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Blood Lyrics: Poems

Katie Ford. Graywolf (FSG, dist.), $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55597-692-7

In her third collection, Ford (Colosseum) uses a child’s premature birth as an opportunity for reflection on human vulnerability, violence, and survival. Her finely wrought paeans and laments complicate the possibility of total joy or total despair when personal pain is not projected externally or the existence of others’ suffering is not apparent in our own daily lives: “I nightmared/ far from her// my body/ her empty tomb// all the while/ the earth laid down/ its brutal head/ it would not lament.” Ford also expresses incredulity regarding the invisibility of America’s current wars at home when she writes, “If we are at war, let the orchards show it.... If we wage it, let the war breach up/ into the light, let it unseam our garments... until we run to hide ourselves/ in alleys where at least rats and refuse/ and the sleeping poor show some partial ghost/ of what’s abroad.” Taken together, the poems become a meditation on the concurrence of abundance and peril, where sumptuous language expresses stark suffering and musical phrasing portrays a world of discord. Given these conditions, on the prospect “That it is even possible to stay alive,” Ford posits, “we should wake/ to each other and ransack/ this flushed skin of everything/ but praise.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Coming to Rosemont

Barbara Hinske. CreateSpace, $10.97 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-1-4811-2527-7

In this series opener, Hinske immerses readers in a delightful small town. Forensic accountant Maggie Martin is recently widowed and has learned, to her chagrin, that her dead husband, Paul, was keeping many secrets from her. He had been embezzling from the university of which he was president for years, and he had a secret family. He was also heir to a huge estate called Rosemont, in the small Midwestern town of Westbury. He leaves Rosemont to Maggie, and when she visits, intending to sell the estate, she falls in love with the place and moves in immediately, yearning for a fresh start. She finds herself enmeshed in the Westbury intrigue of crooked city politicians who have been stealing from the pension fund and the townspeople who want answers. Maggie throws herself headfirst into helping out, forming an alliance with local prosecutors and townsfolk. In the process, she meets John, a local veterinarian, who may be falling in love with her. The joys of the tale come from the warm relationships and the story of a woman getting a second chance at life and love. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Second Bite of the Apple

Dana Bate. Kensington, $15 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-61773-260-7

Sydney Strauss, heroine of Bate’s (The Girls’ Guide to Love and Supper Clubs) second novel, is in a years-long funk over losing the first great love of her life, and to make matters worse, she is downsized from her job as news producer for a popular morning TV show. The bad news: she’s broke. The good news: she is free to pursue her dream of becoming a food writer. As she struggles to make a living working part-time at a farmer’s market, she finds herself drawn to a potential boyfriend with a shady past, while at the same time dealing with her demanding sister’s upcoming wedding. When her big journalistic break finally comes, she faces a moral quandary that forces her to decide if the career she always wanted warrants a personal betrayal. Sydney has a breezy, idiomatic voice that seems pitched more to young adult readers. And the reader can sense bits of plot clicking neatly into place as the story heads for a predictable resolution. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dreaming of the Delta

Perla Suez, trans. from the Spanish by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan. Texas Tech Univ., $24.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-89672-898-1

Suez (Red Smoke) sets her latest book in Argentina during the turbulent National Reorganization Process (1976–1983), but confines the story to the private lives of servants in a mansion, only hinting at the tensions outside. Tránsito, the servant; Lucía, the cook; and Ortíz, the chauffeur have traveled from the islands of the delta to work for an admiral and his wife. When they arrive, Tránsito and Lucía, sisters, are ages 17 and 12, respectively. Decades later, when Tránsito is 67, she murders the admiral and his wife. As the story unfolds, we learn her history and secret motives. The characters are simple people living in difficult circumstances. Ortíz is proud of serving an admiral, and Lucía believes in knowing one’s place; the two can’t recognize their economic subjugation for what it really is. Tránsito, though more rebellious, is not always more perspicacious, romanticizing her troubled birthplace as a beautiful haven in her memory. Frequent shifts in perspective, well-paced narrative disclosure, and experimental formatting, in which much of the page is left blank, ensure that every word demands careful attention. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Mac and Me

Esther Freud. Bloomsbury, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-62040-883-4

Freud (Hideous Kinky) adds her voice to the chorus marking the centenary of WWI with this novel inspired by an incident in the life of Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s 1914 when Thomas Maggs, a 12-year-old boy growing up in a small fishing village in Suffolk, befriends Mr. Mac, a newcomer, and his artist wife, Margaret. At first, Mr. Mac and his odd ways, such as painting the indigenous flowers, make him a prime source of speculation to the locals, who soon have other things on their minds as war is declared. Village boys go off to fight, soldiers are billeted in the village, and German zeppelins fly overhead on the way to bomb London. Because of German writing found in his letters, Mr. Mac is accused of being an enemy spy. But Thomas finds that the truth is quite different. The war informs every aspect of life in the fishing village, despite its distance from the battlefield, and Freud does an excellent job of describing its circadian rhythms with the incisive depth of a John Cowper Powys. But when it comes to drama, her novel is a little on the anemic side, as there isn’t much of a mystery behind Mr. Mac’s letter writing. In the end, what this novel does best is introduce the reader to the life of an unsung hero of architecture. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Seventh Day

Yu Hua, trans. from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr. Pantheon, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-804-19786-1

