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Saltwater

Jessica Andrews. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-25380-6

Twenty-five-year-old Lucy Bailey reflects on her life after having moved from London to a quiet family home on the west coast of Ireland in this solid nonlinear debut from Andrews. Lucy quits her bartending job and relocates to the house her recently deceased grandfather bequeathed to her in the tiny fishing town of Burtonport. Though she once intended to make her life in bustling London, Lucy finds that the unhurried pace of the port appeals to her. Short vignettes chronicle a childhood with her devoted mother, Susie, who raised Lucy and her deaf younger brother, Josh, in a working-class town without much help from their alcoholic father. As Lucy grows up, she becomes a big reader, takes a shine to the Beat writers, and is encouraged by a high school teacher. Much of Andrews’s novel concerns Lucy finding herself as a teenager and college student, but this part of the story isn’t as engrossing as Lucy contemplating her family ties, the highlight of the book: “I think about all of the times my grandfather stumbled drunk up this road and now here I am, doing the same.” Her passages about dating and trying to fit in pale in comparison. Still, this coming-of-age story will appeal to readers who appreciate strong mother-daughter relationships. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Show Them a Good Time

Nicole Flattery. Bloomsbury, $24 (256p) ISBN 978-1-63557-429-6

Disenchanted characters maneuver through difficult settings in Flattery’s surreal and offbeat debut collection. Though diverse in content, the stories come together through their dystopian elements and comparably cynical protagonists. In “Sweet Talk,” a young teen falls for her father’s employee against the backdrop of a series of mysterious disappearances of multiple women in her hometown. In “Track,” the girlfriend of a has-been comedian withstands neglect and abuse from him while secretly contributing to his downfall through an internet forum. The title story tells of a former adult film actress who confronts workplace politics at her new job as a gas station attendant. A woman navigates dating during the apocalypse and finds it to be equally as disappointing in “Not the End Yet.” In “Abortion, a Love Story,” two college misfits unite to produce a stage play that questions the expectations forced upon them as adults. A seamless blend of reality and the surreal, Flattery’s stories defy genre in an affecting yet unobtrusive manner. Readers should expect to be equal parts intrigued and unsettled. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The God Child

Nana Oforiatta Ayim. Bloomsbury, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-408-88242-9

Ayim’s promising but uneven debut follows Ghanian expatriate Maya through her childhood and young adulthood in stultifying German society. Growing up in Germany and the U.K. during the 1970s and ’80s, with sporadic visits to Ghana, Maya is brought up in a wealthy, educated home and is fluent in both English and German. However, she is considered a foreigner in both European and Ghanian society and in the communities where she lives and attends school. After Maya’s father leaves the family when she’s in grade school, Maya’s beautiful and gregarious mother takes over the task of raising Maya and her cousin, Kojo, and tells them stories of their illustrious royal ancestors. While Maya is obedient, strives to fit in, and tries to ignore her peers’ racist remarks, Kojo’s impulsiveness makes him a target of bullies at school (and even at home). The narrative culminates in a visit to Ghana, where an adult Maya witnesses Kojo’s anguished struggle to establish a museum in Accra that he hopes will restore their family’s dynastic cultural lineage. While Ayim perceptively digs into the fragmented nature of family, colonialism, and transnational identity, these threads never combine to form a cohesive whole. Despite electric prose, sharp cultural allusions, and a charismatic protagonist, Ayim’s premise remains frustratingly ambiguous. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Miracles of the Namiya General Store

Keigo Higashino, trans. from the Japanese by Sam Bett. Yen On, $20 (320p) ISBN 978-1-9753-8257-5

