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Memory of Flames

Armand Cabasson, trans. from the French by Isabel Reid. Gallic (IPG, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-906040-84-0

Set in 1814, Cabasson’s exceptional third Napoleonic Murders whodunit (after Wolf Hunt) finds Bonaparte’s depleted forces reeling as the allies advance on Paris. Against that dramatic backdrop, the emperor’s self-important older brother, Joseph, believes that royalists plan to murder key members of the team charged with defending the city. The first victim, Colonel Berle, was working at home on a proposal for Joseph to “transform the mound at Montmartre into an impregnable redoubt.” Besides torturing and mutilating Berle, his assassin left behind a royalist emblem, a “white rosette with a medallion in the middle decorated with a fleur-de-lis in the shape of an arrowhead crossed with a sword” known as the Swords of the King. Joseph orders Lt. Col. Quentin Margont to infiltrate the royalist movement and identify the killer as well as discover the plotters’ broader schemes. Cabasson ratchets up the tension masterfully as both the investigation and the assault on the city near their end. The intricate storytelling and sophisticated character development make this one of the best historical mysteries of recent years. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Vanessa and Her Sister

Priya Parmar. Ballantine, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-8041-7637-8

Parmar’s excellent sophomore effort (after Exit the Actress) contends mostly with the complicated relationship between the four Stephen siblings (including Vanessa, later known as Vanessa Bell, the painter, and Virginia, later known as Virginia Woolf). After a happy upbringing, the sisters are separated in their 20s by the death of their brother, Thoby, and Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell, Thoby’s college pal. Parmar does a stellar job conveying Virginia’s complicated, almost incestuous feelings for Vanessa, which are exacerbated by Virginia’s manic depression and need to be the center of attention. Distracted by the birth of her first child, Vanessa all but ignores Clive, who falls prey to Virginia’s efforts to insinuate herself into the marriage. Vanessa is torn by her love for her sister and an understanding of how her illness colors everything, as well as her own desire to have a life of her own. The author also deftly brings to life the various artists and writers who formed the nascent Bloomsbury group, heralding the arrival of Leonard Woolf—who eventually comes home to England and saves Virginia from spinsterhood. Structured primarily as Vanessa’s diary, with fictional letters from characters like Woolf and the journalist Lytton Strachey included, Parmar’s narrative is riveting and successfully takes on the task of turning larger-than-life figures into real people. Readers who aren’t familiar with the Bloomsbury group might be overwhelmed at first by the sheer number of characters in the book, but Parmar weaves their stories together so effortlessly that nothing seems out of place. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Crow Fair

Thomas McGuane. Knopf, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-35019-8

"Me and Ray thought you ought to see what dementia looks like,” a woman named Morsel tells Dave, who has just driven Ray across the prairie to visit Morsel and her peculiar father. It’s one of many funny, sad, and awful, awfully human moments from McGuane’s (Gallatin Canyon) latest story collection featuring aging cowboys, middle-aged men resistant to growing up, and the women who plague and perplex them. “Motherlode” traces the road trip to Morsel’s house from a not-so-chance encounter at a smalltown hotel to a scheme for selling drugs in Montana’s northern oil fields. McGuane’s Montana retains wistful and ironic echoes of the Old West. The title story recounts how two brothers handle their dying mother’s revelation of her long-ago love affair at the Crow Fair powwow/Wild West Show. With imagery as sparse and striking as the landscape, houses figure prominently. “Weight Watchers” shows a man who builds homes only for other people. The repossessed “House on Sand Creek” becomes home to a real estate lawyer, his Eastern European wife, her infant son, and Bob the babysitter. At the “Fishing Camp,” two longtime friends find their wilderness guide cannot stand being in the wilderness with men who keep arguing about the past. Among female characters, “Prairie Girl” shines as she makes her way from prostitute to bank president. A boy steals hubcaps; a shaman begs charity; a girl hikes toward the howling of wolves: McGuane’s stories highlight the detachment of young from old, husband from wife, neighbor from neighbor, the dying from life itself. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Juliet's Nurse

