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Antigenesis

D.S. Whitaker. Amazon, $12.99 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-73425-951-3

Women take control after a pandemic kills mostly men in Whitaker’s clever and convincing debut. Ally Reynerson, a middle-aged widow and pandemic specialist with the NIH and CDC, receives secret communications about a highly contagious virus that originated at a Russian base in the arctic circle and is transmitted by dogs. Army Intelligence major general Dirk Roadfuss and philandering, golf-obsessed President Merriwether—who dresses like a “sorry blend of Rodney Dangerfield and Jimmy Buffett”—are suspiciously inactive over the threat. When word spreads to the Chinese, war-hungry and sadistic Minister Szu Qiang, brother to the Chinese president, orders samples to be obtained in the arctic for development of a bioweapon. The virus spreads rapidly throughout the world, killing millions of men and young women, with the survivors being mostly women in their 50s and 60s. Reynerson joins CDC Director Renée Carson in a joint effort with Sen. Ruth Cochran and former spy Dr. Yi Nian to discover the origin of the disease and treatment. As the diverse cast works to overcome incompetence, arrogance, and petty political fiefdoms, readers will cheer on the women (and the men they can trust) as they take decisive control and power this story of a precarious globalized world toward a satisfying conclusion. Whitaker’s fast-paced, well-written satire of men in power is worth a look. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Popisho

Leone Ross. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-0-3746-024-51

Ross (Orange Laughter) draws on her Jamaican ancestry for a vibrant story of sensual characters and awe-inspiring, sometimes hilarious magic (or, as it’s known on the ferocious island chain of Popisho, “cors”). In this small fictional country, each person is born with a special cors (“A gift, nah? Yes. From the gods: a thing so inexpressibly your own,” Ross writes). Xavier Redchoose is divinely chosen to cook each person a perfect, individualized meal; Anise Latibeaudearre, Xavier’s long-lost love, is a healer; Romanza, son of the governor who exiled him for being gay, lives in a tree on the Dead Islands and can detect lies; Sonteine, the governor’s daughter, is the only woman yet to receive her cors. Xavier, on the anniversary of his wife’s death, is tasked to prepare a special meal for Sonteine’s upcoming wedding. Xavier, however, detests such elitism: he prepares meals at random, not according to privilege. As the governor’s corruption becomes more evident, the land itself revolts, sending the people of Popisho into odd, disorienting chaos, intertwining the lives of many and exposing a fermenting class revolution. Though the novel suffers from long, laborious exposition, Ross’s joyous imagining of a peoples’ power goes a long way to redeeming the narrative doldrums. This fresh take on magical realism delivers the goods. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Passenger

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, trans. from the German by Philip Boehm. Metropolitan, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-250-31714-8

A German Jew evades arrest by traveling on a series of trains in this uncanny 1938 novel from Boschwitz (1915–1941), his first to be published in English. WWI veteran Otto Silbermann slips out the back door of his Berlin house when Nazis show up to arrest him in 1938. He seeks out his Aryan business partner, Becker, in Hamburg, to recover a debt, and Becker unleashes an anti-Semitic screed before paying up. Otto uses the money to aimlessly ride the rails (“I am safe, he thought, I am in motion. And on top of that I feel practically cozy”). He eventually tries to sneak into Belgium, only to be returned to Germany by soldiers who reject his attempted bribes. He avoids Jewish acquaintances and pesters his son in Paris to figure out how to get him to France, but when the briefcase containing the money goes missing, Otto loses all hope of escape. His bleak reflections on his endless journey (“I’m a prisoner. For a Jew the entire Reich is one big concentration camp”) are contextualized by scathing observations of Aryan Germans, who sometimes offer mild sympathy but ultimately seem to find the concentration camps “rather novel and quaint.” This chilling time capsule offers a startling image of fascism taken hold. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Let Me Think: Stories