Higashino (Newcomer), a bestseller in his native Japan, departs from his normal thrillers to deliver a sparkling tale about opening up to others’ troubles. Shota, Atsuya, and Kohei are looking for a place to lay low after committing a robbery and end up in the abandoned Namiya General Store. While they are hunkered down, a letter slides through the store’s mail slot—an unnamed woman is asking advice about if she should dedicated herself to pursuing her Olympic dream or stay with the dying man she loves. Through reading the letters, they learn that Mr. Namiya, the former shopkeeper, had devoted his time to answering the mail of anyone in need of advice. Over the course of a single night, the three robbers read letters other people had sent and see their own views on humanity change. In one story, a man dreams of making it in the music world, but when he finds out that his father is sick, he must decide between pursuing his dreams and taking over his father’s shop (and sends a letter to Namiya for advice). In another letter and narrative thread, Takayuki Namiya is shocked to discover his father is healing from his own grief by giving advice to random people, but finally, in his father’s last days, he comes to understand the impact of the letters—both on his father and on those who solicited his advice. Those used to Higashiro’s more high-octane plots will discover a new side to the author in this satisfying outing. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Sweet Indifference of the World

Peter Stamm, trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. Other Press, $14.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-59051-979-0

Swiss novelist Stamm (To the Back of Beyond) ruminates on fictions of the past and the recursive nature of time in this excellent doppelganger tale. Cristoph, a successful Swiss writer living in Stockholm, notices an actor with a startling resemblance to his ex-girlfriend and, after following her, sends a note to her hotel room: “Please come to the forest cemetery tomorrow, two p.m. I have a story to tell.” The actor, Lena, is unnerved that Cristoph divulges intimate details about her life and the work of her aspiring novelist boyfriend, Chris. As the two walk through Stockholm, Cristoph tells Lena of a time when he returned to his home village and stayed in a hotel where he used to work as a night porter. When he arrived late, the porter on duty was “like looking into a mirror.” As Cristoph unspools his theory about Lena being a doppelgänger for his former girlfriend, Magdelena (who was also an actor), this amorphous tale folds in on itself, becoming a meditation on how memory can distort reality: “It’s like having a play put on by several directors. The scenes look different, even the words can be changed or cut, but the action follows its unvarying course.” Fans of Julian Barnes will love this. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Words I Never Wrote

Jane Thynne. Ballantine, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5247-9659-4

In her latest, Thynne (the Clara Vine mystery series) memorably portrays how the bond shared by two sisters can be fractured by politics and war. In 2016 New York City, photographer Juno Lambert purchases a 1931 Underwood Portable typewriter as a photo prop and discovers inside it an unfinished manuscript written by deceased WWII reporter Cordelia Capel. The manuscript tells the story of Cordelia and her sister, Irene, who married German lawyer and industrialist Ernst Weissmuller in 1936 England and moved to Germany. After the wedding, Cordelia moves to Paris and works for journalist Torin Fairchild. As the Nazi party gains more control in Germany, Cordelia and Irene continue to write to one another. Irene’s letters are filled with information about parties with high-ranking Nazi officials, and she never answers Cordelia’s questions in her letters about the brutality of the Nazis. After Torin leaves Paris to rescue a fellow journalist in Spain, Cordelia returns to London where she is recruited to prepare British agents to go undercover in France. After reading the partially finished manuscript, Juno is determined to find out more about Cordelia and takes an assignment in Berlin, where she is able to uncover more about Irene and Cordelia. Thynne’s elegant narrative immerses the reader in war-torn Europe while potently showing the division that forms between Cordelia and Irene. Fans of WWII fiction with strong female characters will be immersed in this magnetic novel. Agent: Caradoc King, United Agents. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Kingdomtide

Rye Curtis. Little, Brown, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-42010-5

Curtis’s intense debut pairs two narratives, one of which is better realized than the other. The more urgent and successful story is that of feisty 72-year-old Chloris Waldrip, a staple of the Methodist church in the little town in the Texas Panhandle where she and her husband of 54 years live. On their way to a fishing vacation in Montana in 1986, their tiny plane crashes. The plane’s pilot and Chloris’s husband are killed, leaving her stranded in the wilderness of the Bitterroot Mountains. Her grueling attempt to survive and escape is depicted with vivid urgency. She becomes an object of obsession for forest ranger Debra Lewis and a small crew of misfits who help her with the search. While Lewis does her best to locate Chloris, whom she is convinced against all evidence is still alive, she is hampered by a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to devote any more money to the search. As a result, she spends much less time searching than downing bottle after bottle of merlot, suffering through a dysfunctional sexual relationship with a search-and-rescue guy brought in for the hunt, and lusting after the guy’s troubled teenage daughter. Chloris’s gritty, nightmarish story, as well as her strong voice and personality, will make her a reader favorite. Though uneven, this story of survival will keep readers quickly turning the pages. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Majesties

