-year-old trans girl, and her mother, Constance, a furniture refinisher, who live next door. Together, the trio becomes a tight unit to face the oncoming wintery devastation. Dylan and Constance begin a romance, and Stella struggles with schoolyard bullying, as well as her oncoming puberty. Fagan (The Panopticon) once more employs a heightened version of reality—in her debut, it was high-security juvenile detention; here, it’s a second Ice Age—to set in motion a series of small, intimate narratives. Characters devote long stretches to exploring the world, making gin, and rolling snowmen. Though not as gripping as her previous effort, Fagan has still constructed a vivid story. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dancing with the Tiger

Lili Wright. Putnam/Wood, $27 (464p) ISBN 978-0-399-17517-6

Set in Oaxaca, Wright’s (Learning to Float) thrilling debut novel introduces Anna, a woman from the U.S. who, along with several others, pursues the ancient and extremely valuable funerary mask of Montezuma. Seeking to redeem her parents’ research (her father was a discredited art collector), Anna throws herself into the corrupt and dangerous world of their past. She refuses to give up her search, even after she becomes the target of an infamous drug lord. This is not just a tale of filial redemption; it’s a tale of the desire to hide, and to transform into something beyond oneself. “I belong in this place where I do not belong,” Anna thinks. Each flawed character becomes linked in their desperation for a prize that promises another chance at love, pride, piety, or survival. “With that mask I could look God in the face,” the drug lord announces. A deep look at what it means to be masked, Wright’s novel is a worthwhile read for anyone in search of an authentically flawed heroine who learns to remove her own mask in a world where remaining hidden feels like the safest option. Agent Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Dream Life of Astronauts

Patrick Ryan. Dial, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-34138-7

In these nine short stories, Ryan (Send Me) explores the messy lives of ordinary people living around Cape Canaveral, Fla. The U.S. space program features prominently in several. In the title story, a 16-year-old boy falls into the orbit of someone who was almost an astronaut but became a real estate agent and has a secret agenda. In “Go Fever,” two NASA engineers who worked on the ill-fated Challenger have an affair. In “The Way She Handles,” a nine-year-old boy watches as his parents’ marriage implodes during the summer of 1974 with the Watergate hearings as background. In “Summer of ’69,” the lift-off of Apollo 11 marks a momentary cessation of hostilities for three children living with foster parents. A pregnant teenager is tempted by a sleazy talent scout in “Miss America,” and a mobster living in witness protection puts the moves on the queen bee of his retirement condo board in “Fountain of Youth.” And in “You Need Not Be Present to Win,” a man pays one last visit to his mother at her senior facility. The author illuminates these characters with pitch-perfect dialogue and period references that capture the various decades in which the stories take place. In the end, he uses a symbol of mankind’s greatest achievement as an ironic yardstick for the more earthbound interactions of his sorrowful characters. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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All Waiting Is Long

Barbara J. Taylor. Akashic, $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-61775-443-2

Set in the 1930s, Taylor’s suspenseful and intricate follow-up to Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night tells the story of sisters Violet and Lily Morgan. When 16-year-old Lily becomes pregnant out of wedlock, Violet follows her to the Good Shepherd Infant Asylum in Philadelphia. The nuns promise good homes to all babies born under their roof, but unbeknownst to them, the lead physician at the asylum is practicing eugenics and sterilizing the expecting mothers who pass through their doors. As the girls’ visit comes to a close, Violet makes a rash decision that will alter not only her relationship with her sister, but her future with her fiancé, and her entire existence in her hometown of Scranton, Pa. Taylor delivers startling plot twists and incisive commentary on the social unrest of a coal-mining town during the Great Depression. Covering a six-year span, the novel reveals the consequences of arduous labor and widespread sterilizations that came with the eugenics movement. Among the prostitutes, mobsters, and miners is a web of interconnected lives that come together for a breathtaking ending in Taylor’s fine sequel. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Chance Developments

Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-1018-7125-6

Smith once again exhibits his versatility with this vibrant and delightful collection of short stories all centering on the themes of love and happenstance. Preceding each story is a vintage photograph that Smith found while doing research for a different project, and from each photo a world emerges. In each story, the black-and-white static figures become people dreaming of new beginnings and romance, reminiscing on good times past, or lamenting lost love and opportunities. Smith peels off the layers of anonymity in these forgotten photos and imagines a new life for the subjects, and in one case the photographer. Featuring a nun abandoning her lifelong commitment to the veil to start fresh in a bigger city, a young circus performer who unwittingly tells an accurate fortune, and a man who stoops to a bit of subterfuge to meet a pretty lady, the stories are filled with the weight of real life and how chance finds its way in, no matter how we attempt to plan otherwise. Both uplifting and at times bittersweet and emotional, this collection is sure to delight both Smith fans and newcomers alike. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Age of Consent

Marti Leimbach. Doubleday/Talese, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-385-54087-2

