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Heartbreaker

Maryse Meijer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13 (208p) ISBN 978-0-374-53606-0

Meijer’s debut collection is a showcase for deviance. She reaches into the darkest parts of the human psyche where sexuality, vulnerability, and violence commingle and simmer, taking readers through the confessions of a self-mutilating foot-fetishist peeper and the bedroom of a kiddie-porn collector. “The Daddy” begins with a married mother’s Craigslist posting—“Daughter seeks father”—and follows heady role playing on dates at Dairy Queen, until one night a drunken phone call shatters a hard-won escape from reality. A couple’s relationship collapses under the weight of their elaborately constructed prison-rape fantasy in “Jailbait.” In “The Fire,” Meijer cooks up a perfectly toxic romantic thrall between an arsonist and his creation, full of capriciousness and jealous rage. No behavior is off-limits: necrophilia, bestiality, patricide. “I wish I could explain this to you, what I’m doing, why I’m doing it,” the foot fetishist Robert says. But thankfully Meijer avoids pat psychologizing. Beneath these incendiary premises, the characters’ relationships engender genuine empathy; Meijer is extraordinarily adept at tapping into a well of existential loneliness brought on by civilization’s tendency toward exclusion and shame. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Christodora

Tim Murphy. Grove, $27 (432p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2528-6

Murphy’s (The Breeders Box) vivid account of the AIDS crisis and its aftermath centers on the venerable Christodora, a 16-story apartment building in New York’s East Village. Erected in 1928, the building has gone through as many changes as the neighborhood. Its current tenants include Jared and Milly, an artistic couple, and Mateo, their adopted son. Mateo, also an artist, is a drug addict (first trying heroin in 12th grade), which turns out to be a part of a complicated legacy of other characters: Hector, an early AIDS activist mourning the loss of his lover; Issy, a young woman who contracts AIDS and becomes pregnant; and Milly’s mother, Ava, an AIDS researcher with a history of mental illness. These characters witness the spread of AIDS, its ultimate politicization, and the attempts to first control and then eradicate the disease in the following decades. Mateo and the other surviving characters come together in an environmentally transformed Manhattan in 2021, where they have one final reckoning with the past. Murphy has written The Bonfire of the Vanities for the age of AIDS, using the same reportorial skills as Tom Wolfe to re-create the changing decades, complete with a pitch-perfect deployment of period detail. Skipping back and forth in time over 40 years, and projecting itself into the near future, the novel achieves a powerful evocation of the plague years. Agent: Susan Golomb, Writers House. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Revolutionaries Try Again

Mauro Javier Cardenas. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-56689-446-3

Cardenas’s exuberant, cacophonous debut novel profiles a group of Ecuadorans trying, some harder than others, to change the political situation in their country. Occasionally taxing but always stimulating, the novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the country’s strong-arm oligarchs, populist rabble-rousers, intellectual elite, and suffering workers. The primary character is Antonio, a Stanford graduate from the Ecuadoran town of Guayaquil who hasn’t returned to his native country since leaving 12 years earlier. When an old friend calls him from Ecuador during a period of political upheaval, Antonio, motivated by guilt, nostalgia, and the image of himself “on a white horse returning to solve the problems of transportation, alimentation, lack of sustenation,” agrees. Though the characters are nominally concerned with the future of Ecuador, the book is really a journey into the past of Antonio and the gifted high school friends he left behind, a “mafia of nerdos” who demonstrate their affection through constant, often puerile banter. For some, youthful idealism has succumbed to toadyism or apathy; others, outraged by the country’s disastrous leadership, are earnestly engaged in “conscientizing the people.” The political action tends to take place on the periphery as Cardenas dizzyingly leaps from character to character, from street protests to swanky soirees, and from lengthy uninterrupted interior monologues to rapid-fire dialogues and freewheeling satirical radio programs, resulting in extended passages of brilliance. This inventive novel shares some of the revolutionary spirit of Ecuador’s ill-served people, who, as one character puts it, “want to trounce the same old narratives.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Night of the Animals

