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The Book of Mistakes

Corinna Luyken. Dial, $17.99 (56p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2792-7

Almost any child knows the feeling: one errant mark or smudge, and an in-progress drawing or painting is as good as ruined. Not so, says Luyken, in a children’s book debut that’s as candid as it is encouraging. The pages are virtually blank, at first, and readers watch as a character takes shape: a girl’s round head appears, traced in pencil, but one of her large, dark eyes winds up noticeably larger than the other. “Making the other eye even bigger was another mistake,” Luyken admits as the problem seems to get worse. “But the glasses—they were a good idea.” Additional “mistakes” mount: the girl winds up with an overlong neck and an odd “frog-cat-cow thing” makes an appearance, but Luyken finds a way to turn each one into a success by changing direction or perspective: “The second frog-cat-cow thing made a very nice rock,” she writes after inking it in. The idea of setbacks being opportunities in disguise is no stranger to picture book pages, but rarely has it been illuminated with such style, imagination, and compassion. Ages 4–8. Agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Are You a Monkey? A Tale of Animal Charades

Marine Rivoal, adapted from the French by Maria Tunney. Phaidon, $16.95 (40p) ISBN 978-0-7148-7417-3

In a book originally published in France, Rivoal (Three Little Peas) lets readers join in a game of charades played by a group of jungle animals. Printed in vivid shades of yellow, blue, and vermilion, Rivoal’s blocky prints couldn’t be more vibrant as the animals take turns posing as other creatures while three birds make guesses. Crocodile curves his body into a horseshoe shape and sticks his snout into the ground. “I know! You’re a carrot!” shouts Toucan, who never quite gets a handle on the game, making food-themed guesses throughout. “He’s not a carrot—he’s an ostrich like me!” says Ostrich on the next page, before becoming the game’s next player. Rivoal’s page turns are especially well-handled, creating lovely visual parallels between the pretend and real animals: a spread that shows Elephant hanging from a tree is followed by one of Monkey in the same position, his long tail echoing the curve of Elephant’s trunk. Along the way, readers pick up details about animal behavior, and Toucan’s bad guesses add light laughs to a book that’s equal parts handsome and fun. Ages 3–5. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Need You Dead

Peter James. Pan Macmillan, $27.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5098-1631-6

In British author James’s superior 13th novel featuring Det. Supt. Roy Grace (after 2016’s Love You Dead), the Brighton cop is occupied—at times preoccupied—with his imminent trip to Germany to meet his 10-year-old son, Bruno. Grace’s first wife, Sandy, whose tragic life ended in suicide, left a note telling Grace that Bruno was his biological child and his responsibility. Meanwhile, Grace decides that the murder of Lorna Belling, a married woman who was having an affair with a man she eventually discovered was a lout, will be a good case for Temporary Det. Insp. Guy Batchelor to handle under his supervision. Lorna’s abusive husband, Corin, is immediately suspect, as is blackmailer Seymour Darling, whose threatening emails to Lorna come to light. Lorna’s lover, Greg, could also be the culprit. Grace ably lends guidance to Batchelor while still devoting a lot of time and energy to dealing with Bruno. This skillful twister shows why James was awarded the 2016 CWA Diamond Dagger. (June)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Invented Part

Rodrigo Fresan, trans. from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden. Open Letter, $18.95 trade paper (552p) ISBN 978-1-940953-56-4

Fresan’s massive novel is obsessed with the way writers cannibalize their lives for material. It’s principally the musings of an unnamed and tormented writer—variously referred to as the Boy, the Young Man, or the Lonely Man—who dreams of being transformed into particles of dark matter by the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. The novel devotes chunks of its considerable length to the story of the writer’s mentally unstable sister, Penelope, and her marriage to the well-to-do Maxmiliano Karma; blueprints for a book about the Fitzgeralds; and rambling considerations of Anton Chekov and Pink Floyd. A representative sequence has the writer’s emergency trip to a clinic interrupted by a cascade of story ideas, each of which is described and given a title such as “Another Girlfriend in a Coma.” Information overload is Fresan’s métier, so no single scene exists without ironic, metafictional commentary; characterization tends to be swallowed by the abundant digressions, which quote liberally from great novels of the past or deliver a freewheeling exegesis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This feels like the work of a writer buried by his own imagination: a working out of real-life vexations and a list of influential antecedents. Though its audience is limited, Fresan’s work is prodigious, and the author’s learning is considerable. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Australian

