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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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The Crystal Monkey

Patrick Nohrden. Cedar Fort/Sweetwater, $16.99 trade paper (292p) ISBN 978-1-4621-1481-8

In Nohrden's debut novel, Min Li is a girl coming of age during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the years thereafter. She believes that China is the greatest country in the world, but her faith is shaken when the Red Guards exile and execute several members of her community. Growing up under Mao, she begins to question not only oppressive communist ideology, but also the traditional principles of Chinese society. She struggles against a traditional patriarchal family and mores that would keep her illiterate because of her gender and steer her into loveless marriage. Offsetting the hardships of daily life, Min Li experiences dreams of hope and a happy future mysteriously connected to a crystal monkey, a toy from her childhood. Nohrden's story offers an education in Chinese history; seen through Min Li's perspective, opportunities rise and fall during the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the death of Mao Zedong, and the rise of Deng Xiaoping. Nohrden crafts an absorbing story about how political and social factors shape the thoughts and opportunities of individuals. Ages 12–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Plague of Unicorns

Jane Yolen. Zonderkidz, $15.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-310-74648-5

Yolen (Owl Moon) weaves a magical yet believable tale of myth and magic in this charming middle-grade fantasy. In the mythical kingdom of Callanshire, James, son of the Duke of Callander, is sent away at age nine to study at Cranford Abbey. The abbey, struggling to stay financially solvent, plans to make its extraordinary golden Hosannah apples into cider for sale. Unfortunately, unicorns also love these delicious apples. No matter how the monks try, they cannot get rid of the horned orchard raiders until James summons a singer named Sandy, who may have a way with unicorns. James is a hero to be emulated: he is curious, brave, and caring. His family and the monks are all well-drawn, with delightful details (James nicknames his tutor, Benedict Cumber "Cumbersome," for his dry delivery of obscure facts; Alexandria, James's sister, has eyes "like Spanish steel"). Though partially set in an abbey, this tale avoids an overt religious message. It does, however, offer a winsome example of how to live life responsibly. Ages 8–12. Agent: Elizabeth Harding, Curtis Brown. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Graphic Canon of Children's Literature: The World's Greatest Kids' Lit as Comics and Visuals

Edited by Russ Kick. Seven Stories, $38.95 trade paper (450p) ISBN 978-1-60980-530-2

Having been sparsely represented in the first three Graphic Canon volumes, children's literature is featured exclusively in this anthology of more than 40 fables, fairy tales, and classic stories adapted into comics. Like its predecessors, the book allows readers to see timeworn stories in a new light, whether it's Lance Tooks's trio of Aesop's fables, set in the worlds of tabloid celebrities and love-struck gangsters; Sandy Jimenez's take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, featuring David Bowie and Freddie Mercury; or R. Sikoryak's Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which spoofs Bil Keane's "Family Circus." Nearly all the contributors chose to adapt early, gnarlier versions of stories that were sanitized over the years, most notably by Disney for its animated films; through their efforts, the stories reclaim some of their original eccentricities and philosophical merit. These dazzlingly varied renderings run the gamut from haunting to comical while offering visceral reminders that children's stories are often densely layered, infinitely transposable, and peddle in imagery both macabre and whimsical. It is the unfettered imagination of these stories that make them not only wildly entertaining, but also vessels of forgotten truths. All ages. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Stitching Snow

R.C. Lewis. Hyperion, $17.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4231-8507-9

Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of the frozen planet Thanda, Essie is unusual—she likes to cage-fight angry men just back from working in the mines, and when Essie isn't fighting, she's a mechanic, fixing ships and tinkering with drones. After a stranger named Dane crashes on Thanda, Essie tries to help him, but ends up getting kidnapped. She's taken to Dane's planet, Candara, where his people plan to trade her to the king in exchange for the release of Candaran prisoners, one of whom is Dane's father. Essie is a valuable find—she's actually a young princess who escaped the clutches of the stepmother who tried to kill her when she was nine. In this interplanetary retelling of Snow White, debut author Lewis reveals a talent for worldbuilding and creating complex, memorable characters. As Essie owns up to her past and takes control of her fate, SF and fairytale fans alike will enjoy watching her beat the odds and find romance in the process. Ages 14–up. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Jesus Jackson

James Ryan Daley. Poisoned Pen/Poisoned Pencil, $10.95 trade paper (278p) ISBN 978-1-9293-4506-9

Daley's first novel revolves around the psychological and philosophical conflicts facing 14-year-old Jonathan Stiles. His older brother, Ryan, has just been found dead in a ravine; Jonathan believes he was killed, but everyone else thinks Ryan's death was accidental. Jonathan attends the ultra-religious St. Soren's Academy, where he is a loner, due in part to his atheism. In a state of shock and confusion following Ryan's death, Jonathan meets Jesus Jackson, a self-proclaimed "Spiritual Contractor" who wants to help Jonathan rediscover his faith. Though Jonathan frequently reflects upon matters of belief in the aftermath of Ryan's death, he is more concerned with avoiding his classmates and their disingenuous sympathies and finding Ryan's killer. The last time Jonathan and his friend Henry saw Ryan was during a "drug-enraged fistfight," and a football player is their chief suspect. Daley believably depicts Jonathan's conflicting emotions as he passes through the stages of grief. Yet Jesus Jackson comes across more as a gimmick than a real catalyst for Jonathan's developing understanding of loss, faith, and the unknown. Ages 14–up. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Little White Lies

Katie Dale. Delacorte, $17.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-385-74067-8

As far as anyone knows, Louise "Lou" Shepherd is "a normal fresher starting at uni," but she's actually living under an assumed name in order to escape her family's notoriety—her uncle is in jail, her cousin is in a coma, and all of England associates her family with scandal. At school, she runs into Kenny, a boy who knows all her secrets, and meets Christian, a handsome stranger she'd like to date, but who harbors secrets of his own. Soon Lou's past is colliding with her present as she makes disturbing discoveries about her university friends and how their histories connect to hers. Dale (Someone Else's Life) has wound an overly complicated and circuitous thriller that leaps from one event to another. An abundant use of exclamatory dialogue gives the impression that Dale's characters are virtually shouting at each other (Lou's friend Vix is a particularly egregious offender). Along with a profusion of plot twists, the result is a frantic, scattered read. Ages 14–up. Agent: Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Associates. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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