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Shoulder Season

Christina Clancy. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-23963-1

Clancy (The Second Home) delivers an engaging if overheated story of a woman’s trajectory from naive Midwesterner to Playboy Bunny, and, eventually, a new life in California. In 1981, recently orphaned Sherri Taylor, at 19, is hired to work at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club Resort, near her home of East Troy, Wis. Sherri quickly loses her innocence (by choice) and enters a world where cocaine and diet pills are the norm. An object of desire by guys who turn her off, she eventually encounters two men who steal her heart—one from California, another closer to home—and a heartbreaking accident forces Sherri to reevaluate her life and her friendships. She then drives to Los Angeles, where her luck begins to run out, but as the reader knows from a prologue set in the present day, things will turn out just fine. Despite some over-the-top melodrama, Clancy offers an entertaining behind-the-scenes view of the Lake Geneva resort, where wholesome, fresh-off-the-farm young women wear stiletto heels and skimpy costumes adorned with bunny tails and bunny ears, live in restricted dorms, and must adhere to rules about maintaining their weight and not mixing with customers. It’s not the most memorable tale, but it’s worth taking to the beach. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black

Terry Roberts. Turner, $16.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-68442-694-2

Roberts’s impressive historical thriller (after The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival) follows a hotel manager who takes occasional assignments from the federal government’s Bureau of Investigation. In 1920, Stephen Robbins’s job managing New York City’s Algonquin Hotel grows dull, and his romantic relationship has gone cold. The Bureau sends him to Ellis Island to investigate the disappearance of a pregnant Irishwoman, Ciara McManaway, shortly after her arrival. Lucy Paul, a nurse from the American Medical Society conducting a probe of the island’s medical practices, tells Robbins several immigrants disappear at Ellis each week. Several staff members espouse the beliefs of the racial purity movement, and those who vanish (Jews, dark-skinned people, and unwed pregnant women like Ciara) are deemed by them as dangerous to America’s strength. At the morgue, Robbins finds corpses that are a shade of pink as if they have been boiled; after Lucy is endangered by what they find, Robbins realizes how strong their bond has grown. The novel’s fast-paced style echoes hard-boiled detective fiction, but its nuanced, thought-provoking portrait of the country’s hostility toward immigrants transcends the bounds of genre. It should widen Roberts’s fan base and renew interest in his debut novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, which also featured Robbins. Agent: Emma Sweeney, Emma Sweeney Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Third Mrs. Galway

Deirdre Sinnott. Jones, $17.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-61775-842-3

Historian Sinnott’s ambitious if uneven debut grapples with the world of abolitionism in Upstate New York during the 1830s. The story unfolds in Utica in 1835 when two freedom seekers, Imari, an escaped enslaved pregnant woman, and her son, Joe, wander onto property belonging to entrepreneur Augustin Galway. Utica is the site of raging debate between colonizationists (conservative abolitionists like Galway advocating for removal of enslaved persons to Liberia), and radical abolitionists, who want the emancipation of enslaved persons. Helen O’Connell Galway, Augustin’s wife, decides to shelter the two fugitives from the watchful eye of her husband, but struggles with her decision. Utilizing a network of Quakers, local abolitionists, and free blacks including the Galways’ domestic servant and a fishmonger , Helen succeeds in keeping Joe and Imari sheltered—until an unscrupulous doctor hired by Augustin leads slave patrollers to the secreted runaways. In the end, Galway family secrets prove pivotal to the freedom seekers’ plight. While Sinnott offers a rich history of the burgeoning abolitionist movement, exhaustive details of events such as the New York Anti-Slavery Convention don’t always feel integrated into the story, and the primary characters are underdeveloped. In a crowded field, this doesn’t quite hold its own. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Virtue

Hermione Hoby. Riverhead, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-18859-0

