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Harvest Moon

Jenny Knipfer. Jenny Knipfer, $2.99 e-book (294p) ASIN B08H41S8HB

Knipfer concludes her By the Light of the Moon series (after Silver Moon) with a stirring if gloomy soap opera following an unfortunate Ojibwe woman in mid-19th-century Ontario, and the various men in her life. At 17, Maang-ikwezens has three suitors: a Catholic novitiate who converts her to Christianity then considers breaking his vows to be with her; the chief’s son, her arranged marriage betrothed; and Edmund Lorrie, an iterant carpenter. In a series of haphazard flashbacks, Maang-ikwezens recalls her youth attending the Jesuit Mission School run by a sadistic priest who beat the children for using their native language, her widowed mother’s marriage to a white man, and her lessons in the tribe’s healing arts. After Maang-ikwezens is raped by Edmund (he took “what I did not give”) and becomes pregnant, she agrees to relinquish her son, Niin-mawin, to her aunt to raise. Knipfer somberly chronicles the tragic consequences of white encroachment upon Ojibwe lands and campaigns to forcibly assimilate Native people. The shuffled, flashback-laden timeline is hard to follow, though, and the author’s choice to begin each gut-wrenching chapter with shopworn inspirational quotes feels pretentious and more than a bit disconnected from the material, but Maang-ikwezens’s fortitude is made undeniable by Knipfer’s well-rounded portrait. There’s not a lot of nuance here, but it’s engrossing nonetheless. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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They

Kay Dick. McNally Editions, $18 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-946022-28-8

Harsh punishments await anyone bucking society’s norms in this eerie, atmospheric story from English writer Dick (1915–2001) first published in 1977 (before The Two Faces of Robert Just, as Jeremy Scott). The unnamed, ungendered narrator is a writer living on the English coast who spends their time visiting other writers and artists. Meanwhile, a group known only as “they” are bent on destroying art and literature and on punishing artists. The anonymous band lurks in the countryside, pilfering books and artworks, and punishing those who refuse to give up their creative enterprises. When a writer refuses to burn her manuscript, the group severely burns her writing hand. But the attacks are also haphazard and often leave people unscathed, creating uncertainty as artists continue about their business. The narrator, meanwhile, rejects encouragement to give up living alone (“They fear solitary living, therefore envy it,” a friend says), even as “they” become more aggressive. The faceless nature of the antagonists—whose philosophy, goals, and power structures are unspoken—runs counter to other mid-century dystopian tales and leaves space for interpretation. In place of plot, Dick creates a pervasive sense of dread for those who give their lives to art. This unsettling dreamlike endeavor is a worthy rediscovery. Agent: Becky Brown, Curtis Brown Group. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Love, If That’s What It Is

Marijke Schermer, trans. from the Dutch by Hester Velmans. World Editions, $16.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-64286-103-7

Dutch playwright Schermer explores themes of romantic ennui and individuality in her scintillating debut, a yearlong account of a deteriorating marriage. After 25 years with David, Terri is at a crossroads: once attracted to her husband’s loyalty, steadiness, and dependability, she is now repulsed by his stick-in-the-mud demeanor. After she tells David about her lover, Lucas, an adventurous if nihilistic bachelor, David is floored, as are their children. Their teenage daughter, Krista, copes by pursuing a secret romance, and their younger daughter, Ally, tells Terri to “stop hurting Daddy.” Several months later, David finds his own lover, Sev, on a dating app. Schermer’s crisp prose style captures the heart-wrenching emotions roiling the characters. Of David’s whirlwind of guilt and pleasure over his relationship with Sev, a single mother whom he sees only in her apartment, Schermer writes that he’s found “not a relationship, just this island in time.” The author expertly humanizes each of the characters’ desires and flaws as she illuminates the raw, inner workings of a broken marriage. This is as cathartic as it is gut-churning. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Dead Collections

Isaac Fellman. Penguin Books, $17 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-14-313691-0