Lois Leveen. Atria/Emily Bestler, $25.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5744-5

In her second novel, Leveen (The Secrets of Mary Bowser) imagines the life of Angelica, the nurse in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. She brings mid-14th century, post-plague Verona to life with its poor, its royalty, and the battles between rival families—here called "Cappalletti" and "Montecchi." Before Angelica can grieve the loss of her own (unexpected) baby in childbirth, her husband, Pietro, a beekeeper, arranges, with the politically savvy Friar Lorenzo, for her to be the wet-nurse for the newborn Cappalletti daughter, Juliet. As the inevitable bond between babe and wet-nurse grows, we are drawn into the protected world of the ultra wealthy, seen through the eyes of the hardworking, no-nonsense but good-humored nurse. Also remarkable is the strong relationship between the nurse and her steadfast husband (in marked contrast to the stiff Cappallettis), who uses his beekeeper trade to gain access to the Cappalletti gardens and his beloved wife. The characters from Shakespeare's work become present—Lord and Lady Cappalletti, Tybalt and Mercutio, Rosaline, and the ill-fated Romeo—and Leveen adds rich new layers to the story we know so well. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Knife Fight and Other Struggles

David Nickle. ChiZine Publications (Diamond, U.S. dist.; HarperCollins Canada, Canadian dist.), $16.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-77148-304-9

While his past work has embraced the genre, it's not entirely accurate to label award-winning author David Nickle's newest collection as "horror." Yes, tropes are at play that support the classification: throughout the tales frolic possessed babies, vampires, and house-destroying worms, "[crawling] over the floor lamp, tiny bodies making an uneven pattern of curling silhouettes on the shade…[covering the] leather recliner, like a new, writhing layer of upholstery." Yet the collection as a whole belies its category. It isn't "Boo!" horror; this is the horror of uncertainty, of helplessness, of traditions and change. In Nickle's fevered imagination political disputes are settled not with debate but with blades, the combatants "stripped naked to the waist, polished with a thin slick of goose fat." The stories are sui generis in presentation, veering from the discombobulating nightmare that is "Basements" to the squid-laden eco-satire "Wylde's Kingdom" to the sci-fi love of "Loves Means Forever." When it comes to this book, only two things are certain; the stories never travel where you expect, and David Nickle is a monumental talent. Agent: Monica Pacheco, The Anne McDermid Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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What Was Before

Martin Mosebach, trans. from the German by Kari Driscoll. Seagull Books, $27.50 (248p) ISBN 978-0-85742-214-9

Mosebach's (Heresy of Formlessness) novel plumbs the meanings and complexities of storytelling, and the unreliability of anything said to another person. The story begins with a young man and his lover sharing post-coital talk, the lover asking the young man what his life was like before he met her. What follows is a luscious romp through the upper echelons of Frankfurt society. The young man accepts an invitation to spend a Sunday afternoon with a friend, Titus Hopsten. Soon plunged into the Hopstens' extravagant world, where rare birds run amok in grandiose villas and love affairs bring people together and tear families apart, our protagonist relates a tale that his girlfriend only half believes. Mosebach's charming, exuberant narrator is not be trusted, and the novel calls into question our notions of memory. Mosebach's writing is florid, tinged with a biting wit. Beneath these layered vignettes of the Hopstens and their inner circle is a tale of a young couple in love, and all the insecurities such love can bring. Irreverent, playful, and intricate, Mosebach's book is a deconstruction of how we choose to tell stories. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories of Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson, trans. from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella. New York Review Books, $16.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-59017-766-2

