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Surface

Stacy Robinson. Kensington, $15 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-61773-375-8

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Claire Montgomery has spent her marriage coasting on the affluence of her husband. That all comes to a sudden halt when she has a one-night stand with Andrew, a business associate of her husband, Michael. Matters are further complicated when their son, Nicky, overdoses on cocaine that Andrew left in the house. Nicky goes into a coma, and when Michael learns the circumstances around this tragedy, he is livid. While Nicky goes through intensive care and therapy, Michael asks for a separation. However, as time passes, Claire realizes Michael has been hiding things from her as well, and she decides to risk her privileged life to confront him. Robinson’s empathy for Claire comes out on every page. Claire is a strong mother and a woman struggling to form an independent identity. Nicky and his father adjust their expectations for Nicky’s future, and Claire adjusts her financial situation; Robinson deftly manages to make readers sympathetic with the struggles of the incredibly privileged. Agent: David Forrer, Inkwell Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Small Mercies

Eddie Joyce. Viking, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-42729-2

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Joyce’s debut gives us a close portrait of a working-class Irish-Italian American family on Staten Island marked by the tragedy of 9/11. The Amendolas—matriarch Gail, a newly retired teacher, her husband, Michael, a former firefighter, and their grown children Peter and Franky—are still adjusting to life after the loss of their youngest son, Bobby, who was in his late 20s when the towers fell. The novel’s events take place nine years later, in the week leading up to Bobby Jr.’s birthday. Tina, Bobby’s widow and Gail’s close confidant in grief, reveals that she’s started seeing someone. This admission rocks Gail to her core, and she spends the week ruminating on how best to tell the rest of the family before they all get together at the party. Peter, the most ambitious son, has put Staten Island behind him, rising to partner at a top law firm. In contrast, Franky can’t move on, “a drunken, ruined memorial to his dead brother,” his anger often getting the best of him. Though Joyce writes with sensitivity about his grief-stricken characters, each one is familiar and somewhat stereotypical, resulting in a story more banal than gripping. But there’s comfort in this kind of predictable fare, and it’s clear that Joyce, a native of Staten Island, has deep affection for his characters and the pride they feel in their local rituals. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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John the Pupil

David Flusfeder. Harper, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-233918-8

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In this multilayered, intellectually challenging historical novel, Flusfeder (The Gift) considers medieval science, religion, and education through a young scholar’s journey from Oxford, England, to Viterbo, Italy. In 1267, real-life freethinker Roger Bacon sends off John, his fictional favorite pupil, accompanied by strong, silent Brother Bernard and sweet-tempered Brother Andrew, on the pretense of a pilgrimage, to deliver a copy of Bacon’s Opus Majus and samples of his inventions to the Pope. At Canterbury, they meet Simeon the Palmer, a pilgrim-for-hire who supplements his income by robbing other pilgrims. In France, John finds contentment tending a garden in a monastery. At Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti’s Italian palace, John’s companions find temptation. By the time John reaches the Pope, he has experienced friendship and conflict, witnessed sin and martyrdom, suffered loss and doubt. The core of the novel is John’s first-person chronicle of the adventures, interspersed with fables and legends of saints, capturing the violence, superstition, and spirituality characteristic of the Middle Ages. Academic endnotes amplify selected references: Cavalcanti, for example, appears in Dante’s Inferno, waiting for his son, the Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti. The footnotes’ excruciating erudition belie the fact that they are essential reading: they provide place names along the pilgrims’ progress, they both support and undermine the faux chronicle’s credibility, and they include the author’s passionate rant against historical fiction; this is, after all, an antihistorical historical novel. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Animals

Christian Kiefer. Norton/Liveright, $25.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-87140-883-9

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Kiefer, author of The Infinite Tides, returns with a mesmerizing literary thriller about Bill Reed, a lost soul who winds up in a remote corner of Idaho, operating a wildlife sanctuary filled with animals who cannot take care of themselves after suffering at the hands of humans. The book opens in 1996, introducing us to Reed and some of his creatures, including a gentle giant of a bear named Majer. Reed lives quietly: he cares for his animals and courts local veterinarian Grace. But Reed’s past in Reno, Nev., comes back with his friend Rick, who shows up in Idaho, just released from a long stretch in prison. Rick has come to avenge the aftermath of a crime that involved the two of them. Reed’s job at the refuge is a form of penance, but there’s a thrilling story line that builds in momentum to an inevitable denouement, paced by prose that’s poetic without ever succumbing to preciousness. This is a compelling, thoughtful novel. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Naked Earth

Eileen Chang. New York Review Books, $16.95 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-59017-834-8

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An unrelenting portrait of love and loss in Maoist China, Chang’s novel was originally commissioned in the 1950s as anticommunist propaganda by the U.S. Information Service. Shanghai-born Chang (Love in a Fallen City) writes with a survivor’s clear-eyed frankness about how Mao’s policies punished China’s people, leaving no one, even those in positions of power, untouched. The narrative tracks Liu Ch’uen and Su Nan, idealistic students who confront the realities of Chinese Communism when they are deployed to the countryside with the Land Reform Workers Corps. As they discover how its implementation falls short of its original conception, they bond and fall in love. Chang follows Liu to Shanghai when he is promoted, an opportunity to expose the Party’s bureaucratic failings, turncoat allegiances, and inhumane toll on urban communities. Chang does not shy away from gritty details, including executions. She writes, “The whole country lay stretched out like an open palm, ready to close around any one person at any minute.” Amid such harrowing descriptions, Chang develops a tragic wartime romance that leaves readers with a painfully clear picture of just how deeply Mao’s reign scarred her native country. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Tusk That Did the Damage

Tania James. Knopf, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-385-35412-7

