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Villa America

Liza Klaussmann. Little, Brown, $26 (432p) ISBN 978-0-316-21136-9

Klaussmann’s second novel (after Tigers in Red Weather) chronicles a real-life couple whose titular villa was the nucleus of 1920s American social life. After an unconventional courtship that spans Gerald’s service in World War I, upper-crust Americans Sara and Gerald Murphy make their home at Cap d’Antibes in the south of France, where Gerald pursues an art career and their frequent summer parties on the Riviera draw much attention. Though Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and the Fitzgeralds are guests, the Murphys’ favorite is Owen Chambers, an attractive young cargo pilot from rural New England who becomes a fixture in Sara and Gerald’s guest house and a close confidant of both Murphys, but especially Gerald, whose relationship with Owen throws his entire life into a tailspin. Propelled by the drama-filled foibles of nearly every prominent lost generation figure a history buff could wish for, Klaussmann’s atmospheric prose contains a treasure trove of trivia for fans of the era. Though the central conflicts and emotions are relatively slow to emerge and seem a little buried under lavish descriptions of the Murphys’ opulent digs, readers who are looking for a trip back in time will find this an ideal beach read. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Black Hole

Bucky Sinister. Counterpoint/Soft Skull, $15.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-59376-607-8

This scabrously funny novel is a character study of a badly aging punk whose prime motivation in life is his voracious appetite for drugs. Chuck, who is 43 and lives in San Francisco’s Mission District, works part-time trafficking cloned “mini-whales” for over-privileged yuppies and techies (“Pets are the new accessories”), while scarfing every pill and powder that he can consume. When he scores some Black Hole, “a synthetic, smokeable speedball” that mysteriously never diminishes in quantity even when consumed, he appears to have found his dream drug—that is, until his grip on the space-time continuum starts to slip. Chuck’s days are an endless succession of waking up in unfamiliar places in various states of undress, and he crosses paths regularly with a zany cast of supporting characters that includes steroidal bodybuilders, fellow heads, and a former NSA agent brain-cleansed by psychedelics. Throughout his adventures he weighs in regularly as a poet-philosopher, serving up observational gems on drug addiction (“Home is where your drugs are”), contemporary culture (“No one wants things because they want them, they want things to show the world what they can afford”), and the way urban gentrification has neutered society’s tolerance for outrageous lifestyles. Reading about his crazy antics is a heady experience in its own right. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Cook, the Crook, and the Real Estate Tycoon

Liu Zhenyun, trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin. Skyhorse/Arcade (Perseus, dist.), $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-62872-520-9

This intricate, dark-hearted crime tale from bestselling Chinese novelist Zhenyun (I Did Not Kill My Husband) won the 2011 Mao Dun Literature Prize and has now been translated into English. Forty-two-year-old Liu Yuejin is a construction-site cook in Beijing with a drinking problem. Liu has custody of his spoiled high school–age son, Pengjiu, after divorcing his wife, Huang Xiaoqing, whom he caught in an adulterous affair with the whiskey distiller Li Gengsheng. Liu agreed to leave the couple alone if Li signed an IOU paying Liu 60,000 Yuan at the end of six years. However, the IOU is stolen from Liu, and he launches his desperate search for the thief to recover it. Of course, the IOU’s thief, Yang Zhi, is dealing with his own problems when several thugs rip him off. To accentuate the story’s noir dynamics, the author adds in the billionaire real estate tycoon Yan Ge, who is hemorrhaging money. Yan’s blackmail scheme to raise funds goes awry when his USB drive, which is filled with incriminating videos, is also pilfered. The web of deceptions, double crosses, and betrayals Zhenyun builds into his ambitious, complex novel result in a rich depiction of the criminal underworld. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Lost Canyon

Nina Revoyr. Akashic, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61775-353-4

When four city-bred Los Angeles yuppies go backpacking in the rugged wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, their trip turns out to be a nightmare of bad decisions and even worse luck. Revoyr’s (Wingshooters) novel is a suspenseful adventure story that explores how people react to danger, uncertainty, fear, and life-or-death choices. Tracy, an aggressive fitness trainer and risk-taking hiking guide, organizes the easy 30-mile hike with three of her clients (who don’t know one another). There is Gwen, a counselor of at-risk kids in South L.A.; Oscar, a disgruntled real estate salesman with judgment issues; and Todd, a burned-out lawyer in an unhappy marriage. Tracy is the expert—the others are novices, and their naïve bravado and macho bluster has grave consequences. A forestry glitch changes their hiking route, forcing them to a remote, little-used trail to Lost Canyon. The trek is more arduous than expected and becomes more and more dangerous, culminating in a fateful decision and desperate measures. This is an exciting, page-turning adventure story that reveals how good people can do things totally contrary to their own moral code, and the conclusion will both surprise and satisfy. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Fishbowl

Bradley Somer. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-05780-8

Somer’s (Imperfections) confident second novel combines a rare glimpse into the mind of an adventurous goldfish with ambitious musings on the nature of time and space. Set within the confines of a street and an apartment building—the Seville on Roxy—the action begins with Ian the goldfish free-falling toward the sidewalk, not knowing where he’s headed (his mantra is “having a plan is the first step toward failure”). During his descent, he sees flashes of the lives being lived inside the Seville. The narrative deftly switches from Ian’s point of view to that of the residents; each vignette is described several times, from the eyes of the different characters involved. Under scrutiny are the romantic entanglements of Connor Radley, Ian’s owner; the ire of Connor’s girlfriend, Katie; the dilemma of Claire the shut-in receiving a knock at her door from a pregnant Petunia Delilah; and the secret life of Garth, a construction worker with a mysterious package. Enjoyable touches of farce and wry asides abound, underscoring moments of reckoning in eccentric, yet deeply human, dilemmas. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Brief Loves That Live Forever

