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Sophomores

Sean Desmond. Putnam, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-525-54268-1

Everyone in Desmond’s so-so second novel (after Adam’s Fall) is canny enough, but still has an awful lot to learn. The story is told from the perspective of three members of the Malone family, which moves from the Bronx to Dallas, Tex., in the late 1980s. Dan, a sophomore at a Catholic boys school, finds inspiration from an English teacher, Mr. Oglesby, who encourages him to write, while his parents’ lives spiral out of control. Dan’s dad, Pat, an alcoholic American Airlines exec who’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, makes an ironic miscalculation amid a recession and ends up losing his job. Dan’s mother, Anne, a conflicted Catholic who becomes more unsettled every day by her husband’s dwindling health, is chosen to sit on a jury for the trial of a popular evangelical preacher accused of strangling his wife—Anne had been hoping to vindicate “some defeated housewife who turned on her unfeeling husband and child.” Meanwhile, book-smart Dan travels through a keenly-realized cultural wasteland of Dallas with a group of underachievers from one bland subdivision to the next, until Oglesby challenges him to find focus. While the denouement borders on histrionic, leaving Dan further adrift from his struggling parents, Desmond is good at conveying suburban angst. Those who love coming-of-age stories may want to give this a look, even if it doesn’t quite stand out. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict. Sourcebooks, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4926-8272-1

Benedict (Lady Clementine) delivers an uneven novel of what might have happened to Agatha Christie during the 11 days in 1926 when she famously went missing. Chapters alternate between a memoir manuscript purportedly written by Christie, and the story of Christie’s husband, Archie, who becomes a suspect in her disappearance. No one knows what really happened, and the clever premise here is that Christie vanished deliberately so as to ensnare Archie in a trap as payback for his infidelities. The saccharine manuscript, beginning in 1912 with the line, “I could not have written a more perfect man,” chronicles Agatha and Archie’s courtship and early years of marriage, and her efforts to please him. More satisfying are the chapters in which a heinous Archie emerges and is forced to follow Agatha’s instructions in a letter in order to escape prosecution (“How do you want this story to end? It seems to me that there are two paths from which you can choose, the first involving a softer landing than the second, though neither are without bumps and bruises, of course”). As the investigators begin to suspect foul play, thanks to phony clues left by Agatha, Archie is forced to admit compromising truths. While the manuscript chapters won’t ring true with Christie fans, the story makes for good fun. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Falling

Danielle McLaughlin. Random House, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9844-3

In Windham Campbell Prize–winner McLaughlin’s remarkable debut novel (after the collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets), an Irish art curator struggles with a major exhibition after inconvenient details from the past emerge. While Nessa McCormack is preparing an exhibition of late sculptor Robert Locke’s work, she is confronted by Melanie Doerr, who insists she deserves to share the credit for Locke’s signature Chalk Sculpture, a female figure meant to embody “fertility powers.” Melanie also claims, scandalously, that the piece depicts her and not Locke’s widow. Nessa, meanwhile, copes with her husband’s infidelity and trying to reassure their troubled teenage daughter the marriage won’t fall apart. Enter Luke, the 21-year-old son of Nessa’s late friend Amy, along with his aimless father, with whom Nessa had had an affair before Luke was born. Nessa blames herself for Amy’s suicide when Luke was two, as Nessa was the last person to see Amy alive; now Luke poses questions about Nessa’s relationship with his parents and about Locke’s sculpture that threaten Nessa’s marriage, family, and career. How this plays out, as well as the mystery of Doerr’s relationship with Locke, is slowly teased as the narrative builds to a thrilling climax. McLaughlin’s descriptions of the art and its appeal have an almost mythic quality (“they came in a spirit of supplication, less to marvel at what critics had described as the piece’s ‘gritty transcendence,’ its alien, unsettling beauty, than to plead their case”), and she has a gift for precise characterization. This engaging and evocative work will stay with readers. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Effort

Claire Holroyde. Grand Central, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5387-1761-5

