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Pigeon Mothers

Marty Correia. My Viral Novel, $10 e-book (344p) ASIN B091NVHHJN

In Correia’s madcap debut, a 12-year-old girl struggles to recover after the loss of her father. When Oleg Sevic falls to his death at the electronics factory in Bridgeport, Conn., where he works, his daughter, Cole, and her mother, Helen, are left with almost nothing. They move to a small apartment in a poorer part of town and Helen works long shifts at a Caldor department store, while Cole befriends the violent and troubled neighbor and schoolmate Vanessa. After Vanessa beats her up, Cole discovers letters from her birth mother, Janet, which Helen had hidden. Cole runs away to join her grandfather Vladimir, a professional arsonist and descendant of P.T. Barnum, who is preoccupied by hearing the voice of an ancestor telling him to go to Coney Island. In a parallel narrative, Janet dreams of scamming enough money to set up a life for her and her “baby” girl, but spends most of the novel drunk and high. While some of the plot points are dropped and Janet’s story tends to drag, Correia delivers a nice payoff when Cole and Vladimir converge in Coney Island. This shaggy story manages enough moving moments to reward patient readers. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Woman of Intelligence

Karin Tanabe. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-23150-5

Tanabe (A Hundred Suns) returns with a layered and engrossing Cold War historical. In 1954, Rina Edgeworth is a surgeon’s wife and full-time mother living on the Upper East Side, her free-spirited life as a French translator for the United Nations a distant memory. One day, FBI agent Lee Coldwell recruits her to serve as an informant on her former lover, Jacob Gornev, whom she knew in her university days and whom Coldwell explains is now spying for the KGB. Under the tutelage of magnetic Black agent Turner Wells, who met Jacob in a radical civil rights group Wells had infiltrated, Rina’s first nerve-wracking assignment is to contact Jacob, so she can intercept stolen documents in place of Jacob’s sometime girlfriend, Ava Newman, who has been a courier for Jacob’s ring of Soviet spies. Rina’s husband, Tom, meanwhile, thinks she’s having an affair and threatens her with psychiatric treatment. Her friends, her mission, and Wells, though, prove to be her saving grace. In addition to spotlighting 1950s attitudes toward gender and efforts to bring forth racial equality, Tanabe injects plenty of credible period details such as John Foster Dulles frostily refusing to shake hands with Chou En-Lai in Geneva, and depicts the Communist characters with humanity against the chilling backdrop of mutually assured destruction. This would be perfect for a film or TV series. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Touch of Jen

Beth Morgan. Little, Brown, $28 (356p) ISBN 978-0-316-70426-7

Morgan’s witty if uneven debut attempts a fantastical combination of millennial ennui, obsession, and shape-shifting horror. Remy and Alicia are a barely functioning 30-something couple who both work as servers in different restaurants and share a Brooklyn apartment with a roommate. Remy and Alicia’s relationship revolves around the beautiful and confident Jen, a former colleague of Remy’s, who runs her own jewelry business. The couple receives alerts whenever Jen posts on social media, and they spend most of their time drinking and analyzing Jen’s posts. Alicia also role-plays as Jen as part of their sexual relationship (“What would you do if Jen were in the shower right now?” Alicia calls from the bathroom). The pace picks up when Remy and Alicia join Jen, along with her boyfriend and a few other friends, on a weekend surfing trip to Montauk. As the couple’s fixation on Jen becomes more dangerous and absurd, the lives of several characters, most notably Remy, are permanently altered. There are a few early signs of a horror plot (in Montauk, Remy thinks he sees a giant beetle outside the window, then hears screams), but the gory transition in the final act feels abrupt. Morgan does a great job with the obsession theme, but otherwise this is a bit too messy. Agent: Alexa Stark, Trident Media Group. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Minister Primarily

John Oliver Killens. Amistad, $27.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-06-307959-5

