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The Redemption of Galen Pike

Carys Davies. Biblioasis (Consortium, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $14.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-77196-139-4

Former journalist Davies’s second collection of short stories, following Some New Ambush, is a perfectly formed gem that won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award after it was first published in the U.K. The 17 stories travel across multiple continents and range over several centuries, and each whisks readers into the orbit of a different character—people whom readers might ordinarily dismiss as uninteresting. Often surprising, these stories contain nothing so unsubtle as a twist but instead ambush readers with tiny details and revelations that shift everything they thought they knew. The title story does this wonderfully when the reader’s assumptions about Patience Haig, a seemingly worthy prison visitor, are quietly and satisfyingly up-ended. Another story, “Miracle at Hawk’s Bay,” shocks with its unexpected treatment of a gruesome death. This collection has a deliberately formal feel that makes even the contemporary stories seem timeless. Davies has an enviable talent for creating entire internal universes for her characters; her spare prose and somewhat elliptical style give her enormous control over both characters and readers. This sophisticated collection observes that everyone contains multitudes, and people’s darkest corners are what make them interesting. The book never falters in its delicate touch and confident, nuanced observations about the human condition. Agent: Bill Clegg, Clegg Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Celine

Peter Heller. Knopf, $25.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-451-49389-7

Despite its intriguing premise, Heller’s (The Dog Stars) third novel is a missing persons mystery that never quite finds its mark. Celine, descended from the original governors of the Plymouth Colony, is a well-heeled investigator, the “Prada PI,” whose age (68) is still well below her success rate (96%). Gabriela hires her to look into the disappearance of Gabriela’s father, a famous nature photographer who years ago was presumed dead after a grizzly attack just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Agreeing with Gabriela that the death appeared staged, Celine and her husband, Pete, retired and almost as resourceful as his wife, head out West. The plucky Celine has her charms, but other characters, such as Elbie Chicksaw, the Montana tracker who studied comparative literature at Dartmouth, ring false, as does some of the dialogue: “You sound like that Neruda poem I love so.” The case slowly breaks open, but long flashbacks to Celine’s uber-WASPy childhood summers on Fishers Island, N.Y., sap the narrative of momentum, as does a subplot involving Celine’s son, who embarks on an missing persons investigation of his own in New England. The majesties and dangers of Yellowstone supply a compelling backdrop against which to set a story about “how easily parents can disappear and families fall apart,” and Heller, a gifted nature writer as well as novelist, handles certain set pieces well. But too often the novel seems lost in the wilderness. 100,000-copy announced first printing. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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After the Blue Hour

John Rechy. Grove, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2589-7

Rechy’s (City of Night) latest is tense metafiction, pungent with desire and emotional cruelty. Its narrator—a writer named John Rechy—accepts an invitation from Paul Wagner, a fan of his transgressive fiction, to leave Los Angeles in 1960 for a summer on Paul’s private (and suggestively described) “inland island.” Almost immediately John becomes caught up in games played by Paul; his petulant teenage son, Stanty; and Paul’s mistress, Sonya, as Paul seeks to validate his own peculiar appetites with regard to the sexual encounters chronicled in John’s fiction. Early in the course of the group’s interactions, John senses “a benign surface over an undercurrent... a current that was gathering pressure,” and the eruption of that pressure is foreordained in the book’s title, which refers to that brief moment when daylight gives way to night and “everything reveals itself as it is.” Rechy’s prose is lean and sinewy, and he adds an element of intrigue to the novel by having John, in his role as a character who is writing up his experiences on the island, reproduce passages of the text that end abruptly when they begin to veer into territory outside the bounds of the novel as Rechy has written it. The novel is unflinching in its candor even as its events have a tantalizing aura of mystery. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing the King of Hearts

Hanna Krall, trans. from the Polish by Philip Boehm. Feminist, $15.95 (200p) ISBN 978-1-55861-944-9