Hoby (Neon in Daylight) delivers an accomplished take on class and protests against racial injustice. “That was just what you did on weekends—brunch and protest,” Luca Lewis wryly narrates in 2027, looking back on his time interning at a New York City magazine as a naive 22-year-old in 2016–2017. He yearns to befriend fellow intern Zara McKing, an attractive Black woman, but feels ashamed of his whiteness and unsure of how to be an ally. Luca also becomes enamored with Paula Summers, an artist working at the magazine, and her indie filmmaker husband, Jason Frank, and spends the summer with the couple and their five kids in Maine. As Paula and Jason fight over how to respond to racial injustice (in the city, Jason took the kids to protests; in Maine, Paula insists on carrying on traditions such as a Fourth of July parade). Toward the end of the summer, Luca learns of a tragedy involving Zara during a protest. Hoby’s writing sparks with inventiveness (“The sky had a passive-aggressive quality, bruised clouds withholding their light while telling you they were fine”), and she offers insights on the damage of power imbalances in relationships. This speaks volumes on the shallowness of white privilege. Agent: Marya Spence, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Ring on Deli

Eric Giroux. New Salem, $17 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-73422-400-9

Quirky characters take a stand against a supermarket in Giroux’s nimble debut. Pennacook, a rundown Massachusetts town home to wandering feral boars, barely survived the Great Recession. In 2013, Pennacook’s residents (called Pennies) depend primarily on the town’s largest employer, Bounty Bag supermarket. Working in the store’s deli is 23-year-old Ray Markham, the legal guardian of his 16-year-old brother Patrick since their parents died six years earlier. Ray juggles Patrick’s teen angst and alcohol abuse, and is heartbroken to learn his brother is involved in local thug Muscles Carbonara’s smuggling operation. After Bounty Bag’s board of directors fires beloved CEO Angie Martini, the store’s employees strike, and Ray must decide if he will join them or try to keep the store open. Meanwhile, high school principal Dr. Chong and Selectman Archie Simmons need Bounty Bag to remain a going concern in order to achieve their plans of funneling taxpayer money into building a new high school, and the boars’ activity escalates from nuisance to full-scale destruction. Readers will enjoy Giroux’s colorful descriptions of the struggling town, where the Pennies spout literary references (“Don’t make good the enemy of perfect,” Ray’s manager tells him) and get by on pure gumption. This author has talent to burn. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Forest of Vanishing Stars

Kristin Harmel. Gallery, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-1-982158-93-4

Harmel (The Book of Lost Names) returns with a powerful account of a young woman’s efforts during WWII to teach Jews how to survive in the forests of Eastern Europe. In 1922, Yona, born Inge Jüttner, was kidnapped at age two by Jerusza, a clairvoyant forest dweller who felt compelled to save the child from her German parents, whom Jerusza later says were “bad people.” Jerusza hides Yona in the Nalibocka Forest and, as she grows up, teaches her survival skills. In 1942, after Jerusza dies, Yona encounters a group of Jewish refugees in the woods and shows them how to evade the Nazis and survive the harsh winters. But after a romantic betrayal, Yona leaves them, and in a village she meets a group of nuns targeted for execution by the Nazis. She appeals to the Nazi leader, whose face is instantly familiar to her, to stop, then is ordered to remain with him. After Yona learns of an imminent forest raid, she escapes and rejoins the refugees, guiding them deeper into the forest. With the Nazis tracking them, the narrative culminates in a terrifying climax. Along the way, the author impresses with descriptions of how Yona and the refugees survive. Harmel’s stirring adventure will captivate readers. Agent: Holly Root, Root Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Paradise, WV

Rob Rufus. Keylight, $29.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-68442-670-6

Rufus’s dark, pulpy latest (after The Vinyl Underground) follows a diverse cast of characters in a poor West Virginia town into which opioids have “sunk their claws.” There’s nothing to do in Paradise, and the only reason anyone’s heard of the place is because it was the home of Hollis Lusher, a convicted serial killer known as “the Blind Spot Slasher.” Lusher’s notoriety causes his children, teenagers Henry and Jane—who insist Lusher’s innocent—to be constantly bullied. When the host of a popular true crime podcast arrives in Paradise to report on Lusher, Henry and Jane’s lives are thrown further into chaos. Meanwhile, sheriff’s lieutenant Elena Garcia is investigating the case of a missing girl and determines to dig deeper into the deaths of several people who were addicted to opioids that were previously classified NHI (“no human involved”), suspecting a Blind Spot Slasher copycat is at work, but she is stymied by the sheriff, who dismisses her theory and disparages the victims. Rufus does a great job triangulating the recent interest in true crime narratives with a deep understanding of an isolated and suffering small town, where the local bookstore is “the one place in town where happy endings were still within reach,” pulling off an infectious mix of thriller and social commentary. It adds up to a brilliant critique of the way law enforcement often overlooks those on the wrong side of the tracks. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bolla