J. Robert Lennon. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-64445-049-9

Lennon (Pieces for the Left Hand) deploys his trademark off-kilter, acrimonious humor in this arresting collection. A series of riffs on marriage are sprinkled throughout, involving spouses sparring in an atmosphere of feral domesticity: “Everything is ruin... even love,” thinks an adulterous husband as he falls down the stairs in “Marriage (Whiskey).” There is a theatrical quality to the marital scenes, revealing not so much the inner lives of the combatants but their readiness to quip and wound. Other stories condense an entire history of filial resentment within one sculpted paragraph, as in “Polydactyly,” about a boy born with six fingers on each hand. “Death (After)” gets the job done in one sentence: “I believe in the afterlife in the same way I believe in the afterparty: it may exist, but I’m not invited, and so will never find out.” The “Cottage on the Hill” series is the standout, four eerie accounts of a man’s visits to a rundown rental cabin at different points in his life, in which the place is drastically, sometimes inexplicably, changed each time. If some of the pieces fail to elicit more than a smirk or a nod, there are plenty that dig deep. Lennon has talent to spare. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Lorna Mott Comes Home

Diane Johnson. Knopf, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-525-52108-2

Johnson (Flyover Lives: A Memoir) makes a welcome return to her wheelhouse in this propulsive domestic dramedy of manners. Having lived for more that 20 years in a village with the “exigent rectitude of formal, starchy France,” Lorna Mott Dumas leaves her philandering husband, onetime museum curator Armand-Loup, whose life consists of “sex, cassoulet and Bordeaux,” to return home to San Francisco, hoping to reboot her floundering professional life as an academic, establish a career on the lecture circuit, and reconnect with three grown children from her failed first marriage. Prime among the crises and misfortunes she encounters are Lorna’s pregnant and diabetic 15-year old granddaughter, Gilda. Lorna’s relationship with Gilda becomes a focus of the narrative, and it gradually gives her a sense of purpose. Meanwhile, Lorna may have left France behind, but it didn’t leave her. After a mudslide disinters the bones of a famous American painter back in the French village where she lived, Lorna is contacted by French police, entangling her in legal problems that eventually intertwine both story lines. Johnson’s usual razor-sharp prose and astute observations are on full display as she tweaks comic incidents arising out of her characters’ relationships. This provocative family chronicle resolves in a poignant ending with prospects for a promising sequel. The author’s fans are in for a treat. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Man Who Lived Underground

Richard Wright. Library of America, $22.95 (238p) ISBN 978-1-59853-676-8

The power and pain of Wright’s writing are evident in this wrenching novel, which was rejected by his publisher in 1942, shortly after the release of Native Son. Fred Daniels, a Black man who lives in an unidentified American city, is on his way home after a hard day’s work for the Wootens, a well-to-do white couple. Before he can reunite with his pregnant wife, Rachel, Daniels is unjustly seized by three white cops for the murder of the Wootens’ next-door neighbors. After he’s beaten, Daniels signs a confession, naively hoping that doing so will enable him to see Rachel. The cops take him to see her (“No one can say we mistreated him if we let ’im see his old lady, hunh?” one says), and she goes into labor, necessitating a rush to the hospital, which provides an opportunity for Daniels to escape. From that point forward, Daniels hides out in the sewers. Wright makes the impact of racist policing palpable as the story builds to a gut-punch ending, and the inclusion of his essay “Memories of My Grandmother” illuminates his inspiration for the book. This nightmarish tale of racist terror resonates. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Under the Wave at Waimea

Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-358-44628-6

In Theroux’s immersive surfing bildungsroman (after Mother Land), a 60-something Triple Crown legend accidentally kills a homeless man with his car, and looks back on his life. Ten-year-old Joe Sharkey arrives in Hawaii with his father, a Special Forces colonel stationed there during the Vietnam War. Bullied at school for being a “haole,” Sharkey finds release in surfing, his mentor a native Hawaiian surf guru called Uncle Sunshine. Showing an early aptitude for the sport, he becomes a competitive surfer. Sponsorship, prize money and endorsements follow as Sharkey travels the world—Tahiti, South Africa, California, Portugal—in search of the ultimate wave. Along the way, women are drawn to his legendary status and he befriends gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Meanwhile, in the present, Sharkey and his girlfriend embark on a journey to learn more about the man Sharkey accidentally killed, traveling to Arkansas and California before a final reckoning in Hawaii’s Waimea Bay. The past and present halves of the story don’t really coalesce, but Sharkey makes for an enjoyably larger than life character in the mold of Theroux’s Jack Flowers (Saint Jack) or Allie Fox (The Mosquito Coast). The author’s fans will appreciate the perfectly rendered exotic setting, which takes the reader deep inside the Hawaiian surf culture. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Open Water