Originally published in Poland in 2006, this devastating, fragmentary Holocaust narrative follows a Jewish woman’s tireless drive to rescue her husband from Auschwitz. Izolda and Shayek fall for each other against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and are barely married before Shayek is detained and sent to the concentration camp. With nothing more than whispers of his location, Izolda borrows money, delivers illegal letters, and sells black-market bacon to ensure her husband’s safety. She travels from Poland to Germany to Vienna, dying her hair to allay suspicion, until she too is apprehended by the Gestapo and sent to work in a factory in Guben. After absconding and posing as a nurse, Izolda is finally able to track down Shayek, but the experiences of war have changed them both so profoundly that their reunion is coldly, heartbreakingly anticlimactic. The novel is interspersed with flash-forwards, photos of Holocaust victims, and passages of Yiddish, all of which work in concert to recreate the confounding, concurrent horrors of the war and genocide. The prose never once seems out of the author’s control, displaying precisely the serious artistry required to elevate and illuminate such harrowing material. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Late Arcade

Nathaniel Mackey. New Directions, $16.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2660-8

In the fifth installment of the From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate series, Mackey (Splay Anthem) revisits members of Molimo m’Atet, an invented experimental jazz ensemble based in Los Angeles. The novel expands through a series of letters to an absent figure only referred to as Angel of Dust. In letters written between September 1983 and June 1984, composer and instrumentalist N. details the band’s dreams, creative process, live performances, and romantic entanglements. Floating comic strip dialogue balloons begin to follow the group’s drummer, Drennette, and soon appear during shows, revealing subconscious thoughts and erotic memories. Having encountered these balloons before, N. and others in the ensemble (Lambert, Djamilaa, and Aunt Nancy) suspect the balloons have originated from Penguin, one of the horn players. Aunt Nancy suggests preempting the conceptual balloons with literal ones. Encouraged by Angel of Dust, the group attempts to incorporate rubber balloons, distributing inflatables during a performance and inviting audience members to contribute to the orchestration. But the word bubbles are even more unpredictable. Mackey’s work is digressive and flowing, “a run of pure devotion, a poem, a paean, an oath.” Sprinkled with illustrations, a press release, an improvisational prompt, and excerpts from an “antithetical opera,” the book eludes easy classification. Mackey imbues the prose with music, and every sentence drives the feverish rhythm. The narrative moves through notes on Bedouin mysticism, environmentalism, African American history, and jazz criticism. Intelligent and widely imaginative, this is a story about embracing the unexpected and the unconventional, and turning peculiar circumstances into art. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Horse Walks into a Bar

David Grossman, trans. from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Knopf, $24.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-451-49397-2

Grossman (To the End of the Land) masterfully balances the neuroses and hard-earned insight of veteran stand-up comedian Dov Greenstein with a defining memory that’s 40 years in the shaping. The story of Dov’s life—his worship of a mentally ill mother who survived the Holocaust, his contentious relationship with his father, his awkward adolescence, and a brief stay at a military camp in Gadna—unspools over one evening in a basement club in the small city of Netanya, Israel, related through the observations of Avishai Lazar, a boyhood friend of Dov’s and, later, a respected judge. As Dov immerses himself in his act, the audience—many of whom eventually walk out in bewilderment or anger at Dov’s deeply personal (and often decidedly grim) revelations—come to understand that, amid the self-deprecating humor and good-natured banter, the comedian is, for the first time, recounting the formative event of his life. “For an instant, when he looks up, the spotlight creates an optical illusion,” Avishai muses as he watches Dov discover what has lain hidden for decades, “and a fifty-seven-year-old boy is reflected out of a fourteen-year-old man.” Grossman wrestles with questions of faith and friendship, fate and family, with empathy, wisdom, and acerbic wit. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Fire Child

S.K. Tremayne. Grand Central, $14.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-4789-4738-7

