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Dislocations

Sylvia Molloy, trans. from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft. Charco, $15.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-913867-35-5

Argentine novelist and critic Molloy (Reading Dates) examines the nature and significance of memory in her gleaming English-language fiction debut. The narrator, S., takes up the role of “scribe” as she chronicles her longtime friend M.L.’s struggles with Alzheimer’s, noting how M.L.’s memory “keeps leaving pieces by the roadside.” In language by turns tender and probing, S. recounts almost daily visits to see M.L. Certain passages delve into the unpredictability of Alzheimer’s, such as when M.L. translates her caretaker L.’s notes on her symptoms for the English-speaking doctor, even though she herself is unable to recall or comprehend her own health problems. Other sections focus on the 45-year-long friendship between the two women, but as M.L.’s memory weakens, so does the history on which the friendship is founded, calling attention to the role of memory in reinforcing present ties. Heartbreaking and illuminating, the varied moments are beautifully rendered in short, noncontinuous chapters that mimic M.L.’s oft-fleeting mind, with its fractured recollections and random thoughts. A graceful study of memory, identity, and relationships, this is one to cherish. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Ally

Iván Repila, trans. from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem. Other Press, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63542-254-2

In this tepid satire from Repila (The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse), a man jump-starts a feminist revolution in Spain. After the unnamed narrator’s boorish roommates sneeringly call him a feminist, he stops to wonder why this epithet rankles him. Soon, he’s attending academic roundtables and lectures on feminism, where he meets and falls for a graduate student, Najwa, whose glasses give her the look of “a highly qualified young woman” and who patiently educates him on the basic tenets of feminist theory. Frustrated by the slow pace of changes in women’s status and efforts toward equality, the narrator adopts an alias and recruits a force called the Phallic State, a band of cartoonishly misogynist brothers, to harass women and provoke a reaction. In response, women form a militant group. Unfortunately, there’s little here to support the set-up. A one-dimensional characters abound, and a smug, tiresome irony reigns—“What a drag to have to reexamine my privilege,” says the narrator—as the novel supplies crude, not particularly entertaining caricatures, warmed over summaries of gender theory, and rapid-fire accounts of the escalating conflict. This sheds little light on the complexities and perils of allyship. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Light Pirate

Lily Brooks-Dalton. Grand Central, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5387-0827-9

Brooks-Dalton (Good Morning, Midnight) tells the gripping if underdeveloped story of a Florida family devastated by a hurricane, with hints of magic and a transformed landscape as the timeline stretches into the near future. Kirby Lowe, a divorced electrical lineman on call to make storm damage repairs, shares custody of his two unruly sons, Lucas, 12, and Flip, eight, while his pregnant second wife, Frida, has a premonition about Wanda, the coming hurricane. During the storm, Frida gives birth, names their daughter after the hurricane, then dies shortly after Kirby returns. Flip also perished in the storm, and a neighbor, a retired teacher named Phyllis, takes baby Wanda under her wing. Later, after Wanda starts school and learns biology from Phyllis, she discovers a magical ability: when she touches the ocean’s water, she attracts bioluminescence. Meanwhile, Lucas joins Kirby on line duty as they make repairs after lesser storms and wait for the next big one. Murmurs abound on the compromised Hoover Dike, which, if damaged by another major storm, could unleash catastrophic flooding from Lake Okeechobee. By the end, Brooks-Dalton’s vision for what might be includes a radically changed state of Florida. Though the magical elements are unexplained and extraneous, the author sustains a steady pace from one storm to the next. Climate fiction aficionados will eat this up. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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At Certain Points We Touch

Lauren John Joseph. Bloomsbury, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5266-3130-5

