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Hurry Please I Want to Know

Paul Griner. Sarabande (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-936747-95-5

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In his second story collection, Griner (Follow Me) overlays tales of family, artistry, and parent-child relationships with elements of the surreal, in order to create, in the words of one character, “an undercurrent of mournfulness.” In “The Caricaturist’s Daughter,” an illustrator uses his godlike powers to manipulate the bodies of his family and others until his antics stoke a rebellion by his daughter. In “Trapped in the Temple of Athena,” a man’s one-night stand with an illicit-bone trader inspires contemplations of death. Some of these entries, such as “Open Season,” which imagines a world where words have corporeal bodies and are hunted by humans, fail to rise beyond the level of extended imaginative riffs. The collection’s best stories are its shortest: flash fiction–length tales—such as “The Only Appearance of Rice,” a vision of privation from the perspective of a child, or “Balloon Rides Ten Dollars,” about a hot-air balloon journey captained by a drunk woman—offer just enough detail to produce strong emotions while remaining cryptically open-ended. A line from “Immanent in the Last Sheaf,” another masterly short piece, could serve as the collection’s mission statement: “It was better not to guess,” the protagonist tell us, “than to guess incorrectly.” (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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England

Graham Swift. Knopf, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-101-87418-9

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Man Booker–winner Swift (Last Orders) sets his eye on the mutterings and putterings of everyday English folk in his first story collection in nearly 30 years. Spanning the time of the English Civil War in the mid-17th century to the present day, each of the 25 vignettes explores a simple theme—divorce and separation, death and grief, lust and longing—in unadorned prose and in just a few pages. “Remember This” has a young man penning a love note to his new wife after a day spent signing their wills; the undelivered letter has an unintended effect on their relationship. “Fusilli” finds a father stranded in a supermarket pasta aisle, mourning his soldier son’s death in Afghanistan. In “The Best Days,” a man at a funeral looks back at his first sexual encounter, with a school friend’s mother. Not all Swift’s choices are perfect—some, such as the widow’s preoccupation with washing her dead soldier husband’s shirt in “Was She the Only One,” or the old man’s remembrance of his dead wife after receiving a terminal cancer prognosis in “I Live Alone,” are heartbreakingly intimate, but others, such as the circular “Going Up in the World,” are underdeveloped at best. A uniting factor throughout is Swift’s strong sense of place and the idea that life can be transformed in a moment. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Mountain Story

Lori Lansens. Gallery, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8650-6

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Lansens (The Girls) has written a colorful, adventurous wilderness survival novel. Wilfred “Wolf” Truly decides on his 18th birthday during the late 1970s to commit suicide by leaping off the cliffs of the California batholith known as Angel’s Peak. The decision comes after a series of personal setbacks, including a serious injury to his best friend Byrd Diaz, the early violent death of his mother, Glory, and the imprisonment of his ne’er-do-well father, Frankie. When the depressed Wolf rides the tram to ascend Angel’s Peak, his fellow passengers are three generations of the Devine family: granddaughter Vonn, mother Bridget, and grandmother Nola. He discovers the often sick Vonn has a party-girl streak, the clairvoyant Bridget has trained for a triathlon, and the newly widowed Nola carries her husband Pip’s cremated remains to sprinkle atop Angel’s Peak. On their trek to reach the summit, with the November darkness falling, the ill-equipped hikers get lost. As they begin a harrowing five-day ordeal in the remote alpine outback, Wolf forgets his suicidal intentions. The realistic details, such as the traditional herbal medicine used to fight Nola’s broken-bone infection and the threatening coyotes and vultures, provide the narrative’s raw edge. Genre readers will also be swept along as the suspense builds in this first-rate character-driven thriller. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The House of Hawthorne

Erika Robuck. NAL, $25.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-451-41891-3

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Robuck’s thoroughly engaging latest (after 2014’s Fallen Beauty) imagines the marriage of painter Sophy Peabody to the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though not wealthy, Sophy’s family is known in New England’s artistic circles. Through her older sister, Elizabeth, a publisher, she meets introverted Nathaniel and immediately feels a connection. He understands her artistic temperament; Sophy herself is renowned for her art, but creating it causes her to suffer excruciating migraines. The two find themselves in a long courtship, with Nathaniel reluctant to marry Sophy due to financial constraints. Family tensions and money problems continue to plague the couple through their marriage, though their love keeps the relationship afloat. Robuck has a light touch, and despite clocking in at 400 pages, the story flies by. Sophy ultimately sacrifices her artistic career to raise a family and support Nathaniel in his writing. Nathaniel goes on to make his name as an author, taking government jobs along the way that eventually land the family in Europe while America prepares for Civil War. Other prominent names pepper the narrative (Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, et al), as friends of the Hawthornes who influence their lives and work. Robuck’s ending is perplexing given what we know of these characters, and major themes and questions are suddenly dropped and left unanswered, but this is still a charming work. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Girl at War