Tiffany Tsao. Atria, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-9821-1550-0

Tsao (The Oddfits) cannily pulls back the gilded surface from a wealthy Indonesian family, revealing a rotten core. The novel opens in the aftermath of an extravagant birthday party for the Sulinado family patriarch, during which a young woman, Estella, has poisoned her entire extended family. The only survivor, Estella’s sister Gwendolyn, narrates the events leading up to the mass murder from her hospital bed, where she lies in a comatose state. These include the disastrous devolution of Estella’s brief marriage, as well as the sisters’ recent attempts to reconnect in the U.S. with a fun-loving aunt whom they had believed, until recently, to be dead. The sisters share a close bond, though each successive revelation about how their morally corrupt family intervened in these personal affairs drives a wedge further between them. The plot takes a while to hit its stride, but once it does, the narrative unfolds in a manner that’s both suspenseful and creepily claustrophobic. The novel also prompts readers to consider the cultural relativism of stereotypes, contrasting outsider perceptions of those with Chinese heritage in both Indonesia and the U.S. Tsao depicts a family whose fabulous wealth and privilege not only blind them to the needs of others but also engender cruelty and self-destruction. This is a bold and dramatic portrayal of characters on the cusp of an impossible choice between complicit self-preservation and total annihilation. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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When We Were Vikings

Andrew David MacDonald. Scout, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2676-6

MacDonald’s offbeat debut introduces 21-year-old Zelda, a Viking-obsessed young woman with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, who lives with her gruff, tattooed older brother and guardian, Gert. While he attends college on a hardship scholarship, Zelda enjoys spending time with Gert’s feisty ex-girlfriend AK47 and at the community center with her friends. She’s also determined to have sex with her boyfriend, Marxy, if only his overprotective mother would get out of the way. Money is tight, and when Zelda discovers that Gert has resorted to some possibly illegal money-making methods, she decides to help, because helping the tribe is what a Viking warrior does. What follows is by turns funny and tragic as Zelda navigates a new job at the library, explores intimacy with Marxy, and puts herself firmly in the crosshairs of some decidedly unsavory people. The guileless Zelda, who narrates, is a joy, and her fierce love for her family drives her, even if it means running headlong into danger. MacDonald avoids oversentimentality and a too-neat resolution, instead depicting Zelda’s desire to shape her own life and be the hero of her own legend with frankness and humor. Readers will be inspired by the unforgettable Zelda. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Long Petal of the Sea

Isabel Allende, trans. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson. Ballantine, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-9848-2015-0

Spanning from 1938 to 1994, this majestic novel from Allende (In the Midst of Winter) focuses on Victor Dalmau, a 23-year-old medical student fighting in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side when the novel opens. After Nationalist forces prevail, Victor and thousands of other Republican sympathizers flee Spain to avoid brutal reprisals. In France, he searches the packed refugee camps for Roser Bruguera, who is pregnant with his brother Guillem’s child. Once he finds Roser, he breaks the news that Guillem has died in battle and that he has won a place on the Winnipeg, a ship that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has organized to transport Spanish refugees from Europe, where WWII is breaking out, to safety in Chile. Allowed to bring only family with him, Victor persuades Roser to marry him in name only. Though Victor has a brief, secret affair with well-off Ofelia del Solar, he begins to fall in love with Roser; they raise Roser’s son, Marcel, together and build stable lives, he as a cardiologist and she as a widely respected musician. But when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s Marxist president in 1973, they find themselves once more endangered by their political views. Allende’s assured prose vividly evokes her fictional characters, historical figures like Neruda, and decades of complex international history; her imagery makes the suffering of war and displacement palpable yet also does justice to human strength, hope and rebirth. Seamlessly juxtaposing exile with homecoming, otherness with belonging, and tyranny with freedom, the novel feels both timeless and perfectly timed for today. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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