Like Jansson (The True Deceiver) herself, many of her protagonists are artists, be they illustrators and cartoonists or painters, authors, actors, architects, interior designers, or sculptors. Jansson frequently depicts people who in turn study human character, and her vignettes are remarkable for their cell-like precision. In "The Listener," she writes of an elderly woman who crafts an elaborate tree of family secrets; "Traveling Light" tells of a young man so burdened by others' confidences that he has tried to escape on a voyage at sea. She also studies alienation: people experiencing gradual estrangement from loved ones ("Black-White," "The Doll's House") and those imposing isolation on themselves ("The Storm," "The Squirrel"); in each case, she illustrates the growing rifts with vivid light/dark imagery. Jansson further explores surreal, dissociative themes, such as a man who becomes obsessed with his double ("The Other"), and, in the title story, a woman whose former roommate has co-opted her past. Themes range from madness to sweet reminiscence, murder to survival, in tales that are relentlessly observant. As she writes in "The Listener": "Probably few of us pay adequate attention to all the things constantly happening to the people we love…" (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lake Surrender

Carol Grace Stratton. Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, $11.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-941103-22-7

Stratton's debut contemporary Christian romance introduces readers to the healing joy of life on Lake Surrender, Mich. With a failed marriage, two children (one of whom is autistic), and a house to sell, Ally Cervantes already feels at the end of her rope. Being downsized at work is the last straw, and that sends her and the children from their hectic California life to the Michigan home of her aunt. Despite having wonderful references, the only job Ally can land is as the lead cook at the nearby Christian summer camp for children, run by Will Grainger, a man she knew when they were both children. Circumstances contrive to throw them together at every available opportunity, routinely contrasting Will's solid faith with Ally's lack thereof and turning the spotlight on Ally's spiritual journey. Stilted dialog combined with unconvincing characterization and extraneous plot devices detract from what might otherwise have been a promising tale of redemption and perseverance. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Nuruddin Farah. Riverhead, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-59463-336-2

Somali writer Farah's (Crossbones) 12th novel takes on religious extremism and sexual politics in Africa in this bold but ponderous novel about a woman reassembling her family in the wake of a tragic event. After her older half-brother, Aar, a high-ranking UN official, is killed in a terrorist attack on the organization's headquarters in Mogadiscio, Somalia, the 35-year-old, half-Italian, half-Somali Bella is forced to put her photography career on hold and travel to Nairobi, where Aar's teenage children, Salif and Dahaba, live. There, she adjusts to her new role of surrogate mother and shares her grief with family friends and Aar's former lover, a Swedish UN official named Gunilla, while waging a custody battle with Aar's estranged wife, Valerie, who arrives with the woman for whom she left her family 10 years earlier, Padmini. While the tension between Valerie and Bella is compelling, and Valerie and Padmini's experiences as lesbians living in Africa illuminating, the novel otherwise suffers from a lack of forward movement. Whole sections are spent on quotidian scenes that do nothing to develop the story or characters. Many of the more interesting threads and subplots remain underdeveloped, such as the attack that kills Aar and one about a friend of Valerie and Padmini's whose gay bar in Nairobi is raided, leaving the reader wishing Farah had more tightly focused his narrative. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Suspended Sentences

Patrick Modiano, trans. from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Yale Univ., $16 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-0-300-19805-8

This set of three newly translated novellas from 2014 Nobel winner Modiano is propitious in timing and format: the collection’s variety gives curious readers a broad introduction to a writer of purposefully narrow scope. Modiano has facetiously admitted to repeatedly writing the same book, usually a meditative investigation winding its ways through the City of Lights to illuminate, though never fully reveal, some lingering mystery from the period of Nazi Occupation. These three atmospheric novellas demonstrate the range of reading pleasure afforded by Modiano’s approach and the dark romance of his Paris, a city “in which adventure lay right around every street corner.” “Afterimage,” the tautest, most affecting work, is a shadowy tale in which a young writer obsessively catalogs the work of a haunted photographer who “did everything he could to be forgotten.” The title novella, a child’s eye view of the colorful gang of ex-circus performers and crooks who helped raise him, relates the boy’s sense of wonder and confusion amid his charmed, if sordid, surroundings. In the slackest of the three, “Flowers of Ruin,” a sensationalist double suicide case occasions a murky investigation into the gangsters and collaborators who sported “strange names and fake noble titles” during the Occupation. Each first-person novella is also a portrait of the artist: as the protagonists pursue the faint traces of people and places that have disappeared, we witness a doggedly inquiring writer slowly emerging before our eyes. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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