Bill Broun. Ecco, $26.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-06-240079-6

Broun’s debut novel mixes mystical and maniacal forces in a swirl of futuristic imagery featuring talking animals. In 2052, the last great repository of animals on Earth is the London Zoo. The Heaven’s Gate suicide cult has been systematically exterminating wildlife, along with themselves, in a search for a higher plane of existence. At the same time, nonagenarian Cuthbert Handley, addicted to a hallucinogen called Flot, searches for Drystan, his lost brother. With the comet Urga-Rampos in the sky, Cuthbert hears the voices of animals as his search leads him to the zoo, where an all-consuming desire to free the talkative creatures seizes him. Surrounding Cuthbert is a Britain under the totalitarian regime of Henry IX, or Henry9 as he is known on WikiNous, the heavily regulated network that has replaced the Internet. As Cuthbert works his way through the zoo, snapping chain-links with bolt cutters, he converses with the jackals, penguins, and an articulate sand cat as he looks for his brother and an elusive otter prince. Through precise and eloquent prose and a hint of political satire, Broun creates a near future filled with bioelectric technology and characters with patois as diverse as their desires. Broun’s novel is strange, witty, and engrossing, skipping through madness and into the realm of myth. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Box Kite

Baziju. House of Anansi (PGW/Perseus, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $19.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-77089-962-9

The literary duo who write as Baziju—Roo Borson, who won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Short Journey Up River Towards Oishida, and particle physicist and poet Kim Maltman—have created a delightful collection of 21 short prose poems. Their stories are both engaging narratives and opportunities to ruminate on the big questions in life. Set variously in Canada, where the authors work and live, and China, where they have clearly traveled extensively after studying Chinese language and literature, these short vignettes could be read as letters sent to a distant loved one, verbal snapshots of important moments, or templates for stories shared late at night with good friends. Most of the poems include black-and-white photos of the scene being described, providing the reader with the opportunity to reconcile the visual images with the delicate portraits painted by the authors' words. These stories pass beyond simple descriptions of home and travel, and delve into the nature and function of language, memory, art, food, identity, and discovery. "If it is true that what we know of a place veils our eyes before we see it," this collection of stories offers an ever-shifting, slightly translucent veil that is both dense and permeable, tempting readers to peer again and again through the layers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Job Shadowing

Malcolm Sutton. BookThug (Small Press Distribution, U.S. dist.; LitDistCo, Canadian dist.), $20 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-1-77166-202-4

Sutton's first novel, an abstracted, somewhat minimalist exploration of present-day employment, follows two intercutting story lines. Through the conceit of job shadowing, Sutton investigates the proximity between individuals of different classes—both social and economic—and how and in what ways they can coexist. Victoria is a corporate ladder-climber who feels trapped in place. She is being shadowed by Gil, Etti's husband. Etti is an artist attempting to secure funding for future work. She takes a job writing the life story of Caslon, a by-the-numbers one-percenter who views his wealth, whiteness, and maleness as the capital that elevates his story above others. The narrative is a clearly a response to the current financial landscape in North America; however, the academic veil between the story and the characters keeps the reader at arm's length. Etti and Victoria seem to exist more for the purpose of conveying theme than anything else, and though the book's themes are important, they lack depth due to the paltry characterization. The setting is also thinly sketched and emotionally distant, and the work as a whole is all thesis and no substance. (May)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Angel's Jig

Daniel Poliquin, trans. from the French by Wayne Grady. Goose Lane (UTP, dist.) $19.95 trade paper (293p) ISBN 978-0-86492-867-2