Killens (1916–1967), a member of the Black Arts movement and author of And Then We Heard the Thunder, cleverly satirizes 1960s American politics in this sharp thriller. Jaja Okwu Olivamaki, prime minister of the Independent People’s Democratic Republic of Guanaya, sees his country lifted from obscurity after a great quantity of the radioactive metallic element cobanium is found there, making it the newest front in the Cold War. African-American musician James Jay Leander Johnson travels to Guanaya to learn “the folk songs of his people,” only to become a suspect in a plot to murder Olivamaki. Johnson’s life takes an even stranger detour after his resemblance to his supposed target leads to his being asked to impersonate the nation’s leader, a pretense he must maintain on a state visit to the U.S. Killens is pointed in his barbs; when the imposter is asked his opinion of Malcolm X, he declares he believes in the same kind of nonviolence the U.S. does: “I believe we should keep everybody nonviolent, even if we have to blow them off the face of the earth, in the American tradition.” Throughout, Killens maximizes the potential of his plot with outrageous humor. Readers will be glad to find this gem unearthed. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Nervous System

Lina Meruane, trans. from Spanish by Megan McDowell. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-64445-055-0

Chilean writer Meruane’s razor-sharp novel (after Seeing Red) follows a young woman struggling to complete a dissertation in astrophysics. Ella’s doctoral work is going nowhere; she can’t even decide on a topic, something she keeps secret from her partner, El, and her father, who has poured his life savings into her education. (Her father, in turn, has kept his investment in her education a secret from Ella’s stepmother and half siblings.) Desperate, Ella invokes the spirit of her mother, who died in childbirth, praying for her to afflict her with a disease that will excuse her from her teaching responsibilities. Obsession with illness and injury is the overriding subject of the narrative—Ella manifests an undiagnosable spinal pain, El is injured in an explosion, her stepmother’s breast cancer returns. Her father, himself a doctor, is hospitalized. Meruane is a writer of undeniable talent; her portrayal of the body as a site of suffering is nuanced and unflinching. The years of dictatorship and “still-undiscovered graves” in Ella’s unnamed “preterit country,” and the migrant “problem” in her “country of the present,” where people speak a different language, add more dark layers. While there isn’t much in the way of momentum, on a sentence level it’s unimpeachable. The result is a challenge, but one that gives the reader much to chew on. (May)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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We Want What We Want: Stories

Alix Ohlin. Knopf, $25.95. (256p) ISBN 978-0-525-65463-6

Ohlin (Dual Citizens) delivers another rich collection full of insights and sticky contradictions. In “The Brooks Brothers Guru,” Amanda is recruited to rescue her long-lost cousin by his girlfriend, from a possible cult in Upstate New York. While there, Amanda, who spends much of her life on various devices, begins to understand the appeal of her cousin’s quiet new life. “The Point of No Return” follows Bridget from her 20s into middle age as she views her life at a distance, seeing herself as “a tiny animal she had happened upon by chance one day and decided to raise.” The strongest stories feature connected characters, such as “The Universal Particular,” told by a Swedish-Somalian orphan, a beard blogger, a gamer, and a massage therapist as each longs to break out of their isolation. Ohlin also does a great job capturing her characters’ perspectives on life. As Bridget in “The Point of No Return” begins to understand, sometimes one’s 20s are a “performance of adulthood,” while Tamar in “The Universal Particular” imagines telling her husband, during a fight, that adulthood requires one “to embody a role and not be able to escape it.” Throughout, Ohlin reveals the depth of her characters with empathy and precision. The strongest stories are more than worth the price of admission. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead

Emily Austin. Atria, $26 (246p) ISBN 978-1-982167-35-6

Runaway humor sustains an otherwise grim story in Austin’s exuberant debut. After a car accident in which 27-year-old Gilda breaks her arm, she visits an emergency room where she’s a frequent patient, then responds to an ad offering free mental health support at a church. There, a priest mistakes her for a job applicant, and she doesn’t correct him. After the interview, Gilda accidentally becomes a receptionist, taking over for the late Grace Moppet, who may have been the victim of a homicidal nurse. As the receptionist, Gilda rapidly falls prey to impostor syndrome, a problem she faced during her last job as a bookseller (“I didn’t really get 1984 and... I hate poetry”). Meanwhile, Gilda, an atheist and a lesbian, makes awkward attempts to masquerade as a good Catholic, mistaking communion wafers for crackers, trying to understand hymns, catechism, baptism, and the blessed sacrament of confession. The plot thickens as Gilda responds to emails from one of her predecessor’s friends as Grace. What starts out as genuinely bleak affair, with a depressed Gilda considering suicide, becomes a brisk story underpinned by a vibrant cast. Fans of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good will find much to enjoy. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Startup Wife