Pajtim Statovci, trans. from the Finnish by David Hackston. Pantheon, $25.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4920-0

Astounding writing distinguishes this portrait of love, loss, and war from Kosovo-born Finnish writer and National Book Award finalist Statovci (Crossing). The story alternates between the feverish recollections of Miloš and Arsim, whose paths cross briefly but indelibly in 1995 Kosovo, where Miloš, a Serb who is studying medicine, and Arsim, a married Albanian literature student, become lovers. Arsim recounts his disastrous marriage to Ajshe (she is “remarkably beautiful, silent as a drape”) and his doomed affair with Miloš, comparing himself and Miloš to “two birds that have crashed into the window,” and describes how mounting ethnic tensions forced him and his family to flee their home (“We Albanians are washed across the world like a handful of sand scattered into the sea,” he reflects). In nonlinear passages extending to 2004, Miloš riffs on the horrors he encountered during the Balkan wars and reveals his deteriorating mental state. Woven throughout is the myth of the snake-like bolla, a daughter of God who is set free by the devil for a single day a year, conceived by Statovci as a metaphor for the men’s brief but powerful liaison. Statovci sustains a deeply somber tone as the characters struggle to endure while looking back on a sad past of missed opportunity, “exhausted by that speck of freedom.” It’s an eloquent story of desire and displacement, a melancholy symphony in a heartbreaking minor key. Statovci is a master. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Colorful

Eto Mori, trans. from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen. Counterpoint, $16.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-64009-442-0

A bestseller in Japan after its 1998 publication, Mori’s philosophically uplifting coming-of-age tale begins as a formless soul is intercepted by an angel, informed that they’ve done something that would ordinarily preclude reincarnation, and offered a second chance. If this recently deceased soul occupies someone else’s body for a time and learns from its mistakes, it will have the opportunity to regain its memories and reenter the cycle of rebirth. The body in question is that of 14-year-old Makoto Kobayashi, who has recently attempted suicide, is friendless, and is despised by his family. But Makoto thrives when creating works of art, and the soul, too, soon uses drawing and painting as a way to connect with its host and those around him. Themes of gratitude and the acceptance—and even celebration—of human imperfections guide the soul’s journey back to itself as it learns the value of, among other things, recognizing one’s parents as complicated, flawed individuals. Mori’s novel is both life-affirming and, in Allen’s translation, quietly funny, offering readers a timeless perspective on human connections. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Bachelor

Andrew Palmer. Hogarth, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-23089-3

In this intriguing debut, Palmer expands a modest tale of writerly lassitude into an ambitious account of high and low culture. After the unnamed narrator splits with his girlfriend, a fellow novelist, he retreats from Halifax to a rented house in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. There, he is more interested in watching a season of The Bachelor than writing. He muses on the show’s surreal setup and the roles the contestants inhabit, which often afford them second chances at love or at least stardom. (Luckily, these analyses are generally brief and restrained enough not to come off as intellectual preening.) If The Bachelor is the narrator’s lowbrow obsession, he also delves into the life and work of confessional poet John Berryman, with whom he feels he shares the mission of “trying to make things matter.” Soon enough, the narrator has a full romantic slate consisting of an intense epistolary courtship with an acquaintance in Detroit, a cautious flirtation with a recent college graduate, and an affair with his landlord (who happens to be a family friend). Readers will recognize in the narrator a well-worn type: intelligent, aimless, self-absorbed, and romantically slippery. Nonetheless, Palmer’s unexpected juxtapositions and probing spirit make this an original portrait of a lovelorn dreamer. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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