Holroyde’s twisty if uneven debut centers on an asteroid’s threat to human life, and a NASA scientist who races against the clock to save the planet. In the near-future, asteroid hunters are stunned to spot a dark comet that’s only discovered when it’s dangerously close to Earth. Ben Schwartz, who heads NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, is tapped by an international group to assemble a team whose impossible mission is to develop a plan to deflect the comet from its path in less than a year. The deadline is too short for one country to build an intercepting spacecraft from scratch, meaning they must win cooperation of other nations’ space programs to accomplish the ambitious goal. With the U.S. led by a Trump-like president, not every country ends up going along, and as the comet gets closer, panic and societal disruptions around the world complicate Schwartz’s work. The prose is sometimes clunky (“Thick spectacles magnified red-veined eyes draped with lids like unfolded origami”), but Holroyde displays a keen vision of societal and diplomatic breakdown amid imminent disaster. The deeper themes about human nature make this apocalyptic thriller more than escapist reading, though the execution could be stronger. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Hare

Melanie Finn. Two Dollar Radio, $16.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-937512-97-2

Finn’s propulsive latest (after The Underneath) tackles power dynamics shaped by gender, age, and class via the harrowing story of an art school dropout who is seduced by a man who turns out to be a thieving con artist. It’s 1983 when Rosie Monroe, a freshman at Parsons School of Design from a blue-collar part of Massachusetts, meets fine art appraiser Bennett, who is 20 years her senior. Seduced by his connections to high society, she abandons Parsons to live with him at an estate on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, where Bennett has ingratiated himself with the owners, who come and go. Two years later, Bennett suddenly takes Rosie and their newborn daughter, Miranda, to an uninsulated cabin in northern Vermont, where sordid characters emerge from Bennett’s orbit who fence his stolen goods. Halfway through, the story jumps ahead 30 years to follow a middle-aged Rosie as traumatic memories of her abuse as a child rise to the surface, before Finn plunges into a muddled third act involving a grown-up Miranda’s search for answers about Bennett. Though there are too many narrative threads at play, Finn underscores the impact abuse has on Rosie’s psyche, while charting a course for the character’s resilience. This lurid tale will keep readers turning the pages. Agent: Kate Shaw, the Shaw Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Lana’s War

Anita Abriel. Atria, $17 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-982147-67-9

The daughter of a Russian noble joins the French Resistance in the suspenseful latest from Abriel (The Light After the War). In 1943 Paris, Lana Hartmann witnesses a German officer execute her husband for trying to hide a Jewish child. After suffering a miscarriage, Lana is approached by Henri, a member of the French Resistance, to pose as a White Russian, the name given to former Russian nobles allying with Hitler to defeat Stalin’s regime. Desperate to help save Jewish children from being sent to death camps, Lana travels to Nice under her maiden name and poses as the girlfriend of Swiss industrialist, and French Resistance member, Guy Pascal, whose status helps Lana ingratiate herself with Russian nobility and attract attention from German officers including Alois Brunner, the one who killed her husband. The ever-present danger from their Resistance activities bring Guy and Lana closer as they give in to their mutual attraction, and the plot thickens when Guy reveals the source of his own animosity toward Brunner. While an abrupt conclusion will leave readers wanting more, Lana’s quest to avenge her husband’s death is enhanced by vivid details of the German occupation of France. Abriel’s fast-paced revenge story will please fans of WWII fiction. Agent: Johanna V. Castillo, Writers House. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Divines

Ellie Eaton. Morrow, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-301219-6

Eaton’s intelligent debut follows freelance writer Josephine as she reflects on her past as a bully at a now-defunct all-girls English boarding school. In flashbacks to the mid-1990s, it’s revealed that Josephine’s lower-class roommate, Gerry Lake, suffered a fall from their dorm window that threatened her figure-skating career and led to a scandal that forced the school to close. Before the fall, Gerry had long been bullied by a group of classmates led by Josephine’s frosty best friend, Skipper. Insecure and lonely, Josephine befriends Lauren McKibbin (whose older brother, Stuart, handles maintenance for the school), despite a prohibition on socializing with “townies.” As the girls grow closer, Josephine develops a crush on Stuart and tries to retain the good graces of her old crew led by Skipper by joining in on their bullying of Gerry, even after Gerry helps her deal with an upsetting incident involving Stuart. The book winds down on a satisfying note as a school reunion and Josephine’s travel for an assignment lead her to catch up with key characters and confront some unflattering things about herself. Eaton does a good job describing class tension and the misery of trying to fit into a social clique as a teenager. Josephine’s steady unraveling of her teenage dramas will keep readers riveted. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Nick

