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Jam on the Vine

LaShonda Katrice Barnett. Grove, $24 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2334-3

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This wonderful debut novel takes the early 20th century and brings it to life, both in the South and in the Midwest. Ivoe Williams is a brilliant young woman who grows up in Texas, the child of emancipated slaves, and despite the obstacles she faces, manages to get a degree in journalism in Austin. But no newspapers will hire her because she is an African-American woman. Her frustration with the Jim Crow South causes her to uproot and move to Kansas City, where she and her lover, Ona, start a newspaper, the first female-run African-American newspaper, called Jam! On the Vine. She uses this platform to examine segregation and the American prison system of the day, sometimes at great personal risk. Barnett doesn’t shy from exploring the queer community of the time, “othering” her protagonist even further, while the experiences of Ivoe’s family add a wonderfully vibrant, fully realized vision of the shadowy corners of America’s history. Agent: Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Against the Country

Ben Metcalf. Random, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6269-0

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Metcalf, essayist and former literary editor of Harper’s, debuts with a virtuosic tour de force of Southern malfeasance. The largely plotless narrative records a rural boyhood in Goochland County, Va., the narrator’s relationship with his ever-vengeful father, and the rigors of farm-life. Sprawling and underpopulated, Goochland is the setting for the indignities of grade school, boozy first love, rejection of “the killer-God idea,” and salvation in literature. But even amid the requisite episodes of racial disharmony and religious fervor, Metcalf’s storytelling often digresses, and, in short sections with titles like “I Feared the Corn,” he obsesses over every particular of the land. From blackberries, chickens, and ringworm to meditations on Jehovah’s Witnesses and an appendix on dogs, the all-American life is lovingly deconstructed in a passionate screed that feels like a confession from the tortured heart of the South itself. But even in envying Thomas Jefferson “his idyllic hallucinations” and damning “this flytrap of a county,” Metcalf composes a relentlessly articulate paean to the American project. In the end, this isn’t a Southern novel, because it isn’t exactly a novel. It’s more like man’s revenge on God for the world he made—and anyone who disagrees must be a Yankee. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Originator

Joel Shepherd. Pyr, $18 trade paper (520p) ISBN 978-1-61614-992-5

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Super-cyborg warrior Cassandra "Sandy" Kresnov finds herself at the center of a complex plot that could lead to interstellar warfare in her crackling sixth adventure (after Operation Shield). Unknown terrorists have destroyed a moon with a League mining station on it, and the perpetrators could also be involved with a group of xenophobes bent on misusing NCT, the neural cluster technology designed by the alien Talee and used to create cyborgs like Sandy. If misused, NCT can make people—and entire societies—dangerously unstable. Cai, a Talee agent, warns Sandy that if human use of NCT gets out of hand, the paranoid Talee could target all of humankind. Sandy has personal reasons to get the situation under control, since her adopted son has some of the dangerous Talee tech in his own head. Once again Shepherd delivers lightning-fast thrills and intrigue fueled by sharp extrapolation. Readers who can keep up with all the details of technology and intrigue will enjoy the ride. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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After the War Is Over

Jennifer Robson. Morrow, $14.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-233463-3

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Robson's second WWI novel (after Somewhere in France) weaves historical detail into a tale of a former military nurse and the man she loves. Charlotte Brown is living and working in Liverpool after the end of the Great War, but believes that she is making little difference in the lives of Britain's poorest citizens. When she returns to the estate where she was once a governess, to celebrate the wedding of her former charge, Lilly, Charlotte realizes that she has never stopped loving Lilly's brother, Edward, Lord Cumberland. When Edward's war injuries threaten to destroy his future, Charlotte agrees to help nurse him back to health, even if it means that her heart might be wounded in the process. Charlotte is an admirable protagonist: a strong woman with compassion and a forthright nature, which is evenly matched with her desire to find love and happiness. Robson will lure readers into this emotionally charged novel from the first page. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Wishing Season

Denise Hunter. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4016-8704-5

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Hunter (The Trouble with Cowboys) adds another Chapel Springs Romance with this formulaic but still sparkling contemporary tale of competing ambitions, wounded personalities, and powerful attraction. PJ McKinley is an aspiring restaurateur, and Cole Evans is a contractor and former foster kid who wants to operate a group home for teen-age foster kids. Trouble is they're both competing for the same space, a Chapel Springs, Ind., home that a philanthropic resident will give to whoever will come up with the best use for it. PJ and Cole are both given a year to prove themselves, and sharing the space produces both competitive tension and unbidden attraction. PJ and Cole both have family issues that threaten to torpedo their growing relationship. The psychology that makes the two tick is a little simplistic, but it makes the plot move forward. Less forced is the powerful effervescence of their chemistry, and the pacing of their romantic pas-de-deux is also persuasive. Agent: Karen Solem, Spencerhill Associates. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fog Island Mountains