Andrei Makine, trans. from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-55597-712-2

With writing that is as spare and evocative as poetry, Makine’s (A Woman Loved) story is a gemstone of a novel, polished and luminous. The narrator, now in middle age, recounts stories of coming of age as an orphan during the deprivations of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union. He is drawn into the past by the memory of a man named Ress who, broken down by many years behind bars for political agitation, classifies his countrymen into three categories: the herd, “a docile mass”; the cynics, wrapped in irony; and the rebels, who are “naïve enough to hope.” The narrator imagines another category of people, “those who have the wisdom to pause” and experience beauty. In his mind, these are the people who truly know how to live, and having only recently discovered this skill in himself, he searches his memories and finds those moments of tenderness and beauty that have stayed with him—a secret message contained in a letter from a friend, a summer love at a beach resort on the Black Sea, an afternoon spent in an orchard in bloom under “the whipped cream of petals” with a woman who loves another man. All these fleeting moments are made more poignant by the fact that the Soviet world that formed these memories is itself lost. Far from simple nostalgia, this book is a meditation on love and loss—Makine warns of the peril of an “obsession with what lasts,” but with such beautiful writing in a slim volume, readers will want to linger. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Cries for Help, Various

Padgett Powell. Catapult (PGW, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-936787-31-9

Powell (Edisto) has occasionally been pigeonholed as a sort of Southern Donald Barthelme, and it is true that most of the 44 stories collected here can be described as short comic tales with a distinct Dixie swagger. But these stories offer even more, such as the emotional vigor of “Spy,” in which an aging father comes to suspect that his daughter is working for the CIA (“My daughter wears a wire, I a diaper”) or the pathos of “A Local Boy,” in which a rock-bottom loser blames his shortcomings on Sherman’s March. Other stories imagine a grade school friendship between Charles Dickens and Janis Joplin (“Joplin and Dickens”) and take the point of view of a recluse considering investing in a Ukrainian mail-order bride (“The Retarded Hermit”); several (“Wagons, Ho!” and “The New World”) meditate on the settling of America. There’s also a pair of companion pieces to Powell’s The Interrogative Mood (“The Imperative Mood” and ”The Indicative Mood”) and a strange trilogy about Boris Yeltsin. But the best of these stories—and they’re all good—plumb for depth and coax profundity out of the moody detritus of Americana. Powell’s range is matched only by his sense of play, and this book is a skeleton key to an extremely gifted and quintessentially American writer, at home in any form. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood. Doubleday/Talese, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-54035-3

In the dystopian landscape of the unflappable Atwood’s (Stone Mattress) latest novel, there are “not enough jobs, and too many people,” which drives married couple Stan and Charmaine to become interested in the Positron Project, a community that purports to have achieved harmony. There is a catch, as Positron leader Ed explains: citizens are required to share their home with other couples, alternating each month between time in prison and time at home. It’s an odd arrangement, but one that temporarily satisfies Charmaine and Stan—until they each fall in love with the alternates they’re supposed to never see; their infatuations put the entire Positron arrangement into question. Atwood is fond of intricate plot work, and the novel takes a long time to set up the action, but once it hits the last third, it gains an unstoppable momentum. The novel is full of sly moments of peripeteia and lots of sex, which play alongside larger ideas about the hidden monsters lurking in facile totalitarianism, and, as implied by the title, the ability of the heart to keep fighting despite long odds. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Smaller and Smaller Circles

F.H. Batacan. Soho Crime, $26.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-61695-398-0

Set in the Philippines in 1997, Batacan's richly detailed and deeply unsettling debut won the Philippine National Book Award in its original short form. In this expanded version, Fr. Gus Saenz, whose skills as a forensic anthropologist with a concentration in forensic pathology are often sought after by the country's National Bureau of Investigation, helps look into the deaths of six boys, all of whom were found in Quezon City's Payatas dump site, where children often pick through garbage to provide for their families. The victims' faces, hearts, and genitals were removed, and Saenz, along with his friend and protégé, Fr. Jerome Lucero, a clinical psychologist, are sure the killer has a very specific agenda. As the priests work to identify the boys and their killer, they must wade through the political muck surrounding a case that no one wants publicized, in a country where centralized crime statistics are unheard of and resources are scarce. Batacan evokes the mountain of garbage at the heart of the story so clearly that readers can almost smell the stench, but it's clear from this gruesome tale that refuse isn't the only thing that's rotten in Manila. Agency: Books@Jacaranda (Philippines). (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Black Feathers

Robert Wiersema. HarperCollins Canada, $32.99 (405p) ISBN 978-1-44344-509-2

Victoria, the sleepy provincial capital of British Columbia, gets a makeover as a gritty city of dark, threatening mean streets in Wiersema's (Bedtime Story) bulky page-turner. In the unusually frigid winter of 1997, naïve teenage runaway Cassie Weathers faces danger and her own fears. Trying to escape a long history of night terrors, she winds up begging for coins in a locale where women—young prostitutes and vagrants—are being tortured and butchered by one or more serial killers. Among inquisitive police, a friendly-seeming stranger, a bullying homeless youth, a charismatic activist, a fellow runaway, and a kindhearted waitress, Cassie's not sure who can be trusted. Worse, she's assailed by frequent violent dreams that point at her culpability in current and past crimes. The author displays an assured sense of pacing and an instinctive understanding of sleight-of-hand whodunit mechanics, but verbose, philosophizing villains straight from central casting lend a few sections overwrought, melodramatic, and campy qualities that undermine the nail-biting tone Wiersema otherwise sustains. In addition, the resolution stands at distinct odds with the somber worldview he devotes such energy to establish. Agent: Chris Bucci, Anne McDermid and Associates (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2015 | Details & Permalink

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