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A Room Called Earth

Madeleine Ryan. Penguin, $17 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-14-313545-6

Australian writer Ryan’s evocative debut features an autistic narrator negotiating her social obligations on Christmas Eve in Melbourne. As the unnamed, self-possessed woman, who finds “connection with my own species has been difficult,” prepares to attend a party, her mind takes her through a series of digressions. Should she put chopsticks in her hair, or paint the chopsticks to match her outfit, or leave them in the drawer to serve their purpose as utensils? She considers the identities of the partygoers, whom she envisions as “Futuristic Shadow Beasts Without Faces,” observes the foliage, and plays with her cat. Among people, she struggles to bridge the gulf between the hive of her mind and polite conversation, which she finds suffocating, whether dealing with a clingy ex-boyfriend or weathering the labels and words that she refuses to define her (“Sometimes... I fear that change is impossible, and that persecution is inevitable for us all”). Eventually, she leaves with a man and contends with the languages of love and sex in an extended scene that begins awkwardly but turns into romance. While the dialogue is often long-winded, the interior monologues are vibrant and revealing. Ryan succeeds in capturing neurodiversity on the page. Agent: Barbara Zitwer, Barbara J. Zitwer Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Discomfort of Evening

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, trans. from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-64445-034-5

Rijneveld’s head-turning debut, a bestseller in their native Netherlands and a Booker International Prize nominee, puts a contemporary spin on classic wrath-of-God literature. Narrated by Jas, the prepubescent farm daughter of Dutch Reformists (Calvinist cousins to American Evangelicalism), the novel opens with the death of Jas’s oldest brother, Matthies, who drowns in an ice-skating accident. His demise unspools an already dubious family harmony. The father grows distant; the mother, emaciated and portentous, claims Matthies’s death to be a sign of the 10th biblical plague. . Another plague is referenced with the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in the livestock, and Jas tortures toads into mating, convinced it will help her parents to do the same. Meanwhile, Jas and her younger sister, Hanna, make plans to run away, while their older brother, Odde, devolves into a sadistic teenager. Like a scene in a Bosch painting, the macabre material is loaded with sexual transgressions, pedophilia, animal torture, and abuse. The onslaught can be numbing, but the translation’s soaring lyricism offers mercy for the reader. In another biblical plague, absolute darkness descended upon the land for three days. Here it lasts for almost 300 pages, not lifting until the final line. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Via Negativa

Daniel Hornsby. Knopf, $22.95 (246p) ISBN 978-0-525-65847-4

A former Catholic priest grapples with his unorthodox clerical career in Hornsby’s affecting debut. Father Dan, ousted from his rectory in Indiana for clashing with its conservative leaders, takes his “mobile monk’s cell” of a car on the road, packing plenty of Prince CDs and sporting a new beard that is “halfway between a Francis and a Peter.” Denver is the destination, home of his old friend Paul, who became a Unitarian minister after marrying a man. Along the way, Dan rescues a coyote after witnessing it being hit by a minivan and, at a bar in Kansas, is asked by the bar’s owner to take a pistol off her hands. Dan accepts, and gets the idea to use it on James Bruno, a retired pedophile priest. As he makes stops at kitschy tourist destinations and dithers over releasing the coyote he’s named Bede, Dan reflects on how he chafed at pastoral duties, believing he would have “done much better in some remote monastery on a chalky Italian cliff... or some other century.” As he drives, he reveals a heartbreaking secret that propels the looming confrontation with Bruno, farther down the road in Montana. Dan’s regrets and doubts about his impact as a priest come through amid acerbic humor, and the kinetic prose keeps the melancholic, slow burn kindled throughout. Hornsby has got the goods, and his stirring tale of self-reflection, revenge, and theological insight isn’t one to miss. Agent: Chris Clemans, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Train to Key West

Chanel Cleeton. Berkley, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-451-49088-9

