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The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life

Karin Roffman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-29384-0

With immaculate detail and eloquence, Roffman (From the Modernist Annex) has written the first in-depth biography of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Her narrative follows Ashbery, who was born in 1927, up to 1955, when W.H. Auden awarded Ashbery's debut collection, Some Trees, the Yale Younger Poets prize. Roffman expertly analyzes his poems, revealing the nuanced imprint of his personal life on his work. She explores Ashbery's friendships (with painter Jane Freilicher and poets Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch, among others), his influences (including W.H. Auden and Marianne Moore), and his ventures into acting, prose writing, and painting. In addition to describing his triumphs, she reveals the darker parts of Ashbery's life: the childhood death of his brother, the specter cast by his era's homophobia, and his ongoing battle with depression. Roffman excels in her recreation of Ashbery's early years because she does not waver from firsthand sources and never attempts to interpret his life or poetry through pure speculation. Although at times this work is slow going and lacking in drama, it is an educational, comforting, inspiring book that will satisfy Ashbery's curious fans. 82 b&w illus. (June)

Reviewed on 03/31/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy. Knopf, $28.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-524-73315-5

Appearing two decades after 1997's celebrated The God of Small Things, Roy's ambitious, original, and haunting second novel fuses tenderness and brutality, mythic resonance and the stuff of front-page headlines. Anjum, one of its two female protagonists, is born intersex and raised as a male. Embracing her identity as a woman, she moves from her childhood home in Delhi to the nearby House of Dreams, where hijra like herself live together, and then to a cemetery when that home too fails her. The dwelling she cobbles together on her family's graves becomes a paradoxically life-affirming enclave for the wounded, outcast, and odd. The other protagonist, the woman who calls herself S. Tilottama, fascinates three very different men but loves only one, the elusive Kashmiri activist Musa Yeswi. When an abandoned infant girl appears mysteriously amid urban litter and both Anjum and Tilo have reasons to try to claim her, all their lives converge. Shifting fluidly between moods and time frames, Roy juxtaposes first-person and omniscient narration with "found" documents to weave her characters' stories with India's social and political tensions, particularly the violent retaliations to Kashmir's long fight for self-rule. Sweeping, intricate, and sometimes densely topical, the novel can be a challenging read. Yet its complexity feels essential to Roy's vision of a bewilderingly beautiful, contradictory, and broken world. 150,000-copy announced first printing. (June)

Reviewed on 03/31/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Brothers

David Clerson, trans. from the French by Katia Grubisic. QC Fiction, $19.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-77186-086-4

Clerson’s debut novel, brought into strong yet delicate English by Grubisic, is an exhilarating collision of genres, including fairy tales, magic realism, and classical, biblical, and indigenous mythologies. Two brothers (who are never named) live with their mother in semi-isolation near a marsh, subsisting on what they catch, and sometimes visiting local villagers to trade objects that drift ashore. The mother tells them about their “dog of a father” and explains how the younger brother was created from one of the older brother’s arms so that they could face the world together. When the brothers set off on a journey, it turns out to be not a typical quest but rather a journey of self-discovery, or perhaps a quest whose purpose and endpoint keep disappearing or being forgotten. The anchoring details are deliberately murky. Readers are left to wonder when and where the novel is set, whether the characters are even real, or whether the elder brother—the character from whose perspective the story is told—is simply dreaming them along with the fragmentary, surreal, often violent events. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this intelligent and urgently written tale is likely to earn a cult following. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Sputnik’s Children

Terri Favro. ECW (Legato, U.S. dist.; Jaguar, Canadian dist.), $16.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-77041-341-2

Favro’s (The Proxy Bride) highly entertaining tale is told by Debbie Biondi, the aging writer of the fantastically popular comic series Sputnik Chick. After 25 years, the comic is losing fans, and Debbie needs to win them back by writing a superb origin story for her character. But since she is Sputnik Chick, it’s her own troubled history that she must force herself to write. Her story begins in a parallel timeline, which split from our own in 1945 with the Trinity nuclear test in Mexico. This new timeline, Atomic Mean Time is going to be obliterated in a nuclear catastrophe unless 13 year-old Debbie, growing up in radioactive Canusa, crosses timelines to save it. The story of how and why she crossed becomes the meat of the novel, interspersed with the stories of present-day Debbie’s adult life falling apart: she’s relying heavily on martinis and tranquilizers, sleeping with the wrong guys. Favro successfully crams romance, the Cold War, suburbia, time travel, discussions of racism, a coming-of-age narrative, and more into a single book, using the contrast between the two timelines to highlight both good and bad aspects of current society. Funny, touching, genre-bending, and one-of-a-kind, this is an exuberant romp of a novel that is nonetheless unafraid of serious subjects. Agent: Kris Rothstein, Carolyn Swayze Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Double Up: A Davis Way Crime Caper

Gretchen Archer. Henery, $15.95 trade paperback (230p) ISBN 978-1-635-11181-1

Security expert Davis Way Cole must cope with a diabolical smart home, as well as twins-inspired sleep deprivation, in Archer’s winning sixth caper set in Biloxi, Miss. (after 2016’s Double Knot). Davis lives at the Bellissimo Resort and Casino with her husband, Bradley Cole, who’s the Bellissimo’s president and CEO, and much is expected of Davis in protecting the resort’s assets. A new casino has opened, and the result is likely to be the demise of the Bellissimo, thanks in part to Davis’s inattention to the business since the babies were born. While the Coles’ home screams such warnings as “eggs expire in two days” and the new nanny, July Jackson, rides herd on the twins, Davis sets out to save the casino, recruiting her ex-ex-mother-in-law, Bea Crawford, for some espionage. Unfortunately, Bea, who showed up without warning and with a suspiciously large amount of luggage, turns out to be a really bad spy. Readers will laugh all the way to the end of this madcap adventure. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Paint It Black: The Eleventh Nick Sharman Thriller