Michelle Bailat-Jones. Tantor, $15.95 trade paper (225p) ISBN 978-1-63015-002-0

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Bailat-Jones presents a delicate debut novel that is something of a poem in disguise. Indeed, her narrator, storyteller Azami Kitauchi, identifies this work as a poem in its first pages. The narrative captures a brief moment in time, the juxtaposition of the onslaught of a typhoon with the dreadful news of terminal cancer for its protagonist, South African Alec Chester. Alec has made his home in Komachi on the Japanese island of Kyushu for over 40 years, marrying a woman named Kanae and raising a family, and teaching English. In spare prose, Bailat-Jones sketches haiku-like images that combine emotion with sensations of the natural world around Alec. As the wall of the typhoon hits, Alec and Kanae are struggling to find one another. Azami's own story introduces elements of Japanese folklore, bringing contrast to the painfully real narrative of the Chesters. A true rendering of the Japanese "kitsune" folklore tradition, this is a lovely look at the strength and grace that can be found in the face of death, and the sorrow of the knowledge of passing beauty. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Indolence

Alison Wellford. Outpost19 (outpost19.com), $16 trade paper (210p) ISBN 978-1-937402-66-2

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Wellford's accomplished debut offers a portrait of a May-December romance, which comforts a vulnerable young woman—until it doesn't. Sixteen-year-old Maria, resentful after being enrolled in an American boarding school while her mother convalesces in the French countryside, returns home for summer vacation. Her mother's cancer, however, is more advanced than Maria knew, and her father's anxiety manifests itself as deliberately distant, "noxiously quiet." Feeling adrift and underfoot, Maria fixates on Omar, a much older man who has expressed interest in her. Her advances are soon returned, and the two embark on a love affair that eventually cuts Maria off even further from her family. Omar, an art collector living in a ramshackle house, offers more than an erotic education for Maria—but at the novel's end, it's unclear, even years after the affair has ended, whether or how Maria's growing interest in art and artists will shape her adult life. The novel's appropriately languid tone and expressive descriptions, particularly of the natural world, offers an impressionistic portrait not only of Maria's surroundings but also of her state of mind. Maria's voice not only carries readers through these pages, but will stick with them afterward. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Year of Perfect Happiness

Becky Adnot-Haynes. Univ. of North Texas, $14.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-57441-565-0

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In this smart collection, awarded the 2014 Katherine Anne Porter prize for short fiction, Adnot-Haynes's dazzles with her wit and insight about the tenuous nature of relationships as a range of characters reveal their innermost thoughts. In "Baby Baby," unemployed Mina dons a fake pregnancy belly in secret, while ironically, a pop H is wrongly accused of a pregnancy sham. As the author plumbs the psyche of a woman who is dissatisfied with more than just her self-image, readers witness a loving relationship implode. In "Planche, Whip, Salto," a 33-year-old woman hides her new passion to become a trapeze artist from her husband, reveling in the freedom and sheer joy of flying through the air to such an extent that she leaves her steady job behind and embarks on an affair with her trainer. In the title story, we follow Davis, a man in his thirties searching for an improbable year of perfect happiness, who flits from one woman to the next, from Manhattan, to Phoenix, and finally to Florida where his parents reside. Incapable of commitment or any true responsibility, his life spirals downward, and it becomes clear true happiness is an impossibility. In this winning collection, each story is a gem. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Last Train to Babylon

Charlee Fam . Morrow, $14.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-232807-6

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Fam portrays early twenty-something arrested development in her somewhat bleak debut. Aubrey, living in Manhattan with a boyfriend she's more or less satisfied with, working for a news site she doesn't despise, is probably doing as well as could be expected for someone her age, even if she does drink too much and have passing thoughts of suicide. She thinks she's escaped her Long Island upbringing and the friends and foes of her youth, but when she learns that her high school best friend, Rachel, has committed suicide, the past comes rushing back. Torn over whether to attend the funeral, Aubrey feels compelled to return to her hometown anyway—and smack into the memories of what drove her and Rachel apart. Events surrounding Rachel's funeral and disastrous "after party" alternate with those leading up to Rachel and Aubrey's senior year falling out, illustrating how those events still loom large in Aubrey's consciousness, even years later. Unfortunately, the attempts to build intrigue by delaying the revelation of a particular horrific event in Aubrey's past often just make the narrative feel artificially drawn out and sluggish rather than suspenseful. Aubrey and Rachel's story does, however, illustrate the complicated and often inscrutable nature of high school girls' volatile relationships and their long-lasting scars. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The New Testament

Jericho Brown. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $17 (110p) ISBN 978-1-55659-457-1

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Confident and sensitive, Brown's follow-up to his American Book Award-winning debut, PLEASE, signals his growing stature in the poetry world. He forms this collection around Biblical language and motifs, reworking them through the materiality and culture of modern America with particular sensitivity to gender, sexuality, and race. It's an audacious move in all its entanglements, but as brothers and lovers and gods resonate through one another, lines such as "I found myself bound to Him and bound to His/ Bidding" become full-bodied and evocative. While decidedly and beautifully political at times (in reverence and irreverence alike) Brown's grounding in biographical details and his hard-won investigation of love's powers emerge as powerfully as the surface themes. As the poem "Nativity" declares, "Lord, let even me/ And what the saints say is sin within/ My blood, which certainly shall see/ Death—see to it I mean—/ Let that sting/ Last and be transfigured." Brown is a poet of sure technique, even as an occasional line, such as the declaration "To believe in God is to love/ What none can see," falls flat in comparison to the collection's tender music. Lyric and sturdy, however, these poems earn consistent attention as they redefine survival in a wounded world. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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