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Several People Are Typing

Calvin Kasulke. Doubleday, $24 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385-54722-2

Kasulke’s ambitious if underwhelming debut, a fantastical workplace comedy, unfolds via Slack messages sent by employees of a New York City PR firm. Gerald works from home, trapped indefinitely “within the confines of [Slack].” Other colleagues also find opportunities to “wfh,” citing a blizzard, or kids, but one of them, Tripp, continues going into the office, where he meets Beverly, a new team member, and the two begin a secret romance. Kasulke does a good job pulling together the signifiers of office culture—the team trade pet pics and carry on inside jokes with an emoji named “dusty stick”—and they work on a campaign for a dog food company that’s in crisis mode over its product allegedly containing poison. But none of these or the other internal mini dramas—such as the incessant “howling” Lydia hears or Gerald’s unease-turned-existential crisis—are particularly engaging or inspiring, and things take a series of odd turns after the Slackbot AI takes over Gerald’s body with his mind still stuck in the digital realm. However clever the setup is, the satire lacks bite and feels not unlike listening to a friend complain about their job. For a book about Slack, it’s largely that. Agent: Kent Wolf, Neon Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Late City

Robert Olen Butler. Atlantic Monthly, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8021-5882-6

Pulitzer winner Butler steps away from his Christopher Marlowe Cobb series for a moving tale of love and misunderstanding. In 2016, Sam Cunningham, 115 and dying in a nursing home, is visited by God, who interviews him as if for a story (“I want you to talk to me, Samuel. About your life. On the record”). In 1917, Sam flees Louisiana and his racist abusive father to enlist in the Army. After the war, Sam lands a job as a reporter in Chicago and marries Colleen, who in 1922 delivers their only child, Ryan. Sam loves his wife and son, but is unable or unwilling to recognize their true natures, or to grasp why Colleen married him. As WWII looms, Sam tries to prepare the sensitive Ryan for battle. (“I just want you to have the best chance to fully become what you are,” he says, unaware of the irony.) Determined to make his father proud, Ryan joins the Navy in 1940, and what happens to him during the war will change everyone in the family. The God character at first seems a superfluous narrative artifice, but Butler mines the device for an elegant pair of revelations about Colleen and Ryan. Readers with the patience for an old man’s stubbornness will appreciate the redemption herein. Agent: Warren Frazier, John Hawkins & Assoc. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Civilizations

Laurent Binet, trans. from the French by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-60081-5

Binet (The 7th Function of Language) executes a daring and often delightful counterfactual history of transatlantic conquest. Around the year 1000, Greenlanders and Vikings find their way to the Americas, landing in Cuba and Panama. Here, Binet drily recounts the voyages of Erik the Red, his daughter Freydis, and others who make such observations as, “Day and night were of a more equal length than in Greenland or Iceland.” Later, fragments of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 diary document his failed voyage, as his men are decimated and his plans to colonize the new world are laid to waste. Instead, Columbus informs the Inca, who have meanwhile been exploring to expand their empire, of another world across the ocean, prompting them to set sail in their own spirit of conquest. In the strongest section, Incan leader Atahualpa and his people conquer and scheme their way across Western Europe. The final section follows the exploits of the young Miguel de Cervantes in 16th-century Mexican-controlled Europe, after that tribe’s transAtlantic battles with the Incas. Though some parts are less successful than others, this ingeniously configures a new framework of colonialism, with Mexico dominating the new world. Binet delights with his imaginative powers. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Lean Fall Stand

Jon McGregor. Catapult, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64622-099-1

McGregor’s stunning latest (after Reservoir 13) explores the aftermath of a traumatic accident. Robert Wright has spent a good deal of his professional life as a technician at Station K in Antarctica with a team of geographic researchers. During a storm, Robert is separated from his crew and suffers a near-fatal injury. McGregor beautifully captures Robert’s ensuing struggle for survival through passages of fragmented stream of consciousness. After Robert’s wife, Anna, is informed he had a stroke, she flies to meet him in Chile, where he has been hospitalized. But the Robert she encounters is a very different man from the one she last saw: among other injuries, his stroke has severely affected the language center of his brain. As the survival story becomes one of recuperation, Anna, an academic who studies the effects of global warming, must care for her disabled spouse, and McGregor portrays the tribulations of speech therapy with as much drama and depth as the depictions of men fighting for their lives on an Antarctic ice floe. Readers will be drawn into Robert and Anna’s heartbreaking struggle, all rendered in McGregor’s crystalline language. This gorgeous work leaves an indelible mark. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Royal Correspondent

Alexandra Joel. HarperPerennial, $16.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-311280-3

Joel (The Paris Model) serves up an engrossing story about a woman’s determination to succeed as a journalist. In late 1950s Sydney, Australia, Blaise Hill is almost 18 when she gets a job at the Clarion newspaper as a copy girl. After witnessing her friend Joe Blackett stab and accidentally kill a man in self-defense, she meets a mysterious wealthy Englishman named Adam Rule who claims to be a friend of Joe’s family and takes the knife off her hands. As Blaise climbs the ladder at the Clarion, she meets Adam again, who helps her out by offering her news tips. Blaise’s career continues its upward trajectory, and she is assigned to cover the wedding of Princess Margaret in London, where, once again, she runs into Adam. Despite being warned away from him by Charlie Ashton, a rising-star politician, she can’t deny her attraction to Adam, which is complicated by Charlie’s romantic pursuit. Joel does an expert job at portraying Blaise’s fortitude in her quest to achieve journalistic success in an era when women were often forced to choose between marriage and career. This will keep readers turning the pages. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Keeping the House

Tice Cin. And Other Stories, $17.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-913505-08-0