Joseph’s middling debut about memory and toxic relationships shows flashes of brilliance, but ends up feeling overwrought and overlong. The unnamed narrator, a transfemme writer from Lancashire, England, realizes it’s the birthday of their deceased lover, Thomas James, and suddenly gets the urge to write about themself and their immensely unhealthy relationship with the enigmatic Thomas. The story spans a decade and several continents, as the narrator moves between London, San Francisco, and New York City. Interspersed are a vast array of friends made at parties, most importantly Adam, who eventually winds up in a toxic love triangle with the narrator and Thomas. The narrator constantly tries their best to rid themself of Thomas’s manipulative ways, but to no avail. A death impacts the final act, as the ensemble cast tries to pick up the pieces afterward. The author certainly has chops, as evidenced by the narrator’s sharp musings on the futility of existence (“all of these gestures we make, all of these cave paintings are just ways of killing a few hours before bed”), but the plot meanders and drags to the point of incoherence. This one needs a sharper focus to give its inspired moments their due. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Words That Remain

Stênio Gardel, trans. from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato. New Vessel, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-954404-12-0

Brazilian writer Gardel’s auspicious debut finds a 71-year-old illiterate man holding onto an old, unread letter from his childhood friend and first love. Raimundo won’t let anyone else see the letter, which was sent to him by his lover, Cicero, after Cicero’s father discovered them having sex at 17. Raimundo wanted to live with Cicero, but never had the chance. In flashbacks, Gardel delves into Raimundo’s early shame over his sexuality and illiteracy, and chronicles how Raimundo was beaten by his father and kicked out of the house after he and Cicero were caught. He finds work with truckers, including Alex, whom he dances with and who takes him to a porn theater. Raimundo’s story is contrasted with that of his courageous uncle Dalberto, who was killed by Raimundo’s grandfather after Dalberto told him he was gay. When Raimundo attacks his trans friend Suzzanný, he knows that his actions stem from fear: “Fear is in my spine, it is what holds me up, and I am using it to hurt others,” he narrates. Raimundo’s feelings of shame, anger, and self-loathing are palpable as he examines his troubled past. This wistful novel introduces a worthy new voice. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Eastbound

Maylis de Kerangal, trans. from the French by Jessica Moore. Archipelago, $17 (128p) ISBN 978-1-953861-50-4

First published in France in 2012, de Kerangal’s impeccable novel (after The Cook) follows two strangers on the Trans-Siberian Railway in search of political and emotional freedom. More than one hundred army conscripts from Moscow are crammed on the train like a “mass of squid,” destination unknown. Though set in contemporary Russia, the vibe is uncompromisingly Soviet, a “bored resignation” clouding over the crowd. Aliocha, 20, fears he’s headed to Siberia, and is bullied and knocked around by his fellow soldiers. He decides to desert, and on his way to the first-class compartment he has a noirish encounter with a Frenchwoman named Helene, who boarded the train to get away from her Russian lover, a toxic bureaucrat. Neither speaks the other’s language, but that doesn’t deter them during several intense nights as Aliocha and Helene bond over their respective feelings about the men running a tight-fisted military regime. Disguises, hidden spaces for overhead luggage, and a spectacular sighting of the country’s “pearl,” Lake Baikal, add to Aliocha and Helene’s series of adventures as they speed toward Vladivostok and their hopeful independence. De Kerangal’s triumphant achievement is powered by mellifluous prose with a rhythm as steady as the train. Readers are in for a dazzling literary ride. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/21/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Vibrant Years

Sonali Dev. Mindy’s Book Studio, $24.95 (318p) ISBN 978-1-66250-926-1

Regrets, secrets, and love drive this beautifully told multigenerational saga from Dev (The Emma Project). App developer Cullie Desai hit it big with Shloka, which she created to help others deal with anxiety. She then had an affair with Steve, who helped take the app to market. Now, six months after Steve went back to his wife, he’s trying to sabotage the program by charging users a subscription fee, prompting Cullie to come up with another winner so she can boot him from the team. Meanwhile, her mother, Aly, is still chasing her dream of becoming a television news anchor, a career that’s already cost Aly her marriage and 10 years of being pushed into the background by her boss. Meanwhile, Cullie’s paternal grandmother, Bindu, who’s just received a substantial inheritance, tries to create a new life at an upscale seniors’ residence. Unfortunately, the inheritance is tied to a painful secret from her distant past. Dev easily gets the reader to root for her well-rounded characters, and the intertwined story lines wrap up with a delightful ending. This effervescent tale is sure to please the author’s fans and win her new ones. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Cursed Bunny

