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Nobody, Somebody, Anybody

Kelly McClorey. Ecco, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-300265-4

In McClorey’s droll debut, a young woman is on the brink of getting her life together, or so she hopes. After dropping out of “a rather elite university,” Amy Hanley scrubs toilets as a chambermaid at the Salters Cove Yacht Club outside Boston, buoyed by thoughts of Florence Nightingale and the value of cleanliness as she studies for her third and final attempt at the EMT cognitive exam. Inspired by the “placebo effect” from her studies, she forges a test result and certification card, hoping they will help put her in the right mindset to achieve success. To combat her suffocating loneliness, she begins opening her landlord Gary’s mail, and learns he’s awaiting the arrival of his fiancée, Irina, whom he met on an international dating service cruise. Amy and Gary form an unlikely bond as she helps him prepare for Irina’s arrival, and the placebo effect extends beyond her work life as she strives to find companionship with a man but sabotages her efforts with random hookups and deceit. With dark humor, McClorey conveys Amy’s denial and hope in equal measures as she struggles through the minefield of her 20s hoping to find someone to share her life with. Fans of Ottessa Moshfegh will want to give this a shot. Agent: Sarah Bowlin, Aevitas Creative Management. (July)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Autumn Rounds

Jacques Poulin, trans. from the French by Sheila Fischman. Archipelago, $18 trade paper (216p) ISBN 978-1-953861-06-1

Canadian novelist Poulin (Mister Blue) continues his oeuvre of quiet, unimposing fiction with this delicate tale of a Quebec City bookmobile owner whose solitary life is upended after he meets an alluring woman. Known only as “the Driver,” the eccentric protagonist surrounds himself with books and rejected manuscripts donated by their authors, and grimly anticipates the encroaching decline of his later years, which he intends to circumvent through suicide. While investigating the sounds of a marching band in his neighborhood, he meets Marie, the lovely organizer of a troupe of traveling artists. Like him, she’s gray-haired and reserved, and she’s beautiful, but she’s involved with fellow troupe member Slim. Regardless, Marie and the Driver’s relationship deepens, affording Poulin plenty of opportunities to depict Quebec landmarks in lush detail as the couple rides together along the bookmobile routes, during which a booksmith named Jack pops in to share his literary observations. Narrated in ponderous, poetic prose, the brief text successfully harnesses a range of themes, made potent by the melancholy mix of the Driver’s fear of aging and the lure of romance. Poulin once again shows his knack for grace and nuance. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Love Parade

Sergio Pitol, trans. from the Spanish by George Henson. Deep Vellum, $15.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-64605-113-7

Mexican writer and Cervantes Prize winner Pitol (Mephisto’s Waltz), who died in 2018, offers an enticing and byzantine story of political intrigue set in Mexico City in 1973. Historian Miguel Del Solar seeks the truth about the murder of Erich Maria Pistauer, which occurred in 1942 in the Minerva building when Miguel was 10 and living there with his aunt, uncle, and his aunt’s unsavory brother, Arnulfo Briones, Erich’s stepfather. Fashionable at the time, the Minerva housed foreign diplomats and a once-powerful class of Mexicans. During the war, the city had become a hive of foreign conspiracies, and when Del Solar discovers that two others were wounded that night, he comes to believe that the Minerva may have been at the very center of the chicanery. Erich’s murder occurred on the evening of a party thrown by another tenant, which was attended by Mexicans and Germans, right-wing Catholics and Jews, all of them harboring secrets. Everyone Miguel interviews dissembles, their conversations as confusing as a game of telephone. Was Arnulfo working with the Germans? Was Erich, who was Austrian, killed in revenge? In the end, the author has conjured an ingenuous portrait of a city, its people, and an era. Pitol’s eccentric, genre-breaking style exerts a strong pull. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Yonder

Jabari Asim. Simon & Schuster, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-982163-16-7

