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The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Abbi Waxman. Berkley, $16 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-451-49187-9

In this love letter to book nerds, Waxman (The Garden of Small Beginnings) introduces the extraordinary introvert Nina Hill. Nina, who grew up on the east side of L.A. in Larchmont, Calif., has never wanted to leave her hometown. She loves her apartment, with its shelves of books; her cat; and her job as a clerk at a book shop. Filling her time with trivia nights, movies, book club, yoga class, and, of course, reading, she feels she has the perfect life. Then, one day at work, a lawyer shows up and tells her of the death of the father she never knew and the existence of his huge extended family. As Nina gets to know her newfound relatives, who all live in Southern California, she also notices a handsome and charming trivia rival, Tom, who seems to be taking an equal interest in Nina. With witty dialogue and a running sarcastic inner monologue (“Moms of a certain age know dozens of people through various channels, so they have to perform this human form of canine butt sniffing all the goddamn time”), Waxman brings Nina to vibrant life as she upends her introverted routine and become part of the family. Fans of Jojo Moyes will love this. (July)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Now, Now, Louison

Jean Frémon, trans. from the French by Cole Swensen. New Directions, $13.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2852-7

Frémon, an art historian and gallerist, delivers an unusual, petite book that attempts to portray the inner life of artist Louise Bourgeois, whom Frémon worked with. The text ranges loosely between the first and second person in short paragraphs that depict various sequences of Bourgeois’s life, with little background information to explain who the characters are. This narrative collage includes several entries in a spider compendium; the early, traumatizing death of Bourgeois’s mother; the philandering of her father, Louis; Bourgeois’s overseas trip to America to get away from her family; her love of mathematics; her dietary habits in old age; the loneliness that followed the death of her husband; her playtime antics in childhood; and untranslated French song excerpts. Most intriguingly, Bourgeois acquires a studio in Brooklyn and starts producing the spider sculptures for which she became known. Throughout, Frémon takes “great liberties with reality.” There are moments of real beauty and insight, but the book too often gets lost in the web of its telling. Fans of Bourgeois will likely find themselves wanting more about her; fans of unconventional biographical portraits may wish this book dug deeper. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Meet Me in Monaco

Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. Morrow, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-291354-8

With glamour, perfume, and romance, Gaynor and Webb’s second collaborative novel (after Last Christmas in Paris) is a scrumptious concoction served up with delectable descriptions and heaps of emotion. James Henderson, scrabbling by as a tabloid photographer in 1955 London, is 35, divorced, and uncertain in his parenting skills. Visiting Cannes, he ignominiously fails to snap a red carpet photo of Grace Kelly; while chasing down the elusive star, he follows her into the shop of 33-year-old Sophie Duval, a second-generation parfumeur, whose livelihood is on the brink. Grace gains sanctuary, Sophie gains an influential client, and Jim negotiates access to a photo op between Grace and Prince Rainier. His irate editor fires him anyway, freeing Jim to pursue the photos that interest him—and reconnect with the “intriguing” Frenchwoman who thwarted him. Sophie, meanwhile, must navigate the demands of her widowed, alcoholic mother and businessman boyfriend as she tries to parlay Grace’s patronage into new life for her business. Jim’s occasional reappearances warm Sophie’s heart but distract her from her goals. He is in love, yet constantly tugged homeward by ties to family and friends. Sweet, then bitter, then sweet again, the love story is woven through with Grace’s fairy-tale romance with Rainier and its devastating ending , snatching redemption from tragedy in the best Hollywood style. Agent: Michelle Brower, Aevitas Creative Management. (July)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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In the Night of Memory

Linda LeGarde Grover. Univ. of Minnesota, $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5179-0650-4

Grover, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, returns to the fictional Mozhay Point reservation (The Dance Boots and The Road Back to Sweetgrass) in northern Minnesota in this beautiful novel about powerful Ojibwe women working to unite their tribe and heal their families. Loretta Gallette, drowning in alcoholism and poverty, surrenders her three- and four-year-old daughters, Rain Dawn and Azure Sky, to the county and disappears. The story follows the children as they move through foster homes and are abused and neglected. Eventually, due to the persistence and determination of Loretta’s tribe, the Mozhay nation, as well as the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (a federal law that gives tribal governments exclusive jurisdiction over tribal children in matters of custody), the young girls are brought home to their tribe. As the girls struggle with the haunting absence of their mother and the emotional and physical damage from living in nightmarish foster care homes, they find comfort and strength—mainly from the women—of their home reservation. The girls hear family stories of strife and love; the broken childhood of their mother; the depression that eats at their uncle Junior, a Vietnam vet; the loss of tribal lands to white settlement; and the struggles many have had with alcohol, divorce, and domestic abuse. With gorgeous imagery and verdant prose, LeGarde Grover’s novel lays bare the pain and loss of indigenous women and children while simultaneously offering a ray of hope. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Golden Hour