Bora Chung, trans. from the Korean by Anton Hur. Algonquin, $17.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-64375-360-7

Chung debuts with a well-crafted and horrifying collection of dark fairy tales, stark revenge fables, and disturbing body horror. In “The Head,” a woman is terrorized by a creature in her toilet. In “The Frozen Finger,” a woman awakes in the dark, unsure how her car got stuck in the mud, and follows a voice before learning of the danger it leads her to. In “Snare,” a fox bleeds gold and curses the merchant who keeps her captive; her curse is enacted horrifically through the merchant’s own children. “Scars” features a nameless boy who escapes endless tortures in a monster’s cave only to find pain and horror in the world of men. In “Goodbye, My Love,” a woman falls in love with an “artificial companion” but comes to a shocking realization when she attempts to replace the AI with a newer model. The strangely touching “Home Sweet Home” starts as a somewhat traditional story of a woman whose hard work is taken for granted by her ne’er-do-well husband, but their house holds a powerful secret that brings her happiness. Clever plot twists and sparkling prose abound. Chung’s work is captivating and terrifying. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Faraway World

Patricia Engel. Avid Reader, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-1-9821-5952-8

Colombians and Colombian Americans experience the bittersweet vagaries of class, lies, and love in this engrossing collection from Engel (Infinite Country). In the suspenseful “Aida,” Aida’s 16-year-old twin sister, Salma, disappears from their quiet N.Y.C. suburb, which the detective on the case describes reassuringly as the opposite of “some third world country.” In the gritty “Fausto,” a security guard entices his naive lover, Paz, into being a drug mule. The enthralling “The Book of Saints” alternates perspectives to tell the story of a loveless marriage between a Colombian woman and a man from Manhattan who meets her online and who pays for her breast implants. In “Campoamor,” set in Cuba, a bleak romantic triangle complicates the narrator’s effort to leave the country. In “Libelula,” a Colombian immigrant takes a cleaning job with a wealthy Colombian family and moves into a studio share in Manhattan with another Colombian woman who works as a nanny; by the end, the story blooms into a seductive portrayal of infidelity. Engel’s alluring story lines and empathy for her characters make this a winner. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Call and Response: Stories

Gothataone Moeng. Viking, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-49098-3

Botswanan writer Moeng’s lyrical and poignant debut delves into complex family dynamics. In “Botalaote,” Boikanyo, 12, no longer views her dying aunt as a relative, just a burden. Boikanyo meets a boy and escapes the drudgery of caretaking, though after her aunt’s death, her striking reflections on the proximity of her school to the cemetery make her realize the constant presence of death in her life. In “A Good Girl,” Keletso, nine, observes her mother and teenage sister’s wariness with each other as her sister vies for independence and spills a family secret. Keletso later moves to Gaborone, where her married brother lives, and remains the “good” one in his eyes, never revealing her relationships with men or her drinking. Here, Moeng adds to the stunning range of narrative styles, sliding into first-person plural to encapsulate the debaucherous activities of Keletso and her female roommates. She meets an artist, learns another secret, and comes to terms with her role as a repository for deceit. Twenty-something Phetso grieves her husband’s death in a car accident in “Small Wonders” and marvels at how nothing has changed for anyone else. She becomes a solitary observer, ignoring family and their desire for a ceremony to honor him and release her from her mourning after a year. The author brings insightful prose and a distinctive voice to these layered stories, demonstrating deep knowledge of her characters and care for their worlds. Moeng is a new force in the literary landscape. Agent: Julie Barer, Book Group. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/14/2022 | Details & Permalink

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