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This ambitious but uneven novel by James (Atlas of Unknowns) tells three intersecting stories involving a murderous elephant on the loose in an Indian jungle. Part of the novel follows the elephant, Gravedigger, and does a stunning job evoking an animal’s sensory world, as when he remembers “the bark of soft saplings, the saltlicks, the duckweed, the tang of river water, opening and closing around his feet.” These sections also heartbreakingly capture the elephant’s terror and confusion in the face of human cruelty: the scene of the murder of Gravedigger’s mother, and his subsequent mistreatment as part of a traveling show, are almost unbearable to read. This narrative is a tour de force, and the other sections in the book pale by comparison. The chapters dealing with a love triangle involving two American documentarians and their subject, an Indian elephant veterinarian, seem to be from a lesser moral universe and are ultimately forgettable after the life-or-death stakes of Gravedigger’s sections. The story line about Manu, a would-be poacher, fares better by evoking the crushing economic and social realities of rural life in India, but is diminished by heavy-handed plotting. Having already killed one member of Manu’s family, Gravedigger pounces from the shadows to maim a second in a misguided scene that comes off like grim parody. Still, the Gravedigger sections are so original and moving as to tower over the novel’s less successful elements. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Our Endless Numbered Days

Claire Fuller. Tin House (PGW, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (388p) ISBN 978-1-941040-01-0

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Like Emma Donoghue’s Room, Fuller’s thoroughly immersive debut takes child kidnapping to a whole new level of disturbing. Eight-year-old Peggy Hillcoat suspects her father, James, has gone off his rocker when he builds a fallout shelter in the basement of their London home to prepare for the end of the world. But the ante is upped when, unbeknownst to his wife, he takes Peggy to an isolated, shabby log cabin in the Dutch wilderness and tells her the rest of the world has been destroyed: “On the other side there is only emptiness, an awful place that has eaten everything except our own little kingdom.... [It’s] called the Great Divide.” For the next nine years, the pair lives off the land as James grows increasingly fanatic and Peggy evolves from a scared and naive girl into a self-sufficient young woman. When she eventually returns to civilization alone— malnourished, with rotten teeth, and deliriously rambling about someone named Reuben—doctors’ attempts to figure out the identity and whereabouts of the mysterious mountain man only scratch the surface of what actually happened to her and her father. Fuller alternates Peggy’s time in the forest with chapters that take place in 1985 after she reunites with her mother—building an ever-present sense of foreboding and allowing readers to piece together well-placed clues. Fuller’s book has the winning combination of an unreliable narrator and a shocking ending. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Four Books

Yan Lianke, trans. from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. Grove, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2312-1

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Yan, a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, pens a biting satire about Chinese re-education camps during the Great Leap Forward that’s as haunting as it is eye-opening. In this tale, intellectuals and dissidents are sent to a labor camp, where they promise to perform impossible tasks in order to gain their freedom. These intellectuals—“the Musician,” forced to prostitute herself for food; her lover, “the Scholar”; “the Theologian,” who ends up cursing God for his fate; and “the Author,” commissioned to write reports on the sins of the others, struggle for survival. Overseeing all of them is “the Child,” who is as vulnerable to the whims of his bureaucratic superiors as his prisoners are to him. As the prisoners careen from impossible production quotas to slow death by starvation, the Child eventually offers to sacrifice himself for their freedom, in a stark parody of both Maoist ideals and Christian scripture. Yan has created a complex, epic tale rife with allusion. He effortlessly moves from Eastern to Western references, and even readers without a background in Chinese history and culture will find his story fascinating and immersive. The novel is a stinging indictment of the illogic of bureaucracy and tyranny, but the literary structure is tight and the prose incredibly accessible. Readers will have difficulty putting this down. Agent: Laura Susjin, Susjin Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Soil

Jamie Kornegay. Simon & Schuster, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5081-1

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Rural Mississippi is the setting for Kornegay’s beautifully written first novel, in which James “Jay” Mize invests all his family’s assets into an experiment in soil-free farming, a concept he believes will revolutionize the farming industry and save the world. He convinces his wife, Sandy, of its promise, and she enthusiastically works to make his project succeed. However, bad weather and a family tragedy handicap the endeavor, and Jay faces bankruptcy. In his dejection, he begins having paranoid fantasies, which compel Sandy to regretfully take their son, Jacob, back to town to live temporarily with her father. Jay and Sandy struggle with the breakup of their family and their difficult circumstances. When Jay finds a corpse on his land after an August rain, he believes it came to be there as part of a conspiracy to ruin him. As a result, he initiates a chain of tragic events affecting him, his family, and others. Penetrating characterizations and a well-charted story bode well for future work from this author. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Early Warning

Jane Smiley. Knopf, $26.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-307-70032-2

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Smiley has a big cast to wrangle in the second volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, which began with 2014’s Some Luck, and she starts this entry at the funeral of Walter, the Iowa farmer and paterfamilias of volume one. While the Langdons, scattered across New York, Chicago, and California, reunite, readers get a refresher on the family relationships. Covering 1953 to 1986 at a clip of one year per chapter, the focus here is the Cold War and its fallout. This material occasionally feels like the greatest hits of the post-WWII era, with Langdons brushing up against a Kennedy assassination, Jonestown, and Vietnam. And since the post-war baby boom means cousins by the dozens, the cast of characters isn’t as vivid and particular as it was in the knock-out first volume. Still, Smiley keeps you reading; as a writer she is less concerned about individual characters, but still as deft as ever at conveying the ways in which a family develops: some stories carrying on, while others fall away. This isn’t a series you can start in the middle, so pick up Some Luck, ride out the Depression and WWII with Walter, Rosanna, and Frank, then come back to the atom-and-adultery-haunted volume two. (May)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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