Elizabeth Preston, one of three spunky heroines in Cleeton’s loosely braided historical (after When We Left Cuba), finds herself caught in a killer hurricane in the Florida Keys over Labor Day weekend in 1935, having fled New York City to avoid marrying gangster Frank Morgan and instead search for a WWI vet who wrote her a letter. Elizabeth’s train stops in Key West, where she meets the heavily pregnant Helen Berner, a waitress at Ruby’s restaurant. Married for nine years to Tom, an abusive alcoholic fisherman, Helen fantasizes about a new life. Also at Ruby’s is newlywed Mirta Perez Cordero, who is on the way to joining her husband, Anthony, at their honeymoon beach house. After Tom threatens Helen, she flees up the Keys to Islamorada, determined to protect her unborn child. Elizabeth, worried she might be tailed by one of Frank’s lackeys, allows a man she met on the train to accompany her. During a terrifying ordeal at the height of the hurricane, after Mirta discovers what business her husband is in, she is forced to confront the limits of her loyalty. The author neatly ties up the trio of plotlines, revealing the slender—and very convenient—threads connecting the women. Cleeton finds the right balance of historical detail and suspense, making this a riveting curl-up-on-the-couch affair. Agent: Kevan Lyon, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom

John Boyne. Hogarth, $28 (464p) ISBN 978-0-593-23015-2

Boyne (A Ladder to The Sky) traces a quest for revenge across centuries in this inventive, engrossing novel. Spanning from Palestine in 1 CE to outer space in 2080, the narrative advances through each chapter with the characters renamed and living in a different location and time. The unnamed narrator disappoints his warrior father by becoming an artisan, fashioning sandals in fifth-century Guatemala and amulets in seventh-century Greenland. He loses his first wife on their wedding day to a natural disaster. His second marriage ends in his wife’s death when his cousin spitefully exposes her location to her own vengeful family after the narrator refuses to keep the cousin’s lover on as an apprentice. Full of rage, the narrator feigns muteness and enters a monastery, helping to illuminate the Book of Kells. As he plots revenge against his cousin, he begins sleeping with an ambitious female ruler (alternately Lady Macbeth, a Dutch queen, and a Chinese empress, all of whom keep him in their clutches). He commits a terrible act to escape the empress, which primes him for further tragedies. The conceit of shifting settings (with cameos from Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Ned Kelly, and other famous figures) is handled seamlessly, and the action never ceases. Fans of imaginative historical fiction and tragic epics will enjoy this quirky, lyrical novel. Agent: Eric Simonff, WME. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Frightened Ones

Dima Wannous, trans. from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. Knopf, $25.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0-525-65513-8

Syrian writer Wannous’s English-language debut is a bleak, multilayered tale of depression and fear framed by violence, discrimination, displacement, and revolution in Damascus after the 2011 uprising. It follows Suleima, a young woman struggling with anxiety, as she meets Naseem, a troubled writer who publishes under a pseudonym, in her therapist’s waiting room. The two develop an intense relationship that abruptly ends when Naseem flees to Germany to escape Assad’s dictatorship. He sends Suleima an unfinished manuscript featuring an unnamed main character that Suleima recognizes as a version of herself (“It’s true that her family is different, as are her memories, but our souls clearly spin in the same orbit”). From there, Wannous alternates between Naseem’s writing and Suleima’s narration, in which she looks back on her life in Damascus from her own refuge in Beirut. The author describes the politics of the revolution and neatly parallels the present-day atrocities and Suleima’s parents’ memories of a 1982 massacre, but at the work’s core is Wannous’s exploration of Suleima’s struggles with her mental health, as she relies on Xanax whenever her heartbeat reaches its “dreaded gallop.” Though powerful in its portrayal of Suleima’s layered ordeal, the dueling narratives are somewhat disjointed. Still, this deeply humane examination of wartime Syrians and their coping mechanisms deserves a look. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Bestiary

K-Ming Chang. One World, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-13258-6