The latest from Leimbach (The Man from Saigon) is a nuanced portrayal of a mother and daughter at once linked and divided by a ferociously exploitative man. In 1978, Maryland disc jockey Craig Kirtz pursues a friendship with June, an insecure widow, to gain access to her 13-year-old daughter, Bobbie. June remains oblivious as her daughter sinks deeper and deeper into a secret life shaped by Craig’s sexual demands, emotional manipulation, and drug-fueled volatility. Bobbie can’t extricate herself until a dramatic combination of events on a single September night sets her escape in motion. Making a new life for herself in California after she runs away, she refuses to return home or see her mother—now Craig’s wife—for 30 years. But when she learns that Craig has been tried and acquitted for molesting another teenager, she feels compelled to initiate legal proceedings that she hopes will stop him for good. As she reencounters Craig, her mother, and Dan Gregory, the beau she left behind when she ran away, Bobbie confronts both her past and her future. Treating June’s perspective as richly as Bobbie’s, the novel brings memorable depth to issues often oversimplified; Leimbach’s scenes are convincing, whether they portray harrowing abuse or subtle moments of healing. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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We Come to Our Senses

Odie Lindsey. Norton, $25.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-24960-6

Fans of Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds will enjoy this lyrical debut collection about soldiers returning home to the South from various conflicts. Through 15 thematically linked short stories, veteran and Southerner Lindsey gives the kind of poetic voice to redeployed contemporary veterans, their loved ones, and the rural atmosphere around them that can only be achieved through firsthand experience. In “Evie M.” (multiple stories in this collection are named after their protagonist), the protagonist diligently follows instructions at her cubicle job, while her home life is obsessively dictated by penning suicide notes and the timing of television shows. In “Darla,” the protagonist’s city life is upended when she’s infected with an autoimmune-deficiency virus from a soldier on furlough; she then returns to her rural home and learns to maintain a relationship within the confines of her affliction. In “Wall,” a man builds a relationship with a stranger through his apartment wall—one he’s too damaged to act on. In “Colleen,” the protagonist realizes she’s not over sexual abuse from a fellow soldier when she finally confronts him in a bar. Lindsey brings an essential new voice to the traumas of war’s lasting aftermath. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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One of Us Is Sleeping

Josefine Klougart, trans. from the Danish by Martin Aiken. Open Letter, $15.95 ISBN 978-1-940953-37-3

A brokenhearted writer returns home to her family farm in this elegiac and disorienting novel, the author’s English-language debut. While staring out at the snow that has “upholstered everything in frost” on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, separating the North and Baltic Seas, Klougart’s unnamed narrator obsessively recalls “pictures of the emotions” from the past eight years—foraging for False Chanterelles, a disappointing visit to Pompeii, the time her boyfriend slapped her hand to stop her from chewing her lip. Her mind also wanders to the events that followed the breakup with her boyfriend: a fling with an older man, a dreadfully uncomfortable meeting with her ex outside his used bookstore, an ill-fated attempt to start over; the timeline is muddled, but so is the writer’s mind. “She can’t remember beginning to love him, and she can’t remember stopping,” Klougart writes. “The feeling doesn’t move like that, forward or backward. It exists.” Mystifying, certainly, but Klougart’s graceful and precise language propels the novel through a succession of images that justify the vagueness of that feeling, what is eventually described as something akin to “separating an egg, passing the yolk from hand to hand, the fragile yolk that might break at any moment.” This is a beguiling conjuring of consciousness. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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First Comes Love

Emily Giffin. Ballantine, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-345-54692-0

Fans of Giffin’s will find much to love in her chronicle of the rocky relationship between two disparate sisters 15 years after the death of their older brother, Daniel. Meredith is now a lawyer who’s always felt that she’s needed to make sacrifices in order to keep her fragile parents happy. She’s been married to Daniel’s childhood best friend, Nolan, for almost seven years, though she’s long doubted their love for each other. Josie is content as a first grade teacher but longs to be a mother herself, though at 37 she’s thinking about giving up on dating and having a kid on her own through a donor. Her decision is spurred by having in her class the daughter of a former flame, which also triggers memories of his role in the night that Daniel died. Meredith views Josie as self-centered and immature, while Josie sees her sister as tightly wound and judgmental. Chapters alternate from each sister’s point of view, convincing the reader to see things from both perspectives. In her lead-up to the book’s climax and big secret, Giffin manages to explore numerous themes about this sibling relationship: holding on to the past, expectations, and forgiveness. This is Giffin at her finest—a fantastic, memorable story. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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All the Time in the World

Caroline Angell. Holt, $15 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-62779-401-5

Angell’s remarkable debut is a complex story about love, family, grief, the destiny that is handed to us, and the destiny that we choose. Charlotte, a promising young composer whose mentor stole her graduate thesis composition, takes a break from musical pursuits to sort out her life, landing a nanny job in Manhattan with an überwealthy couple, Scotty and Gretchen McLean, who have two little boys, George and Matty. Gretchen’s untimely death is the pivotal event around which the story unfolds as the author moves us back and forth in time. While figuring out her own romantic and professional situation, Charlotte takes care of and grows closer to the boys as Scotty travels for work, and she finds that she’s essential to keeping the family together following Gretchen’s death. Angell’s canny insight into relationships and the demons her characters must face to find satisfaction in their work and personal lives makes this the kind of book readers won’t want to see end. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2016 | Details & Permalink

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