Tahmima Anam. Scribner, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-982156-18-3

Heavy lies the high-tech crown in Anam’s spectacular fourth novel (after her Bengal trilogy). Asha Ray, 30, a brilliant computer coder whose PhD project at Harvard involves the “reverse engineering of the brain,” reconnects with Cyrus Jones, a high school crush she hasn’t seen in 13 years who has become an itinerant “humanist spirit guide,” officiating weddings and baptisms for nonreligious people. She abandons her research and the two marry in an impulsive city hall wedding, then move into her parents’ house on Long Island. Asha and Cyrus find work at Utopia, a tech company whose mission is to “save humanity from the apocalypse.” There, Asha throws herself into creating an “Empathy Module” algorithm for a social networking app inspired by Cyrus’s spiritual work. The app, a “virtual parish” called WAI (We Are Infinite) becomes a global sensation, and, after Cyrus gets the credit for it, his charismatic personality turns him into a “new messiah” and threatens their marriage. A startling ending framed by a deadly, Covid-like pandemic drives the plot close to a disastrous abyss as a trend of “death ritual groups” sparked by the app causes moral and ethical dilemmas. Anam provides a piercing perspective on marital and business institutions and gender bias and cultural clashes, and weaves in rich local color as Asha grows reacquainted with her childhood home and her parents’ Muslim community. This is a powerful statement on the consequences of public achievement on private happiness. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Canongate. (July)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Like Before

Kjell Askildsen, trans. from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella. Archipelago, $21 (330p) ISBN 978-1-939810-94-6

This ruminative, gloomy collection draws from five decades of Askildsen’s career, including some translations previously collected in Selected Stories. “A Lovely Spot” and others feature dialogues between romantic partners, while many, such as “Encounter,” explore sibling or father and son relationships. The book-length “Thomas F’s Last Notes to the Public” comprises the outstanding “Carl Lange,” where an old man suspected of a crime finds his free will and, eventually, his actions constrained (and perhaps dictated) by the accusation; and 10 shorts in which a man bids farewell to family, friends, himself, and the world. In many stories, the erosion of years or the abrasion of physical interaction has worn away any protective layers in the characters’ frosty relationships, leaving the players exposed, at or past the point of dissolution. The étude-like studies reveal Askildsen’s effort to resolve recurrent themes, such as lovers facing insecurities or infidelity, family members chaffing at frayed affections, and comity plagued by mistrust and resignation. The lengthier works shine brightest, among them “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” in which a Beckett-like series of encounters between two old men becomes a discourse on euthanasia; and “Mardon’s Night,” where three people’s thoughts and actions blur in enigmatic blocks of text. While as a whole the collection can be exhausting, this definitive volume brims with stellar material. This is best consumed in small doses. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Daybook from Sheep Meadow

Peter Dimock. Deep Vellum, $15.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-64605-059-8

Dimock (A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family) provocatively weaves history and philosophy into an unorthodox fictional biography. Christopher Martinson has collected all 126 of his older brother Tallis’s handwritten notebooks, and annotates the entries as part of his narration. These serve as both source material and stimulus for Christopher’s effort to reconnect with Tallis, a renowned historian who has voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric care facility. Dimock’s setup allows him to move fluidly from excerpts of Tallis’s study of contemporary war to his disquisitions on the Civil War, John James Audubon, Hieronymous Bosch, and other subjects. In a note, Dimock describes this as “a novel of linguistic dispersion,” and his bibliography cites the work of abolitionists, linguists, philosophers, and poets. The juxtapositions are insightful and trenchant, the syntheses often brilliant. Tallis’s testimony on the use of drones in the Iraq War—and the Orwellian doublespeak he discovered in Pentagon documents—adds to a tapestry of disillusion and creeping madness (“I believe he suddenly experienced the loss of the sense that he could trust the world he had previously confidently known and helped to shape as a responsible beneficiary and highly regarded narrator and interpreter of American power”). Throughout, Christopher offers juicy, distilled erudition on his brother’s life and work. This experiment is a resounding success. (May)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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