Lambda Literary Award winner Fellman (for The Breath of the Sun, in the LGBT Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror category) returns with a delightfully eccentric story of a trans vampire and archivist. Sol Katz lives in the basement archive of the Historical Society of Northern California, where he works as a historian while staying in the safety of the sunless offices except for visits to the blood transfusion clinic and nighttime meanderings along the San Francisco streets. His work is interrupted by a visit from Elsie, the widow of Tracy Britton, writer of the popular sci-fi television series Feet of Clay. Elsie has come to donate Tracy’s documents and memorabilia, and quickly falls in love with Sol as their archival work together progresses. Fellman’s description of Sol’s Feet of Clay fandom sprawls into the show’s universe and characters, charmingly evoking the fan fiction genre. Rife with dry humor and a creative mix of narration, texts, emails, and Facebook threads, the novel expertly balances the humorous and the heartfelt. Fellman thoughtfully examines gender, sexuality, and belonging through an unforgettable main character, who explores what it means to truly embody himself. This bold and self-aware story delivers the goods. Kate McKean, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post

Allison Pataki. Ballantine, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-593-35568-8

Pataki (The Queen’s Fortune) glides through the life of a real-life cereal heiress in this glossy if hollow portrait. Marjorie’s money comes from her father, C.W. Post, who at the turn of the 20th century makes a fortune by producing healthy and quick foods like Grape-Nuts. Unhappy and rudderless after her parents’ divorce, she quickly accepts a marriage proposal from a rich lawyer. This begins a cycle of marriages and divorces (four of each), netting Marjorie three daughters, one of whom becomes an actor. After WWI, Marjorie takes a more active interest in the Post company, spearheading a major expansion through the acquisition of Birdseye Frozen Foods and General Foods. While married to the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Marjorie buys up Russian artwork and jewelry that becomes the core collection of her mansion in Washington, D.C., which she later wills to the Smithsonian. Lots of notable things happen in Marjorie’s life, but Pataki fails to craft them into a satisfying plot or come up with a significant challenge for Marjorie to overcome. Instead, Marjorie comes across as a pleasant person met at a party and promptly forgotten by the next day. In a crowded field of novels revisiting strong women from recent history, there’s little to make this one stand out. Agent: Lacy Lynch, Dupree/Miller & Assoc. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Bear Woman

Karolina Ramqvist, trans. from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. Coach House, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-55245-431-2

Ramqvist (The White City) skillfully blends a story of survival with an autofictional meditation on womanhood. It begins with an obsession. In 1541, Marguerite de La Roque accompanies her male guardian, a man of connections, on an expedition to the New World. En route, though, Marguerite is abandoned on an island in the North Atlantic as punishment for supposedly sleeping with a crew member. In the present day, Karolina Ramqvist, a writer and mother of three, hears the legend of the Bear Woman, about how Marguerite survived the wild animals and the wilderness on the island. As Ramqvist begins looking through historical archives, a winding research and writing process ensues, nonlinear in its progression and punctuated by the fear and self-doubt plaguing Karolina in her mission to unearth the truth of what happened to Marguerite. Insightful in her observations and sharp with her prose, the author explores parallels between Marguerite’s experiences and Karolina’s, as the protagonist contends with the demands of motherhood. It adds up to a careful study of a woman’s writing life. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Free Love

Tessa Hadley. Harper, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-313777-6

The poignant, ironic latest from Hadley (Late in the Day) is drenched in the atmosphere of late-1960s Britain, when the lives of women seemed to be changing radically, but maybe, in fact, weren’t so much. In 1967, Phyllis Fischer is 40 years old, “pleased with her life” as a housewife in suburban London, married to civil servant Roger, and mother to charming nine-year-old Hugh and discontented 15-year-old Colette. But, as the detached, observant narrator notes, “under the placid surface of suburbia, something was unhinged.” Soon Phyllis is involved, to Colette’s chagrin, in an affair with Nicholas, the 20-something son of family friends. What seems at first to be a simple tale of adultery and its consequences twists into something between a “cosmic comedy” (as Nicholas’s mother calls it) and a “situation as fatally twisted as a Greek drama” (according to the narrator) as the affair reveals unexpected connections between Phyllis’s family and Nicholas’s. The narrator’s wise, disaffected view of life homes in on the shakiness of Phyllis’s sentimental education. In keen, lush prose, Hadley conveys the many ways her characters delude themselves amid fraught relationships between parents and children as well as between lovers. The result is sumptuous and surprising. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Mrs. England