Novelist and cultural critic Asim (We Can’t Breathe) delivers a searing and redemptive story of slavery and survival. Set in the antebellum South, it is narrated primarily by enslaved people who call themselves the “Stolen” and white people “Thieves.” To sustain themselves through the cruelties of their owner, Cannonball Greene, a philandering pseudo-intellectual planning a study of Africans in America, the Stolen rely on their rituals and bonds. Inspired by myths of the Buba Yalis, Zander, a teen, believes he will one day fly like his African ancestors. Cato eases the shattering grief of his lover’s death by adding her name to the seven words chosen by the elders for each Stolen at birth, in the belief that “words were mighty enough to change [their] condition.” William doubts the power of all words, trusting action instead. When he stops Cupid, the plantation’s slave foreman, from bullying Zander one night, the two men fight. Cato steps in and kills Cupid, then helps William bury him in the woods. Faced with Greene’s rage, the others, heeding the promises of freedom offered by an itinerant Black preacher, consider a risky escape. Asim convincingly portrays what W.E.B. Dubois would later term “double consciousness” among the Stolen: “All of us have two tongues,” an unnamed Stolen says, distinguishing between the “lament cloaked in deception” used for their enslavers and the rich, transgressive language used among themselves. At once intimate and majestic, the prose marries a gripping narrative with an unforgettable exploration of the power of stories, language, and hope. With a bold vision, Asim demonstrates his remarkable gifts. Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bed Stuy

Jerry McGill. Little A, $24.95 (206p) ISBN 978-1-5420-3029-8

McGill (Dear Marcus) addresses racism, guilt, and substance abuse in a heartbreaking story about love and growth. Rashid and Rachel are in love, but it’s complicated; Rashid is a Black man living in Brooklyn’s Jefferson Lane Housing projects and working as a waiter, and Rachel, an unhappily married white mother of two, is rich, a flautist, and almost twice Rashid’s age. They met while he was working as a model for her mother, a sculptor and Holocaust survivor. Rashid’s affection is a balm for Rachel, but with the odds stacked against them, tension mounts because of Rachel’s use of heroin, which Rashid’s father had died from, and a series of racially charged resentments, notably, Rachel believing she was passed over for a professorship in favor of a person of color. McGill laces the narrative with scathing political commentary (“Few things are more hideous in this country than the Republican Negro,” says Rashid’s cousin Staci) and intergenerational trauma, both Rashid’s and Rachel’s. Smart and touching, the affair revolves around a sad truth: as Rashid puts it, love is often “not dissimilar to surviving a deadly illness.” Throughout, McGill succeeds in depicting love as a universal force, for better or for worse. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Coco at the Ritz

Gioia Diliberto. Pegasus, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-643-13841-1

Biographer and novelist Diliberto (Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped) offers a taut and surprising portrayal of French fashion designer Coco Chanel, focusing on her interrogation for suspected treason against France. Diliberto recounts Coco’s giddy initial encounter with German spy Hans “Spatz” von Dincklage in 1940 at the Ritz, six weeks after the Germans occupied Paris; she had returned to the city from her vacation home to appeal for the release of her imprisoned nephew. Coco, 61, was smitten with Spatz, and they became lovers, living large at the Ritz and avoiding the wartime deprivations inflicted on ordinary Parisians. Under questioning from Resistance officers, Coco, who preferred to believe Spatz was never a spy, denies he was a Nazi, instead claiming that he was merely an embassy attaché. Coco was arrested in August 1944 after Paris’s liberation, and accused of collaboration with the enemy. Diliberto imagines Coco’s hostile questioning by former French Resistance fighters as a battle of wits, as Coco faces down allegations of spying, planning a relaunch of her business with the Nazis, and anti-Semitism toward a business partner. Diliberto ably depicts Coco, who was set free after Winston Churchill intervened, as a formidable woman of independence, massive wealth, and steely nature. From the opaque historical record emerges a satisfying take on a complicated woman. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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For One Day of Freedom

Blyden B. Jackson Jr. Antibookclub, $16 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-953862-06-8