Caleb Azumah Nelson. Black Cat, $16 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-8021-5794-2

Nelson’s breathtaking lyrical debut employs a love story to explore systemic racism and the cultural impact of Black artists. Set primarily in London and told in second person, the novel follows a young unnamed Black photographer as he forges an artistic working relationship with a friend’s ex. She, also Black and unnamed, is a university student and dancer, and the two are inseparable as they work together on a photography project to document the city’s Black residents. Over time, the platonic relationship turns romantic, yet he keeps a distance from her while processing memories of racist encounters with police and witnessing those of others (“You feel anger, a hysteria... but your vision is clear, an unfrosted window, you see the woman with the policeman’s knee on her back not being seen”). While seeing If Beale Street Could Talk together, he reflects on each character’s “manifestation of love,” but doesn’t share his feelings with her. As the two bounce from party to party and restaurant to restaurant, Nelson astutely locates the importance of Black cinema, music, and literature in their lives while capturing the terror brought on by police brutality and the expectations of young Black men to bottle up their emotions. The result is consistently powerful. Agent: Seren Adams, United Agents. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Surviving Savannah

Patti Callahan. Berkley, $26 (432p) ISBN 978-1-984803-75-7

In the gripping latest from Callahan (Becoming Mrs. Lewis), a professor uncovers the history of a steamship disaster that has intrigued her for years, as well as that of a woman who was said to have died in the disaster. Everly Winthrop grew up on stories of the 1838 sinking of the Pulaski, a luxury steamship that went down off the coast of North Carolina, killing 128 people. Among the dead was believed to be a woman named Lilly Forsyth, about whom Everly’s grandfather told fabulous tales. Everly, now a professor of history, jumps at the chance to curate an exhibit featuring recently found remnants of the Pulaski. As she prepares for the exhibition, the story switches between 1838 and the present day as Everly uses artifacts from the shipwreck to track down records of a woman who survived and, as Everly learns, seized the opportunity to leave behind her abusive husband and take a new identity. In the 1838 timeline, Lilly reluctantly boards the Pulaski with 11 members of her extended family, escapes on a lifeboat, and grapples with the pressure of returning to her aristocratic life. While Lilly’s story is moving, Callahan’s portrait of Everly drives the story, bringing to life a little-known shipwreck in meticulous detail. Fans of Southern historicals should check out this engrossing, centuries-spanning tale. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Mahagony

Édouard Glissant, trans. from the French by Betsy Wing. Univ. of Nebraska, $19.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978‑1‑4962‑0178‑2

Glissant (The Overseer’s Cabin), canonized in the Caribbean for his poetry, novels, and critical theory, offers a dazzling history of colonialism in Martinique, originally published in 1997 and here translated into English for the first time. The book is framed by the musings of contemporary metafictional narrator Mathieu on Martinique’s ubiquitous and ancient mahogany trees, which he believes possess historical memory, and of his role in the story: “I—simultaneously the man, the author and the one depicted as parable—felt the triple entity of this story that I was going to have to relive as such random, opposite kinds of person.” Multiple narrators from the past few centuries surface, and they coalesce around the stories of “Gani the maroon,” who was murdered in the 1830s by a party hunting for escaped slaves, and “Mani the murderer,” who killed a white soldier in retaliation for a rampage on Black peasants. Glissant (1928–2011) is as comprehensive as he is unconcerned with the encumbrance of linearity, and has found the perfect form to explore the inescapable and reverberating legacies of colonialism. This is a transcendent work of art. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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