This evocative if slippery debut follows two generations of Turkish Cypriots trying to make their way in England. In 2006, Damla, 15, lives with her immigrant mother, Ayla; two younger siblings; and grandmother in the London neighborhood of Tottenham. She spends her days hanging out with sexually precocious Cemile, whose concerned family sends her to live with relatives in Cyprus, after which Damla loses contact with her. The narration flashes back to the late 1990s, when Ayla engineers a clever way to transport heroin from Turkey into England by growing cabbages with packages of heroin inserted so the leaves will fully enclose them. She convinces a group including Cemile’s father, Ufuk, to help out with the audacious scheme. The plan totters, though, leaving the crew in debt to their notoriously dangerous supplier. Flash forward to the early 2010s, when Ayla announces to Damla that she is moving back to Cyprus. The fragmented chronology and shaggy subplots involving, for instance, Damla’s teenage sexual relationships, don’t really cohere, though the musical bursts of Turkish and blocks of poetry (“Lies have a way of bursting in your mouth. / Her mouth, holding secrets, not the same as lying”) impress. Still, in the end it’s all a bit too oblique. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-60260-4

Rooney (Normal People) continues her exploration of class, sex, and mental health with a cool, captivating story about a successful Irish writer, her friend, and their lovers. Alice Kelleher, 29, has suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her work’s popularity. After moving from Dublin to a small seaside town, she meets Felix, a local with a similar background—they both grew up working-class, and both have absent fathers—who works in a shipping warehouse. She invites him to accompany her to Rome, where he falls in love with her but resents what he takes to be her superior attitude. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Alice’s university friend Eileen Lydon works a low-paying literary job and explores her attraction to a childhood friend who seems to return her feelings but continues seeing other women. Alice and Eileen update each other in long emails, which Rooney cleverly exploits for essayistic musings about culture, climate change, and political upheaval. Rooney establishes a distance from her characters’ inner lives, creating a sense of privacy even as she describes Alice and Eileen’s most intimate moments. It’s a bold change to her style, and it makes the illuminations all the more powerful when they pop. As always, Rooney challenges and inspires. Agent: Tracy Bohan, the Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Something Wild

Hanna Halperin. Viking, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-984882-06-6

Halperin’s bold and surprising debut explores the complexity of familial bonds in the face of domestic violence. Tanya and Nessa Bloom, sisters who were once very close but are now somewhat estranged, are visiting their childhood home in the Boston suburbs to help their mother, Lorraine, pack up and move out. But Nessa’s brief indulgence of nostalgia from perusing items in her bedroom (Tanya, “who looks forward with a vengeance... would have rolled her eyes,” writes Halperin) gives way to a reckoning with their abusive stepfather, Jesse. On the first night, the sisters find their mother on the kitchen floor, bruised from a strangulation by Jesse. Soon, they learn this isn’t the first time Lorraine has been physically assaulted, and yet she is reluctant to press charges. Tanya, the younger and more levelheaded daughter, urges Lorraine to get a restraining order. But Nessa, with her distorted sense of self and an unhealthy attachment to their stepfather, is unsure. As contention between the sisters grows, a traumatic experience that altered their relationship threatens it again, except now the sisters have to protect each other as well as their mother. Unflinching and brave, Halperin’s story lays bare the characters’ nuanced and complicated responses to domestic violence. This haunting portrait of a broken family will stay with readers. Agent: Margaret Riley King, WME. (June)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Warsaw Orphan

Kelly Rimmer. Graydon House, $17.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-5258-9599-9

Rimmer’s gripping latest (after Truths I Never Told You) captures the harrowing risks faced by two teenagers whose families live on opposite sides of the Warsaw Ghetto wall in Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1942, 16-year-old Roman Gorka has survived almost two years in the ghetto with his parents, younger brother, and three other families crowded into their apartment. His new baby sister, Eleonora, complicates matters, and Roman, who works a factory job, struggles to feed the family. Meanwhile Elzbieta Rabinek, 14, has moved to Warsaw with her adopted parents and uncle to an apartment nearby. Elzbieta soon becomes involved in smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto and offers to do the same for Eleonora. The family agrees once the Germans begin the daily deportations from the ghetto and rumors circulate of mass slaughter. As the story unfolds, with Roman caught up in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he forms a close bond with Elzbieta. Rimmer does a great job of bringing WWII Warsaw to life, particularly the clandestine efforts of nurses to rescue Jewish children. There’s no shortage of novels that travel similar terrain, but this one easily stands on its own. Agent: Amy Tannenbaum, Jane Rotrosen Agency, LLC. (June)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Happy Hour

Marlowe Granados. Verso, $19.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-83976-401-1

In Granados’s amusingly mischievous debut, a young ingenue comes to New York City from London for a summer, seeking to bury her grief over her mother’s death. By night, Isa Epley and her friend Gala Novak rub shoulders with celebrities and intellectuals. By day, they make ends meet selling clothes on consignment. Gala’s gift for being in the right place at the right time opens up new vistas for the impressionable Isa, who records her nighttime adventures in her diary or in notes on her phone (“It’s inconspicuous; I look as though I am being aloof and texting, but I am noticing and observing all the time”). All of 21 (“an unserious age,” according to her), Isa contents herself with cocktails and the kind of men likely to pay for them, trying to tell the sincere patrons of the arts from the phonies as she pursues a quest for “Social Capital,” while Gala comes dangerously close to drifting into a cult. Isa’s keen perception lifts this comedy of manners above the surface she and Gala attempt to glide on for the summer’s duration (“If I were to describe typical New York conversation, it would be two people waiting for their turn to talk”). This perfectly sums up a new age of innocence. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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