Stacey Halls. Mira, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7783-8631-5

Familiar tropes dampen the chilling effect of Halls’s promising excursion (after The Foundling) into the haunting and harrowing halls of domestic traumas set in the Yorkshire moors of Edwardian England. Newly graduated from the prestigious Norland Institute for the Training of Ladies as Children’s Nurses, Ruby May turns down an offer to move to Chicago for a job in 1904 and instead tends to the four children of Charles and Lilian England, wealthy cotton mill owners, at the isolated Hardcastle House. Ruby instantly surmises that “something’s not right” with the innocuously charming father and the enigmatic, seemingly addled mother who occasionally sleepwalks. Lost letters, an accusatory message smeared on a bathroom mirror, locked doors, and a nearly fatal scare involving a gaslight shroud bigger secrets. Flashbacks detail Ruby’s disquieting childhood, and the treacherous landscape of raging rivers, craggy hillsides, and deep, dark woods create an eerie atmosphere and add to the heart-stopping conclusion. The sort of ordeals Ruby faces as the beleaguered nanny have been seen before, but Halls does a nice job highlighting the imbalance of power determined by gender and class, and the deceit that follows psychological manipulation of daughters, mothers, and wives. Astute readers may suss out the plot early on, but it still offers a beguiling, leisurely diversion. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Call Me a Cab

Donald E. Westlake. Hard Case Crime, $14.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-78909-818-1

Fans of Westlake (1933–­2008), the late master of crime capers both comic (The Hot Rock) and hard-boiled (Point Blank!), will not be disappointed in this perceptive romantic suspense novel. It’s an ordinary day for New York City cabbie Tom Fletcher when he picks up beautiful Katharine Scott. To his surprise, she asks how much it will cost to drive her to Los Angeles; her plastic surgeon boyfriend, Barry Gilbert, wants to marry her and she intends to use the five-day trip to make up her mind. So Tom and Katharine start off on a cross-country odyssey in his yellow Checker Marathon. Along the way, they flirt, fight, get on one another’s nerves, and develop a mutual respect that could possibly blossom into something more. The suspense derives from the question of whom Katharine will end up with—the cabbie or the plastic surgeon. Westlake expertly proves the old adage that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Originally published in an abridged form in Redbook in 1978, the story is slight and dated (with references to the old Belmore Cafeteria and CB radios), but Tom and Katharine are charming leads. This entertaining story is as wistful as the theme from old episodes of Taxi. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Mercy Street

Jennifer Haigh. Ecco, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-176330-4

Haigh (Heat & Light) explores the issue of abortion in this layered if frustrating story of a Boston women’s health clinic. Claudia, a counselor at Mercy Street, struggles with insomnia and anxiety after the death of her difficult mother, as well as because of her daily work with women who are faced with unwanted pregnancies. To cope, she smokes weed. Meanwhile, antiabortion protesters mount a steady campaign outside the clinic, and Haigh delves into their world. Among them is a rabidly antiabortion activist and racist retiree named Victor, who is tangentially connected to Claudia’s dealer and maintains a website where he shames white women who visit Mercy Street. The set up is strong and culminates in Victor deciding to travel to Boston from his log cabin in Pennsylvania to “save” Claudia, but the narrative runs out of steam just as it gets going. Haigh doesn’t successfully weave the different narrative threads, delving into what leads men to become violent antichoice activists, for instance, but leaving the female characters disappointingly unexplored. There are strong building blocks, they crumble into an unsatisfying resolution. This doesn’t hit the high marks it aims for. Agent: Dorian Karchmar, WME. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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