“I roamed on the borderline between life and death.” Yang Fei is late for his cremation. His soul won’t be laid to rest until he appears for his appointment with the incinerator. Hua’s (Boy in the Twilight) eighth book follows 41-year-old Yang Fei’s week of wandering in the afterworld in a powerful testament to alienation that stretches beyond the land of the living. Yang Fei drifts through the afterworld and pieces together how he lost his life and what he lost with it. He visits his ex-wife, who died by suicide after a scandal. He encounters a young woman called Mouse Girl, who killed herself after her boyfriend gave her a fake iPhone and did not answer her angry, melancholic blog tirades. He sees his birth mother, from whom he was separated just after his birth. He searches hardest for his father, a man who raised him alone, forsaking friends, lovers, and the opportunity for a much different life. Hua’s prose has a lilting, elegiac quality that is both soothing and distant, but his characters, quite like apparitions, never fully materialize. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Bonita Avenue

Peter Buwalda, trans. from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder. Hogarth, $26 (544p) ISBN 978-0-553-41785-2

Dutch author Buwalda’s magnificent first novel offers proof of Tolstoy’s dictum that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Three uniquely unreliable voices narrate this darkly humorous familial drama: the mentally precarious Aaron Bever; his beautiful girlfriend, Joni Sigerius; and her stepfather, eminent math genius and university rector Siem Sigerius. Their interweaving narratives, which hop between the Netherlands, Shanghai, Belgium, and California, chart the years between the rise and fall of their outwardly successful but privately dysfunctional family. Buwalda displays the sexual appetites of his characters from puritanical to hedonistic against the 1990s backdrop of an emerging Internet and concomitant ascendency of online porn. Temperatures rise until the explosion of a Dutch fireworks factory, which is followed by familial pyrotechnics. A custard doughnut plays a decisive role in deciding the Sigeriuses’ fate. Questions arise regarding the nature of probability and coincidence, as well as who really gets to wear not only the pants in a relationship but the racy feminine undergarments, too. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

Irvine Welsh. Doubleday, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-53938-8

In his latest, a reliably maniacal spin on the Pygmalion tale, Welsh (Skagboys) leaves his familiar Edinburgh for Miami Beach, a “sun-drenched refuge for strutting grotesques and desperate narcissists.” Lucy Brennan is a tough, foulmouthed, sadistic, bisexual personal trainer who, when she’s not finding novel ways to insult her clients and hitting Miami’s nightclubs, diligently tracks her calories with an app called Lifemap. She becomes a media sensation when Lena Sorenson, an overweight, immensely successful artist sorely lacking in self-confidence, records her heroically intervening to stop a murderous assault. As for Lena, Lucy’s newly enamored admirer, her sculptures imagine “future humans” as we might evolve in millions of years. Thus the two dissimilar, damaged women are less opposites than unlikely twins, both sculptor and trainer being “in the molding business.” Lena hires Lucy to help her lose weight, a task that Lucy, at once repulsed by and attracted to her charge, takes outlandishly criminal steps to accomplish. The satirical jibes at an America “swamp[ed] in blubber” are entertaining enough, but the novel is less effective at fleshing out its over-the-top and badly behaving comic caricatures. Listening to the libidinous Lucy’s vulgar diatribes wears thin, and occasionally feels a little too like one of those exhausting workouts of which this antiheroine would certainly approve. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Precious One

Marisa de los Santos. Morrow, $25.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-167089-3

Two sisters struggle to please their smart, manipulative, and narcissistic father, in bestseller de los Santos’s (Falling Together) newest family drama. For 17 years, Taisy Cleary (now 35), along with her mother and her brother, Marcus, have had minimal contact with her father, Wilson. When Wilson beckons after suffering a major heart attack, Taisy, who still yearns for his approval, requires little persuasion to come to his side. Sixteen-year-old Willow is Wilson’s other daughter (Wilson left Taisy’s family to be with Willow’s mother). Willow has been sheltered and controlled by her father her entire life—he forbade her from watching television or movies or reading books written later than the 19th century—but she’s jarred into the real world following his heart attack. To Taisy, Willow has always been the golden child—the one Wilson chose to love. To Willow, Taisy and Marcus are the seedy others, the “earlier ones.” The sisters’ shaky relationship is altered when Taisy learns of Willow’s inappropriate relationship with an older man. The slow fracturing of each sister’s perception of the other and the strong three-dimensional characters are exceptionally well crafted. And the predictability of the ending is more than made up for by the fact that de los Santos’s characters’ journeys are perfectly paced. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Big Green Tent

Ludmila Ulitskaya, trans. from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (576p) ISBN 978-0-374-16667-0

The latest from Ulitskaya (The Funeral Party) is a massive, swirling epic, stretching across half a century and chronicling the lives and adventures of three artistic childhood friends: Ilya, the photographer; Mikha, the poet and literature hound; and Sanya, the musician. The trio, considered outcasts by their peers, grow up in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and find common ground as members of the “Lovers of Russian Letters” group, founded by their teacher, Victor Yulievich, a WWII veteran. As they age, they drift in and out of each others’ lives. Ilya turns radical and begins a secret bookbinding business, trafficking illegal texts into the U.S.S.R. Mikha, hoping to do good, finds himself in trouble with the law after he attempts to help exiled writers. And Sanya, after an injury to his hand, loses his drive to play piano. Ulitskaya weaves narratives both brief and prolonged into these stories, introducing, among others, Olga, Ilya’s second wife, and her two lifelong chums, Tamara—brilliant, destined for medical work—and Galya, who ends up wed to a man investigating Ilya’s unlawful activities. The author crafts an enthralling world, encapsulating many characters’ entire lives succinctly before slowly revealing biographical details in later chapters. The effect is mazelike, with the story jumping back and forth on various time lines. The prose is dense, but readers will come away wholly satisfied. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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