Mark Timlin. No Exit (IPG, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-84344-685-9

Readers will struggle to sympathize with unpleasant, reckless Nick Sharman in British author Timlin’s bleak 11th thriller featuring the ex-cop turned PI (after Pretend We’re Dead). Nick gets a desperate call from his ex-wife, Laura, after their 14-year-old daughter, Judith, goes missing from her Aberdeen, Scotland, home in the company of a friend from the wrong side of the tracks. Of course, Nick drops everything to find Judith, and, of course, he ignores the pleas of his friend on the force, the distractingly named Insp. Jack Robber, to leave the search to the police. The opening section, centered on the hunt for the missing girl, proves to be just the catalyst for the rest of the story line, which unfolds in grim and predictable ways. To Timlin’s credit, he doesn’t try to soften Nick’s rough edges, but it’s too bad he doesn’t allow Nick to show an introspective side that might have made his lead’s actions more plausible and understandable. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin. Solaris, $15.99 trade paperback (356p) ISBN 978-1781084175

Editors Shurin and Murad collect 22 stories about the shadowy, fiery beings called the djinn in this unusual anthology. One of the best is the seriously creepy “Reap” by Sami Shah, about a group in the New Mexico desert that operates a drone in Pakistan, through which they witness the transformation of a young girl into something utterly terrifying. “How We Remember You” by Kuzhali Manickavel is an achingly lovely story about a group of friends, a djinn they once knew, and the fluid nature of memory. In Helene Wecker’s “Majnun,” Zahid, a djinn now living as a human, is called to exorcise from a young man the beautiful, ancient djinn whom he once loved, testing the bonds of desire. Maria Dahvana Headley’s stunning “Black Powder” features a djinn-haunted black powder rifle now possessed by a 16-year-old outcast called the Kid, who is on a mission of vengeance at the local high school. This one has a fantastic twist, both heartbreaking and hopeful. Readers looking for stories set in a variety of locales (even outer space) and arrayed over various cultures and religions will find much to like. Nicely rounding things out are a standalone extract from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the titular poem by Egyptian poet Hermes. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Mixed In

Catherine Haustein. City Owl, $14.99 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-944728-12-0

Haustein underwhelms with this tepid romance set in a dystopian future. Dr. Catrina Pandora Van Dingle is newly arrived in the corporate-controlled city state of Cochtonville. A faulty bus on a rainy day brings her in contact with a local bartender named Ulysses. Their attraction is immediate, if poorly defined. Contrivances force their relationship along at a confusing pace, with little to evoke a sense of romance. The supporting characters are a confusion of stereotypes with minimal development. The text is peppered with scientific observations of the natural world and the tone is cold and unengaging. Where passion would be appropriate, there are only reluctant concessions to biology. Daring plans rarely last longer than a few paragraphs, with many incidents resolved through happenstance. Every danger is avoided by loophole or good fortune, so the resolution is lackluster and unsatisfying. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Dreams Before the Start of Time

Anne Charnock. 47North, $14.95 trade paperback (243p) ISBN 978-1-5039-3472-6

Charnock (A Calculated Life) pulls hard on the parent’s universal worry—that no matter what we do and how much we want the best for our children, somehow we aren’t doing it right—in a skillfully executed multigenerational saga that explores a potential future driven by rapid development of reproductive technologies. Charnock’s mid-21st-century London protagonists navigate their parents’ difficulties accepting choices like conceiving solo with donor sperm or choosing to continue an accidental pregnancy; the children resulting from those decisions face questions of true single-parent reproduction and remote gestation as cutting-edge technologies; and their children deal with the ramifications of the methods of their own creation, and the cultural development of birthing choices and genetic enhancement as an issue of money and class. Though Charnock’s core characters function as archetypes manifesting the choices available in her subtly problematic future, the family context through which she revisits them throughout their lives lets her focus on the human struggles for relationship, connection, and legacy in a story that feels personal and intimate. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Thaw

Elyse Springer. Riptide, $17.99 trade paper (226p) ISBN 978-1-62649-514-2

Springer’s second Seasons of Love book (after Whiteout) features an asexual connection with lots of sweet romance and the warmth of watching trust develop between two women who travel in very different worlds. Brooklyn branch librarian Abby is delighted to serve as impromptu dance partner and escape from a controlling manager for glamorous supermodel Gabrielle Levesque, but shocked to be romantically pursued by her afterward. She starts to feel optimistic about the connection despite Gabrielle’s reticence to share about her personal life and her reputation as an “ice queen,” but is worried about what will happen to the relationship when she discloses her lack of interest in sex. Abby’s a relatable heroine for the target market, geeky, insecure, and worried about her job. But Springer never gives the narrative’s point of view to Gabrielle, leaving the reader to see her always through Abby’s eyes, and her weird blend of over-the-top romantic gestures, fascination with Abby’s life, and abrupt cold shutdowns, though explained by a backstory of abuse, keeps her as the object rather than subject even once the women break though to an emotionally intimate connection. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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