The pseudonymous Tremayne follows 2015’s well-received The Ice Twins with a creepy contemporary thriller set on the isolated Cornish coast. Rachel Daly, who once thought of herself as a “feisty feminist,” has given up her job and “supposedly exciting London life” to marry a widower, attorney David Kerthen, and live with him at Carnhallow, an 18-bedroom mansion that was built by the Kerthen family fortune, derived from the local tin mines. Carnhallow was partly restored by David’s first wife, Nina, who died in a mine accident 18 months earlier. The household includes David and Nina’s eight-year-old son, Jamie; David’s mother, Juliet; and a housemaid, Cassie. With the mines no longer profitable, David commutes to a lucrative practice in London. Spooky mysteries abound. Jamie claims to hear his mother’s voice and is sure she will return one day. The boy tells Rachel that Nina’s body was never found and that the coffin in her grave is empty. The abandoned mines provide both a lure and an ominous backdrop with their long history of deaths, abuses, and wealth. Fans of gothic novels will relish this tale of tragedy and triumph. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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GTO: Race to Oblivion

Roger Corea. SelectBooks, $16.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-59079-397-8

Corea’s second novel centered on a classic automobile (after 2015’s The Duesenberg Caper) will please car enthusiasts but disappoint those who expect suspense and action in their thrillers. In 1956, Antonio Grimaldi, a technician for Enzo Ferrari, drives the prototype of what will become the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta to Genoa, Italy. It’s loaded onto the ill-fated SS Andrea Doria, which will sink off Nantucket en route to New York. In 2008, financial planner Tommy Grimaldi, who has never heard of Antonio, agrees to accompany his newly wealthy friend and car buff, Mike Bender, a fellow resident of Fairchester, N.Y., to Toronto, where they visit Ferrari Maranello of Ontario. The attractive saleswoman they meet in the showroom, Jaclyn Le Harve, learns Tommy’s last name and tells him about Antonio and the lost GTO. It isn’t long before Bender and Le Harve join forces in a daring attempt to retrieve the car from the wreck of the Andrea Doria. Corea’s at his best when describing car prices and values, and their capabilities and foibles, in this otherwise lackluster effort. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Taxol Thief: The Heist That Killed Millions of Breast Cancer Victims

Ceylon Bradley. Bold Venture, $16.95 trade paper (452p) ISBN 978-1-539454-44-1

Bradley’s uneven first thriller novel, set mainly in the early 1990s, draws on his experience as the president of international marketing for a pharmaceutical company that produced the chemotherapy medication Taxol. The narrator, who manages a McDonald’s in Winter Park, Fla., describes himself as “your humble scribe, who having been christened twenty-two years ago Igor Vladimirovich Fetisov, was adopted at seven and rechristened Troy V. Locke.” Troy’s prolixity is a regular feature of a plot line that centers on his desperate search for a treatment for his beloved wife, Anastasia, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. To add to the melodrama, Troy learns that Anastasia is pregnant. Hope for a cure rests with Taxol, but as the FDA has not yet approved the medicine for sale in the U.S., he must go to extreme lengths to smuggle some into the country. Digressions, such as Troy’s efforts to introduce Mexican fast food to Russia and his ruminations on extraterrestrial life, somewhat undercut the tension about Anastasia’s fate. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Three Chords & the Truth: A Hector Lassiter Novel

Craig McDonald. Betimes, $17 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-9934331-1-5

Edgar-finalist McDonald’s middling 10th and seemingly final Hector Lassiter novel (after 2015’s Death in the Face) grabs the reader by the throat with a killer of an opening sentence (“Howard Richardson didn’t wake up planning to dump a hydrogen bomb off the coast of South Carolina”). In 1958, novelist and screenwriter Lassiter, whose exploits include chasing Pancho Villa, fishing and boxing with Hemingway, and helping to liberate Paris from the Nazis, looks into the case of Jake Gantry, a rich Nashville singer. Gantry’s death—from ingesting an antidepressant prescribed to his ex-wife, Genevieve—has been ruled a homicide, with Genevieve the prime suspect. Lassiter’s investigation eventually leads him to a white supremacist group, and to an understanding of the consequences of Richardson’s decision to jettison the bomb after a midair collision during a test run. Diverting cameo appearances by such real-life figures of the day as Johnny Cash and Prescott Bush compensate only in part for the over-the-top payoff. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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