Sara Novic. Random, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9634-0

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Novic lived in Zagreb at the beginning of the civil war in Croatia between Croats and Serbs in the 1990s, and she has based her debut novel on this experience. We first meet her protagonist, Ana, as an ordinary, happy girl, living with her parents and baby sister in a small apartment and riding bikes with her friend Luka through the city. Soon enough, however, people begin to disappear, bombs begin to fall, and the children are plotting their bike routes around traumatized refugees and homemade explosives. The climax of the book comes early, when Ana’s family takes a fateful journey to Sarajevo to bring Ana’s little sister, Rahela, who is suffering from kidney failure, into the hands of an organization that will send her to the United States for treatment. The story swings back and forth from past to present, tracking young Ana’s survival in a war zone that defies comprehension. Dreamy sequences of her time in a safe house reloading guns and of desperate escapes with friends and strangers alike alternate with more recent scenes of Ana in New York City, sleepwalking through her existence in a place she does not feel she really belongs. This is a fine, sensitive novel, though the later scenes in Manhattan never reach the soaring heights of the sections set in wartime Croatia. Novic displays her talent, heightening the anticipation of what she will do next. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Love Object: Selected Stories

Edna O’Brien. Little, Brown, $30 (544p) ISBN 978-0-316-37826-0

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O’Brien, who introduced an Irish female perspective to the 1960s literary landscape, has produced stories over the last half-century that resonate with charm and acerbity, lyricism and terseness, nostalgia and brute force. Her early stories depict an Ireland of isolated villages and poor mountain farms where, in a moment, dreams turn to hopelessness, innocence to shame. Autobiographical tales feature mothers recalling days in America, schoolgirls bristling at convent education, and country lasses escaping to London. In “Irish Revel,” a farm girl bicycles into town for a party only to find herself moving furniture and cooking dinner. In “Sister Imelda,” the title character returns from university lonely and apart, an exile “in the mind.” Spirited Eily of “A Scandalous Woman” ends up trapped in a spiritless marriage, and the protagonist of “The Conner Girls,” like Chekhovian figurines, are trapped by their own lack of will. “Mrs. Reinhardt” and “A Rose in New York” exemplify stories exploring relationships between women. Men are mostly observed by women, as in “The Love Object,” which details a London divorcée’s affair with a married man. “Brother” depicts a particularly vicious man through his sister’s murderous eyes. “The Shovel Kings” shows sympathy for Irish laborers in England. John Banville’s introduction to the collection highlights O’Brien’s technique as well as her Irish roots. The stories validate his admiration—O’Brien’s self-described gallery of “strange” and “sacrificial” Irish women is indispensable. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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See Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery

Larry D. Sweazy. Prometheus Books/Seventh Street, $15.95 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-63388-006-1

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Set in 1964, this terrific first in a projected trilogy from Sweazy (The Devil’s Bones) introduces Marjorie Trumaine, a farm wife and book indexer in Dickinson, N.Dak. Indexing keeps Marjorie’s life afloat. A voracious reader and list maker, she also provides care for her beloved husband, Hank, after a hunting accident left him blind and paralyzed. Noting that “Mother and Father were stiff-upper-lip kind of people,” she shoulders her burdens and struggles to suppress her occasional lustful thoughts about a local deputy. She’s horrified when Sheriff Hilo Jenkins tells her that someone has slit the throats of her neighbors Erik and Lida Knudsen, and she’s not happy when Hilo asks her to research a strange copper amulet found in Erik’s dead hand. As more people die, Marjorie becomes increasingly convinced she’ll never feel safe again. The characters are superbly drawn, and the prairie—its flatness, winds, and critters—is an evocative character in its own right. Sweazy is also an author of western fiction and has won the WWA Spur Award for best short fiction. Agent: Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Green Road

Anne Enright. Norton, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-24821-0