Emma Smith-Stevens. Dzanc (PGW, dist.), $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-941088-74-6

In her mesmerizing debut, Smith-Stevens reveals the inner life of a man who describes himself as “the patron saint of trying.” The first view of the titular character (who is never given a proper name) is in his Australian homeland, where he’s a young adult parading around as Superman—living in the skin of a superhero, lapping up tourist attention. After college graduation, he’s off to America, landing in Wall Street. The trajectory of his life bounces from one happenstance to the next—venture capitalism, dabbling with cocaine, meeting his future wife in a bar, making and losing a fortune, becoming obsessed with parkour, fathering a child, and becoming a reality TV star. Ever the seeker, he is shaped by a past with no father and a smothering mother. The author imbues the Australian’s constant search for himself with humor and depth while she delves into relationships of all stripes—between parents and children, between spouses, even among polyamorous partners—as well as the vagaries of fame, balancing the main character’s self-indulgence with his genuine need to connect with the people in his life. As the Australian returns to his homeland seeking hope, redemption, and happiness, readers are treated to a captivating and memorable journey. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Use of Fame

Cornelia Nixon. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-61902-949-1

Nixon’s (Angels Go Naked) fourth novel follows the electricity and heartbreak of the bicoastal marriage of two teachers and poets. Ray, 52, and Abby, 60, have been married for 25 years, and they have beaten the odds and remained close through time. Ray teaches part-time at Brown while Abby holds a full-time position at Berkeley. Ray has fallen in love with one of his former grad students, Tory, but he is afraid that giving up Abby would destroy him. Their commuter marriage allows them to miss each other, but it also means less time to deal with issues in their relationship. When Abby learns of Ray’s feelings for Tory, she wonders whether her neediness has driven him into another woman’s arms, while Ray has been feeling that Abby is neglecting their relationship. Neither seems to be a whole person alone. They try to stay together, even planning to move together to Miami when Ray is offered a job there, but their plan never comes to fruition. As time wears on, Abby deals with financial problems, and Ray with continuing health problems and questions about his recent life changes. The reality of trying to make love last is shown with poise and grace, and all the situation’s complexity nuance rings true in Nixon’s honest prose and nuanced characters. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Village

Stanley Crawford. Leaf Storm (PGW, dist.), $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-9456529-5-0

This work of fiction begins and ends on a single Monday in San Marcos, a village far out in rural New Mexico. Told from many villagers’ points of view, the story is built from quotidian details and lists—lists of chores, of insults, of debts and desires—that pile up like so much refuse to form a funny, poetic portrait of a remote community. Lázaro Quintana is the mayordomo of the acequia, the ditch boss responsible for making sure water flows through the town’s historic irrigation canal. He ponders all the rubbish that can get in the way of the flowing water. Onésimo Moro runs the local store, Moro Mercantile, where his wife, Isabel, keeps watch over their customers through a peephole in the ceiling. Onésimo muses on all the folks who owe him money or are guilty of shoplifting, which is just about everybody. Lalo Moro counts up all the cars he’s wrecked. Manny Serrano is the town’s wheeler-dealer, hawking cellphones, cable, and satellite dishes from his Crestview Classic Medallion Deluxe double-wide mobile home. Glenda Louise Serrano and her cousin Benny drive around distributing stacks of Christian literature. Then there are the gringos who have fled civilization to make San Marcos their home: the aging, hapless hippie Porter Clapp, endlessly rehashing his mistakes; his restless, unhappy wife; and the Motts, who illegally siphon water from the acequia for their landscaping business. The climax of the day is meant to be a meeting with some suits from the State Water Office who are coming to explain their right to the town’s water supply, but the only one of them who ends up in San Marco ends up experiencing a hilarious, calamitous surprise. No character is spared this author’s honest assessment, but the reader grows fond of them all. While refusing to make sense of the world he has conjured, Crawford has created quite a strange, wonderful ode in its honor. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Celestial Mechanics