A young man strives to escape from slavery in this blistering epic from Jackson (Operation Burning Candle), a novelist and civil rights activist known for his contributions to the Black thriller genre of the 1960s and ’70s who died in 2012. Jubel plans his escape on the eve of cotton-picking season and upon the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which demands that all people who escaped from slavery must be captured and returned to their “owners.” Robb Windsor, the plantation owner’s youngest son, is 22, same as Jubel, and is torn between being Jubel’s friend and his master. Jubel has to go it alone, unable to bring along his mother or Missy, who works in the big house, and with whom he’s been in love since the two were children. As Jubel treks through the treacherous swamp, Robb notices his absence and hires a slave catcher to hunt him down. Jackson’s propulsive prose conveys Jubel’s urgency and his Odyssean string of obstacles, such as a white woodcutter who presses him into service after capturing him, and unveils painful revelations about Jubel’s, Missy’s, and Robb’s broken childhood bonds. The steady supply of action and psychological insights makes this a knockout. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Magnolia Palace

Fiona Davis. Dutton, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-18401-1

Davis (The Lions of Fifth Avenue) returns with the captivating story of a missing diamond and the history of New York’s Henry Clay Frick House, before and after it became a museum. Veronica Weber travels from London to New York in 1966, where she works as a model on a photo shoot at the Frick Collection. After a spat with the photographer, Veronica fears she has ruined her chance for a lucrative modeling career. Then she discovers a set of papers in the museum that may provide clues to finding a rare pink diamond owned by Henry Frick, which went missing in 1919, and asks for help from archivist Joshua Lawrence. In a parallel narrative set in that year, Lillian Carter, a once sought-after artists’ model, takes a job as private secretary for Henry’s daughter, Helen, hoping to finance a move to Hollywood to work as an actor. As Veronica and Joshua continue their search for the missing diamond, Davis illuminates Lillian’s role in a long-kept Frick family secret. Davis smoothly combines fact with fiction, and offers beautiful descriptions of the family’s art collection. The colliding narratives and comprehensive descriptions of the historic mansion make for Davis’s best work to date. Agent: Stefanie Lieberman, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Perpetual West

Mesha Maren. Algonquin, $26.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-64375-094-1

Maren’s meticulously observed sophomore effort (after Sugar Run) is a quasi-thriller about life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2005, 21-year-old Elana and her husband, Alex, move from Virginia to El Paso, Tex., where Alex is a sociology grad student. Alex, who was born in Mexico and adopted by Pentecostal missionaries from West Virginia, is drawn to his native country and, along with Elana, spends time exploring Juarez. There, he meets Mateo, a lucha libre wrestler to whom he is sexually attracted. When Elana flies east for a family emergency, Alex takes off with Mateo to visit Mateo’s hometown of Creel. Then, after Elana returns to El Paso, Alex is nowhere to be found, and she discovers he left his cellphone behind. Following a single clue—an ATM withdrawal from Creel—Elana sets out in search of Alex. Meanwhile, he and Mateo have been kidnapped by the nephew of a narcotraficante, who demands the wrestler compete for him. The ending feels a bit abrupt, but the author does an expert job of showing Elana and Alex’s separate arcs, and their story dramatizes border life in a nonclichéd fashion. It adds up to an admirable if imperfect vehicle for examining the gulf between the two countries’ cultures and people. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shit Cassandra Saw

Gwen E. Kirby. Penguin Books, $17 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-14-313662-0

Kirby’s excellent debut collection follows a series of women empowered by new circumstances, sometimes with fantastical results. In “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot,” a man tells a woman to smile, and she responds by revealing a mouthful of fangs, which she uses to bite off the man’s hand, “crack[ing] the bones and spit[ting] them out.” Another woman in the same story uses her “laser eyes” to transform a man who gropes her into the exact change for her bus fare. In “The Best and Only Whore of Cwm Hyfryd, 1886,” the women of a Welsh settlement in Patagonia are generally too tired to have sex with their husbands, leaving the job to a sex worker. That woman, meanwhile, writes letters home to her brother and pretends to be married. The prose is sharp and calibrated to suit each of Kirby’s temporally and geographically diverse settings. She is even able to wring pathos from a story written in the format of a Yelp review, narrated by one of the rare male voices in the book, in the very funny “Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star,” in which reviewer Gary F.’s account of a miserable night at the Crab Shack slips into a chronicle of his crumbling marriage. It’s all accomplished through risk-taking and assured, well-developed craft. This is remarkable. Agent: Sarah Burnes, Gernert Co. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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