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The eponymous road of Enright’s flawless novel is in County Clare in Ireland, running from the impoverished farm of handsome Pat Madigan in Boolavaun, to a house called Ardeevin, where he wooed Rosaleen Considine, daughter of the town’s leading family. Pat and Rosaleen marry and have four children. A volatile drama queen, Rosaleen is the fulcrum about which her children warily move. Even as they mature and flee from her embrace, she exists in their heads, where they continue to blame her for their bad fortunes. In 1980, Rosaleen takes to her bed when Dan, the eldest and her favorite, announces his intention to become a priest. She is even more aggrieved when he abandons the priesthood for the art community in New York in the 1990s and eventually allows his true sexual nature to emerge in a series of ardent gay trysts. Enright (winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering) writes of this time and place with crystalline clarity. The tone is much different in the chapters set in Ardeevin, where the lilt of Irish vernacular permeates the dialogue. Meanwhile Emmet, the second son, is engaged in relief work in Mali, trying to retain his sanity as the death toll from famine mounts and his girlfriend lavishes her love on a mangy dog. Hanna, his sister, is an aspiring actress and a drunk who confronts reality at 37, bitterly ambivalent about being the mother of an unplanned baby. The fourth sibling, Constance, who has married well and lives with her happy family in Limmerick, is her mother’s dogsbody and the unappreciated provider. This novel is a vibrant family portrait, both pitiless and compassionate, witty and stark, of simple people living quiet lives of anguish, sometimes redeemed by moments of grace. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Our Souls at Night

Kent Haruf. Knopf, $24 (192p) ISBN 978-1-101-87589-6

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Within the first three pages of this gripping and tender novel, Addie Moore, a 70-year-old widow, invites her neighbor, Louis Waters, to sleep over. “No, not sex,” she clarifies. “I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.” Although Louis is taken off guard, the urgency of Addie’s loneliness does not come across as desperate, and her logic will soon persuade him. She reasons that they’re both alone (Louis’s wife has also been dead for a number of years) and that, simply, “nights are the worst.” What follows is a sweet love story, a deep friendship, and a delightful revival of a life neither of them was expecting, all against the backdrop of a gossiping (and at times disapproving) small town. When Addie’s six-year-old grandson arrives for the summer, Addie and Louis’s relationship is tested but ultimately strengthened. Addie’s adult son’s judgment, however, is not so easily overcome. In this book, Haruf, who died in 2014, returns to the landscape and daily life of Holt County, Colo., where his previous novels (Plainsong, Eventide, The Tie That Binds) have also been set, this time with a stunning sense of all that’s passed and the precious importance of the days that remain. (May)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Beauty's Kingdom

Anne Rice, writing as A.N. Roquelaure. Viking, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-42799-5

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It's an odd task, reviewing purely erotic work such as Rice's Sleeping Beauty series. Pornography, as defined by the New Oxford American dictionary, is "intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings." In other words, pornography and its slightly more respectable cousin, erotica, are judged by whether they get the reader revved up: a thumbs-up (wink wink, nudge nudge) or thumbs-down proposition.

Beauty's Kingdom gets a thumbs-up.Twenty years have passed since the end of the original trilogy, when Princess Beauty rode off into the sunset with Prince Laurent, two former pleasure slaves now free to choose each other. Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Bellavalten, the old regime of erotic slavery is seemingly at its end after its queen and crown prince perish at sea. At the urging of old friends and lovers from their days of captivity, King Laurent and Queen Beauty return to Bellavalten to take the throne and usher in a golden age of erotic servitude.

It is at this moment in Beauty's Kingdom that the passing of decades between the original trilogy and this newest book is the most marked. In the first few pages of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty,15-year-old Beauty, cursed to a 100-year sleep, was raped into waking by the crown prince of Bellavalten, who carried her off to be his slave. She was to serve her time before being returned to her family, and until then she was a prisoner, treated well but without any say in her situation. Now, however, Beauty and Laurent are reformers. Erotic servitude will be voluntary—it's "slavery," the BDSM variety, not slavery, the illegal, immoral, and inhumane practice of owning people like chattel—and citizens from all walks of life, as long as they be fair and willing and able, may join the ranks. The new order of Bellavalten is more enlightened and less unsettling, though less titillating as well.

Rice's characters have matured along with her readers' sensibilities. In the original books, Beauty was a terrified teenager, enthralled with this world of sexual slavery she'd been forced into. Now she is an adult choosing the kingdom and its demands with eyes (among other things) wide open.

Beauty's Kingdom isn't a perfect book. Certain phrases and character names seem out of place in this pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European kingdom. It suffers slightly from too much of a plodding plot. But these are minor peccadilloes, and despite them Beauty's Kingdom is a delightful, immersive read, all at once playful, campy, explicit, erotic, and provocative.

And provocative it is. If it's difficult to shock Anne Rice fans, it's usually because we've read so many Anne Rice books. Yet a certain plot development late in the book left me wide-eyed. Well done, Mistress Anne. Early in Beauty's Kingdom, Prince Alexi chides another character for doubting King Laurent's devotion after his long absence: "You of all people should know the enduring bond that exists between a true mistress and a true slave." I know this bond indeed, which is why I returned to Rice's Sleeping Beauty series as Beauty returned to Bellavalten—with pleasure. (Apr.)

Tiffany Reisz is the author of the Original Sinners series (Mira).

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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