William Least Heat-Moon. Three Rooms, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-941110-56-0

In his fiction debut, Heat-Moon (Blue Highways) stages philosophical and spiritual debates in an elegant story of one man’s search for meaning in the cosmos. In an unnamed present-day American university town, Silas Fortunado is a freethinking religion columnist for a newspaper. Not restrained by sectarian religion, he calls himself a Cosmoterian and says he doesn’t react to life but rather interacts with it. Four women shape his spiritual and emotional journey: his ambitious real estate agent wife, Dominique, who fixates on slights and expectations; his sister-in-law, Celeste, a nun aspirant with a crisis of faith; his shrouded neighbor, Kyzmyt, a Caddo herbalist and Wiccan; and seed-seller Flora Cavendish. Through anecdotes of everyday life and a search through Phoenix and Las Vegas for the missing Dominique, Silas contemplates nature, astronomy, the definition of God, evolution, Native American spirituality, intolerance, and lucid dreaming. As Celeste nurses him after a devastating accident, they discuss mortality and the meaning of self. This thought-provoking novel is rife with relatable and complex musings. Charming illustrations and quotes from songs and plays abound, rounding out the package. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Jazz and Palm Wine

Emmanuel Dongala, trans. from the French by Dominic Thomas. Indiana Univ., $20 (138p) ISBN 978-0-253-02669-9

Dongala’s striking story collection, originally published in France in 1982, includes political tales set in his native Congo and jazz-themed pieces set in America. The first story, “The Astonishing and Dialectical Downfall of Comrade Kali Tchikati,” follows one man’s journey from strict Marxist-Leninist materialism to acknowledging the power of fetish magic. “Old Likibi’s Trial” examines the push and pull between the same forces, with the trial’s presiding official, Konimboua Zacharie, made to look especially foolish. “A Day in the Life of Augustine Amaya” and “The Ceremony” both concentrate on the crushing inhumanity of the socialist bureaucracy. Scientific socialism permeates all of the tales set in Africa, each of which is full of Marxist-Leninist jargon. The title piece takes a turn into the science-fictional realm when aliens fall to Earth and are enraptured by jazz and palm wine. The final story, “A Love Supreme,” is a personal meditation in praise of John Coltrane. Dongala’s prose can be quite moving, and his writing full of marvelous, lyrical imagery, as when he describes the evening as “those inchoate and fugitive hours when the daylight begins to fade and darkness gradually spreads its cloak.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Sins of Empire

Brian McClellan. Orbit, $26 (624p) ISBN 978-0-316-40721-2

McClellan (The Autumn Republic) begins his Gods of Blood and Powder series with this tale set in Landfall, a city where mercenary troops and secret police may not be enough to prevent revolution. Michel Bravis is an operative in Landfall’s secret police who has been assigned to find who is behind the seditious pamphlet titled Sins of Empire. Gen. Vlora Flint is a powder mage and the commander of the Riflejacks, a mercenary army summoned to Landfall to find Mama Palo, leader of the disaffected Palo minority. Benjamin Styke is the former colonel of the Mad Lancers and still a formidable killer; he’s just been released from a work camp and is newly arrived in the city. Each of them runs up against the mysterious figure of Gregious Tampo, an individual who’s both dapper and deadly. They must all brave the Palo stronghold of Greenfire Depths, where street thugs are common and legendary Dynize dragonmen lurk. Several characters first appeared in McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy but this work stands well on its own. The combination of fantasy and firearms compares favorably with Brandon Sanderson’s work and the milieu recalls Thieves’ World. This is a great start to what promises to be a terrific series. Agent: Caitlin Blasdell, Liza Dawson Associates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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