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An Evening with Claire

Gaito Gazdanov, trans. from the Russian by Jodi Daynard. Overlook, $15.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-4683-0884-6

Gazdanov’s (The Spectre of Alexander Wolf) beautiful coming-of-age novel chronicles a young Russian’s journey through childhood, a tour with the White Army during the Russian civil war, and his life as an émigré. First published in 1930, it closely mirrors the author’s own life and is an important document of the rapidly evolving cultural climate in Russia during the years leading up to the Revolution and beyond. Kolya is brought up in a comfortable and literary household, and he spends much of his time in an interior world, a habit that will stay with him for life. The psychological ramifications of this “second life” are examined with great insight, and it is this insight that gives the novel its depth. As a 16 year old, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he volunteers for the White Army “to know what war was, that same desire [he] always had for the new and unknown.” The story reveals the horrors of wartime, as well as of the grotesque nature of humanity that emerges in life-and-death situations, in sensitive yet simple prose that displays a rare elegance. This deeply personal novel succeeds through its intricate exploration of youth. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Never Love a Gambler

Keith Ridway. New Directions, $10.95 trade paper (84p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2294-5

This three-story collection presents the same black-and-bloody humor as Ridgeway’s Hawthorn & Child, complete with menace, surrealism, and plain old evil. The Pinter-esque title story follows a hard-luck lady named Dodo as she tries to save her son from her husband’s thuggish debtors and encounters a city of abandoned children and mad dogs. “Shame” is the confession of a haunted servant indentured to a nefarious master, trying to forget the unsavory business he is party to. These two stories succeed because of what they leave unsaid, but the third, “Ross and Kinder,” is explicit in the actions of murderer-for-hire Ross, whose list of victims is written on his hands, and Kinder, his cadaverous employer. The line between guilty party and the sucker who’ll swing for the crime is constantly blurred. This means that you can reread these stories without resolving the Beckett-like emptiness that gnaws at the conscience. Ridgway has clearly arrived to trouble our sleep with wit and violence, and, as this excellent sampling of his wares confirms, he is unlikely to leave, even if you ask him nicely. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Inamorata

Megan Chance. Amazon/Lake Union, $14.95 trade paper (444p) ISBN 978-1-4778-7303-8

Chance’s eighth novel (after Bone River) is a thrilling depiction of the world of Venetian artists in the late 19th century, as well as an exploration of the myth of the muse. Odilé Leon is a glamorous, wealthy courtesan who provides inspiration to both the famous and obscure, but at a high price. Her paramours meet tragic ends at an alarming rate. Nicholas Dane barely escaped Odilé with his life, and now he wants to destroy her before she can destroy anyone else. When she sets her sights on Joseph Hannigan, who arrives in Venice with his twin sister, Sophie, determined to gain the proper patronage to support his art, Nicholas races against time to save Joseph from Odile’s clutches. Yet Odile’s dark secret—her vampiric nature, which drives her to feed on the souls of artists—is matched by an equally dark secret: the bond between the siblings, whose close relationship seems almost incestuous. Chance gets better with each book, and this look at the dynamic between inspiration, desperation, and creation makes for a breathtaking tale. (July)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Mating for Life

Marissa Stapley. Simon & Schuster Canada (Washington Square, U.S. dist.) , $16 ISBN 978-1-4767-7025-3

In this intriguing and heartbreaking debut novel, Helen Sear, a former flower child folk singer who has three grown daughters from three different men, has famously said she did not need marriage to be happy. Her choice to be more of a friend to her three daughters, instead of the mother figure they needed, has affected each of the girls differently. The oldest, Fiona, a married mother of three who rations out her anti-anxiety pills, is obsessed with being perfect and is increasingly happiest when her husband is away. Artist Ilsa, on her second marriage, has two children and fantasizes about of having an affair. And finally there is Liane, whose indecisiveness affects every aspect of her life. Told from multiple points of view as the characters walk tightropes of tragedy, the novel carefully illustrates the power that each of us has to define who we are and who we can become. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

Will Chancellor. Harper, $25.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-228000-8

While preparing to compete in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Stanford water polo star Owen Burr is struck in the face by another player, losing an eye, along with any hope of a medal. So Owen, the son of a respected classics professor, slips away to Berlin to try his hand at making art. There, he falls in with the world-famous—and slippery—artist Kurt Wagener and disappears. While Owen’s father launches a new career as a social theorist to facilitate a trip through Europe during which he can search for his missing son, Kurt offers to promote Owen as an “outsider artist” at Art Basel, one of the world’s premier art expos. In the lead-up to the show, Kurt keeps Owen in seclusion at his Berlin studio. Owen discovers too late that his new collaborator cannot be trusted, after Kurt tricks him into giving up his intellectual property rights and feeds him dangerous drugs. Meanwhile, his father—branded a terrorist after making an explosive speech in Athens—hunts for clues to his boy’s whereabouts. Chancellor’s debut is a twisting, globe-trotting affair that unfortunately suffers from poor pacing and frequently dwells on the mundane. The result is a mixed bag, unsure of its own identity, like many of the book’s characters. (July)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Little Mercies

Heather Gudenkauf. Mira, $15.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1633-6