In Chang’s vivid, fabulist debut, three generations of women contend with the mythology of their Taiwanese heritage. Chang opens in 1980, with Mother as a young girl searching for the gold her father brought from mainland China to Taiwan to Arkansas, then flashes forward to present-day California, where Mother raises Daughter on a steady stream of legends, such as that of Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit who wants to be human but must consume the toes of children to keep her form. (Some of Mother’s toes are missing.) Daughter takes the story of Hu Gu Po as her own when she grows a tiger tail from a wound on her back, the result of a whipping Mother gave her and her brother for digging holes in their front yard. When Daughter befriends a classmate from China, the girls explore their desire for each other, as the holes in her front yard spit up letters that seem to be written by Daughter’s grandmother, leaving it up to Daughter to make sense of her lineage. The narrative arc meanders through the characters’ various relationships, but the prose is full of imagery. Chang’s wild story of a family’s tenuous grasp on belonging in the U.S. stands out with a deep commitment to exploring discomfort with the body and its transformations. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Animal Spirit

Francesca Marciano. Pantheon, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4815-9

Marciano’s sharp-eyed and effortlessly graceful collection (after Rules of the Wild), set largely in the author’s native Italy, explores the ways people’s animalistic instincts drive relationships. In “Terrible Things Could Happen to Us,” wealthy family man Sandro falls in love with his yoga teacher, and Marciano’s lack of sentimentality keeps things taut until a devastating denouement, which leaves Sandro speechless, “like an actor who has forgotten his lines.” In “The Girl,” a middle-aged Hungarian tries to convince a young Italian woman to join the circus and help in his snake-charming act. The title story follows two couples sharing an island vacation house as their varying degrees of uncertainty about their futures coalesce around a midnight encounter with a sheep—or is it a poodle?—that may or may not need to be rescued. In “There Might Be Blood,” Diana decamps to Rome to write her long-deferred novel. Rather than writing, she obsesses over seagulls, which plague the city and prevent her from enjoying her terrace near Piazza Navona. Diana decides to enlist Ivo, a falconer, whose birds, Queen and Darko, can hunt the gulls. In this story, and throughout the collection, Marciano skillfully uses her characters’ relationships with animals as metaphors to explore their humanity. Polished and compulsively readable, this is a real treat. (June)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Dazzling Truth

Helen Cullen. Harlequin, $17.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-5258-1582-9

Cullen (The Lost Letters of William Woolf) reveals how an aspiring actor’s losing battle with depression impacts the lives of those she loves. In 1978 Dublin, Maeve Moretti is attending Trinity College when she falls in love with fellow student Murtagh Moone, who is drawn to her “Technicolor” radiance without knowing about her dark episodes. When Murtagh is offered an apprenticeship with a potter living on the island of Inis Og after graduation, he accepts the position and asks Maeve to marry him. They wed and move to the island, and Maeve continues working on her acting career, while Murtagh takes over the potter’s business. After the couple has four children, Maeve is overcome by her depression and drowns herself. Murtagh struggles with the motivation to continue his pottery business as the younger children try to understand why their mother left so abruptly. Ten years later, when the siblings come home for the 30th birthday party for the eldest daughter, Murtagh shares some surprising news, and they must decide whether to accept the changes in Murtagh’s life. Cullen’s lyrical prose drives the immersive and heart-wrenching narrative. This complex study of depression and its impact on family dynamics will lure readers. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, InkWell Management. (Aug)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Boy in the Field

Margot Livesey. Harper, $26.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-294639-3

Livesey (Mercury) serves up a distinctive blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller. It’s nearing the end of 1999 when teenaged sibling Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang spot a boy, beaten and unconscious, in the outskirts of Oxford, England, after their father, Hal, fails to pick them up from school. The paramedics arrive and take the boy away in an ambulance, and the children rush home, realizing “something enormous” has happened. The event brings their statuses in the family into stark relief. Duncan, having been sent by his siblings to call for help, reckons with the “inevitability of being the youngest.” Matthew, the oldest, enamored by the heroes and villains of crime novels, wants to know who did it and why. Zoe follows men in Oxford streets, wondering if they were the perpetrators, and experiences a rude sexual awakening along the way (“You’re a hot little thing, aren’t you?” one says to her). Duncan, who’s adopted, believes finding information about the victim will help him in the search for his biological mother. Hal and his wife, Betsy, support their pursuits, which eventually drive the couple apart. Precise prose, cool observation, and tight pacing will keep readers turning the pages. This is a memorable twist on the coming-of-age tale. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/12/2020 | Details & Permalink

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