This novel from acclaimed author Poliquin (A Secret Between Us) is based on a forgotten practice in New Brunswick of local authorities auctioning off orphaned children and the elderly poor at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The life of the unnamed main character, an elderly man who has been an elective mute for his whole life, is charted through his multiple appearances at auction and the families he subsequently lives with. From the first family, where he becomes the overworked hireling while another auctioned boy becomes the pet of the household's daughters, to the last family, which he must leave because they are facing financial ruin and the loss of their house, the quirks of human relationships and family dynamics dictate much of the course of his life. The practice of auctioning might seem inhumane, but in his preface, Poliquin notes that it was a way for people to avoid orphanages and other institutions. He carefully ensures that his central character is not a victim of tragedy but someone resilient in the face of adversity. Long periods of existing without dignity are interspersed with moments of freedom, love, and pride. This novel is a warm and whimsical meditation on one man's life and the web that connects him, even isolated by his self-imposed silence, to the lives of those around him. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Without the Moon

Cathi Unsworth. House of Anansi/Spiderline (PGW/Perseus, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.) $15.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-4870-0080-6

Two series of ghastly murders of prostitutes, not unlike the infamous Jack the Ripper killings, entwine this gloomy historical novel set during the London Blitz, which Unsworth (Weirdo) based on two real cases from 1942. Her fictional Det. Chief Insp. Edward Greenaway of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad heads both investigations, which take him through the bombed city's teeming underbelly of thieves, gangsters, pimps, and sex workers. After solving the first murders too late to save the final victim, a guilt-ridden Greenaway is immediately faced with a copycat killer. The second case is all the more puzzling given the similarities not just of the murders but of the suspects. The story, set in two parts, becomes quite fragmented, making it difficult to empathize with any of the characters. Few of them, aside from Greenaway, develop any real fullness, and those who do flit out of the narrative for much too long before reappearing. Potentially colorful story lines, such as the young boy Bobby learning his newfound criminal and sleight-of-hand trade at Soapy Larry's barbershop, are given short shrift. The atmosphere is the only star here. Unsworth transports readers into the ruined streets of a blacked-out city as Londoners feel their way through the rubble with only their dim torch beams to guide them. There are nice touches of noir, but as a genre novel, this work is shallow and disjointed. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Study in Sable

Mercedes Lackey. DAW, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7564-0872-5

The 11th book in Lackey's Elemental Masters series (after From a High Tower) partners familiar faces with literary great Sherlock Holmes to solve a series of strange events. Series protagonists Nan and Sarah have returned, along with their feathered companions, Grey and Neville, and their talented young ward, Suki. After being tested by the great detective himself, the pair set out to work with John and Mary Watson, making particular use of Nan's psychic abilities to solve the case of a missing girl whose sister is the new darling of the Royal Opera stage. The course of the case sees Nan and Sarah searching in opposite directions, and the strength of their devotion to each other is tested as they delve into their work with the Watsons. Lackey's characteristic attention to detail often overwhelms the greater story, but the beauty in the bonds between characters shines through. The artificially elongated narrative detracts from an otherwise sumptuous story set against the backdrop of Victorian England. (June)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer. Tor, $26.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7800-2

Palmer's fiction debut is the ambitious and colorful first installment of her Terra Ignota series, following the political intrigues of Mycroft Canner, a convict who, as punishment for his crimes, becomes the servant of all he meets. The setting is a richly depicted future where gender is concealed, people live in carefully coded sects, and theology is pick-and-choose. Mycroft is tasked with hiding a child whose existence could cause chaos; this is no easy feat, and he and those around him are soon plunged into the world of high politics. Palmer's prose is written with an Enlightenment sensibility, deliberately dense and ponderous. This stylistic decision can be engaging, especially in the tête-à-têtes between Mycroft and the reader, but the heaviness detracts from what might otherwise be an engrossing plot. Mycroft is a witty unreliable narrator whose own biases color the world brought before the reader; it lurches between hellish and utopian. Palmer proves that the boundaries of science fiction can be pushed and that history and the future can be married together. Agent: Amy Boggs, Donald Maass Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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