Like her debut, The Weight of Silence, Gudenkauf’s latest explores the vulnerability of children, this time through two linked stories narrated in alternating chapters. Social worker Ellen Moore juggles responsibility for three children, a husband, a widowed mother, and a caseload of endangered children. One hot and hectic July morning, she rushes out of her house in Cedar City, Iowa, to help a troubled family, barely hearing her husband’s goodbyes. Only later does she realize that Adam, asking her to bring their infant daughter Avery to daycare, has put the child into their van. As Avery is rushed to the hospital with life-threatening heatstroke, Ellen faces a familiar investigation—this time as an accused perpetrator of child endangerment herself. Out on bail but prohibited from seeing Avery, she finds refuge at her mother’s house. Meanwhile, 10-year-old Jenny Briard runs away from her home in Nebraska after her alcoholic father is arrested. When Jenny ends up in Cedar City, she is found and taken in by Ellen’s lonely mother, Maudene. Helping her mother decide what to do with the girl, Ellen realizes that clues to the secrets of Jenny’s past are within her own case files. With its compelling premise, Ellen’s story is more gripping than Jenny’s. But its hurried denouement feels false and sentimental, denying the more nuanced resolution her complex situation deserves. (July)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Last Night at the Blue Angel

Rebecca Rotert. Morrow, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-231528-1

Set in mid-1960s Chicago, Rotert’s debut depicts Naomi Hill’s struggles to succeed as a jazz singer, largely from the perspective of her young daughter, Sophia. “Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin. For the first ten years of my life, I watch her from the wings.” A reckless single mother, Naomi believes in living in the moment and depends on her friends to help care for Sophia. The girl grows up in an erratic lifestyle revolving around Naomi’s club act at the titular Blue Angel. The stress Sophia already feels as a result of their unpredictable routine is heightened by school civil defense drills, which leave her feeling anxious about the threat of nuclear warfare. However, she has an ability beyond her age to understand her mother’s flaws while still being able to cherish their relationship. In flashbacks told from Naomi’s point of view, the woman reflects on what drove her to flee her Kansas hometown in the 1950s and what drives her to pursue the spotlight. Rotert has created a complicated and engaging heroine in Sophia, a memorable character portrait which is her book’s most striking aspect. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (July)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sweetness #9

Stephan Eirik Clark. Little, Brown, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-27875-1

Artificial sugar substitutes, chemically crafted flavor enhancers, and unnatural food colorings are trapping Americans in a self-destructive cycle of addiction, suggests Clark in his first novel, a hyperironic, hyperworrisome account of one man’s journey through the processed food industry. The horror begins in New Jersey in 1973, when recent Rutgers food science program graduate David Leveraux goes to work for corporate giant Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark. His first assignment is testing Sweetness #9, a product in development, on rats. The product is eventually approved and put on the market, but as “the Nine” catches on (it’s 180 times as sweet as sugar at a fraction of the cost), lab rats, monkeys, the Leveraux family, political leaders in Washington, and the general American public all show signs of depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and self-destruction. David eventually finds another job, but hides his past dealings with Sweetness #9 from his vegan daughter, as well as his fast-food-enthusiast son, until the truth must be told. Clark’s storytelling skill lends credibility to elements like David’s wife running off to Ukraine in search of serenity and a trimmer waistline with a 300-pound life coach/nutritionist, and Sweetness #9 tracing its origins to Hitler’s bunker. The energetic mixture of laughter and revulsion, routine and invention, outrage and dismay, fact and fiction, skewer a food industry that provides neither food nor sustenance and damages us in ways we are just beginning to fathom. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Your Face in Mine

Jess Row. Riverhead, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-59448-834-4

This furiously smart first novel from Row (who wrote the short story collection The Train to Lo Wu) opens up difficult conversations about race and identity. The narrator, Kelly Thorndike, is back in his hometown, Baltimore, after his wife and daughter die in an accident. Now in his mid-30s, Kelly reconnects with Martin, a friend from his high school days. Back then, Martin was a white Jewish kid known as Martin Lipkin, but he suffered from racial dysphoria and later underwent “racial reassignment surgery.” Now Martin is a black man named Martin Wilkinson, and he recruits Kelly to tell his story. Martin’s relationship to the truth is flexible, and there’s potentially a lot of money to be made. Not every plot twist is believable, but that seems appropriate—although set in the present day, the book is also a foray to the edge of possibility. Martin’s goal of spinning racial reassignment into a global enterprise is half business plan and half pipe dream, but for Martin and his partners, the future is now. Your Face in Mine (note the slipperiness of the title: who’s who here?) takes readers on a zesty, twisty, sometimes uncomfortable ride. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Stories of Jane Gardam

Jane Gardham. Europa (Penguin, dist.), $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-60945-199-8

The 28 short stories in this magnificent selection from British author Gardam date from 1977 to 2007, and span the length of her career. Some of these stories are connected to novels: “Old Filth,” like Gardam’s signature novel of the same name, is about Sir Edward Feathers, a British lawyer who spent his working years in Hong Kong (the title refers to the acronym, “Failed in London? Try Hong Kong”). Now retired and living in Dorset, Feathers, a symbol of the decline of the British Empire, reflects on his past, though Gardam elevates the story above allegory. “Hetty Sleeping” follows a young mother on a seaside holiday, where she encounters a former lover; the result is supremely wistful. In “Lunch with Ruth Sykes,” the mousy, prim Mrs. Thessaly sets out for London to help her daughter mend a broken heart. Other stories have a surreal quality, like “The Great, Grand Soap-Water Kick,” in which a homeless man sneaks into a nice house for a bath. The title of “The Boy who Turned into a Bike” says it all. Odder is “Grace,” which begins: “Clockie Gosport had this great diamond in the back of his neck. Under the skin.” The full range of Gardam’s talents are on display here, and readers will feel lucky to have so much good writing in one place. (June)

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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