Michael Farris Smith. Little, Brown, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-52976-1

Smith (Blackwood) offers an evocative if underwhelming origin story for Great Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway. The reader first finds Nick fighting in the trenches during WWI. Then, on leave in Paris, he promptly falls for a French girl named Ella, who becomes sick and sends Nick away. He returns to the front and volunteers for highly dangerous missions, and upon the war’s end returns to Paris only to find Ella gone. Once back stateside, a dejected Nick impulsively takes a train to New Orleans—where he’s drawn to a whorehouse madame and becomes confessor to her saloon-owner ex-husband and other habitués of this debauched demimonde—before moving on to Long Island. As in Gatsby, Nick is more observer than participant, which makes him problematic as a main character; unlike in Fitzgerald’s novel, Nick’s function here isn’t clear. While the war chapters offer striking imagery, the New Orleans section pushes Nick to the margins of an arbitrary story, and by the time he heads north readers won’t have any deeper understanding of him than they do on page one. Smith’s effort is a noble one, but it doesn’t do enough to deepen the reader’s understanding of one of 20th-century American literature’s enduring characters. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Inland Sea

Madeleine Watts. Catapult, $16.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-64622-017-5

Australian writer Watts punctuates her eloquent debut with deep-seated anxiety about climate change. For the most part, the story follows a young woman’s downward spiral after she graduates from college and faces a bleak future. The unnamed protagonist finds work as an operator at a call center connecting those in need to appropriate organizations. The rote job turns daunting when calls suddenly pour in, saturating her in horrific reports of floods, fires, and violence. Meanwhile, her personal life remains chaotic as she continues her relationship with an emotionally abusive ex, and indulges in heavy drinking along with nightly hookups, of which she observes, “I wanted to be undone. I wasn’t interested in protecting myself.” Snapshots of her childhood reveal an angry father and her parents’ messy divorce, and the journal entries of real-life 19th-century explorer John Oxley, the narrator’s great-great-great-grandfather, find their way into the story. Oxley’s search for Australia’s inland sea is mirrored in the narrator’s bleak outlook on the future (“The sea need only rise a few meters for... the rock and sand and red gibber plains to become submerged once more”). While the narrative moves haphazardly, the prose is consistently rich and loaded with imagery. Watts’s bold, unconventional outing makes for a distinctive entry into climate fiction. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Consent

Annabel Lyon. Knopf, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-31800-3

The lives of two pairs of sisters from Vancouver intersect in Lyon’s intense, intimate novel of love, grief, and murder (after The Sweet Girl). After 30-something Sara Landow’s mother dies in 2011, Sara assumes responsibility for her intellectually disabled younger sister, Mattie. A month later, when Sara returns from a short trip, Mattie has married their late mother’s handyman, Robert Dwyer. While Mattie had never been declared legally incompetent, Sara doubts she is capable of consenting to marriage, and tries to have it annulled. In 2015, the lives of 27-year-old twins Saskia and Jenny Gilbert are derailed when a car accident leaves Jenny in a coma. While Jenny is still unconscious in the hospital, a man is caught masturbating in her room. As Saskia, disturbed by the news, learns about Jenny’s practice of BDSM, Lyon alternates back to Sara as she grieves in the aftermath of Mattie’s death from a fall for which Robert was present, a few years after they married. When Sara and Saskia eventually meet, they process their sisters’ disturbing relationships. While the circumstances leading to the women’s connection are not entirely surprising, their reactions ramp up the novel toward a deliciously dark conclusion. Lyon’s mesmerizing novel perfectly captures the odd mix of love and resentment faced by caregivers. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/09/2020 | Details & Permalink

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