Beatriz Williams. Morrow, $26.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-06-283475-1

The stories of two remarkable women a generation apart are cleverly intertwined in Williams’s sweeping family saga. In 1941, Lulu Randolph, a 25-year-old widowed American journalist, is in Nassau, Bahamas, to write society articles about the duke and duchess of Windsor, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. The duke—as governor of this island paradise with a dark side—and the duchess are portrayed as sometimes helping, but often contributing to, its problems of social inequality, racial tension, and corruption; they could also be complicit in the murder of gold mine owner Harry Oakes, and there are whispers of their Nazi sympathies. As Lulu’s royal access leads her deeper into Nassau’s shady political world and into a murky letter-passing operation with the duke and duchess, she falls in love with Benedict Thorpe, an English botanist with a mysterious background, who is captured by the Nazis in Europe. In the second story line, set in 1900, young German baroness Elfriede von Kleist suffers from postpartum depression; her sister-in-law banishes her to a Swiss clinic. She falls in love with an English patient, Wilfred Thorpe; their relationship takes many twists and turns as a result of Wilfred’s military career, Elfriede’s husband’s betrayal, and two tragic deaths. Past and present come together when a complicated family history becomes known to all. Williams (The Summer Wives) illuminates the story with exotic locales and bygone ambience, and seduces with the irresistible Windsors. Readers will appreciate the wartime espionage that keeps the suspense high. (July)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Supper Club

Lara Williams. Putnam, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-53958-2

Williams’s first novel (after the collection A Selfie As Big As the Ritz) is the engrossing, rollicking tale of Roberta, an overweight British woman in her late 20s with low self-esteem and a penchant for cooking. Roberta’s reticence among her peers makes her university time lonely and depressing. She later finds a mundane job at a fashion website where she meets Stevie, a young artist. The women become inseparable and dream up the idea of an underground supper club in which women indulge in appetites they had previously repressed or extinguished. Each dinner has a different theme (literary heroines, princesses) and different food that Roberta prepares; there are also drugs and the night usually ends with the women eating and drinking so much they throw up. The club becomes increasingly rebellious and locates new spaces for the meals, breaking into a department store and Roberta’s alma mater. As Roberta bonds with her clubmembers, she becomes involved with a former school acquaintance and her commitment to the club changes. Williams’s humorous and candid exploration of a woman on the verge of finding herself makes for an enthralling novel. (July)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Girl’s Guide to Chicago

Kelly Russell. Kelly Russell, $17.95 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-1-73211-820-1

Chicago blogger Russell crafts a thinly fictionalized version of her first year in the Windy City in her middling debut . The eponymous main character, intrigued by the city as a child, gives up her job in the suburbs in order to fulfill her somewhat vague dream of living there. She quickly finds a job as a receptionist for a digital marketing agency and an apartment to share with her homebody brother, but realizes that she’ll need to navigate public transportation, revamp her wardrobe, and revisit her expectations of urban life if she wants to survive in the city. Though colleagues and friends make appearances, none really makes an impression apart from Vin, Kelly’s boss, who becomes an integral part of her social life. The real star is Chicago itself, with key landmarks and businesses described frequently. The straightforward prose lacks emotional resonance, but the book lives up to its title through its loving portrayal of a storied city. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Death and Other Happy Endings

Melanie Cantor. Viking/Dorman, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-0-525-56211-5

Cantor’s accomplished debut tracks one woman’s reaction to a fatal prognosis. Jennifer Cole, 43, has been told by her doctor that she has an “osis”—Jennifer won’t speak the full name of the disease, but it’s a blood disorder that will take her life in three months. At her best friend Olivia’s suggestion, Jennifer contacts three people who have become detached from her life: her snarky sister, Isabelle; her philandering ex-husband, Andy; and her (also philandering) ex-boyfriend, Harry. Stepping far outside her comfort zone of passivity, Jennifer writes each of them a letter telling them of her prognosis and laying her hurt feelings bare, and she’s surprised by the amount of time that passes before any of them respond. She finally hears from Isabelle, and the sisters find a closeness they never knew would be possible. Harry does call, bringing the possibility of reignited love, and when Andy finally comes around, Jennifer learns just how relieved she is that he’s her ex. Twists push the story in intriguing directions, and the clever, personable voice of Jennifer is like that of a witty friend with a bad news/good news story to tell, resulting in a moving novel with a surprisingly playful edge. (July)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Stay and Fight

Madeline Ffitch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-26812-1

Ffitch’s remarkable and gripping debut novel (after story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn) traces the journeys of a makeshift family in contemporary Appalachian Ohio. After Helen leaves Seattle with her boyfriend to live off the land and acquires 20 acres and a camper to sleep in, she is soon left by herself when he finds the life he imagined for them too daunting. She quickly adapts to fend for herself, learning how to forage and cook roadkill and working to help cut trees with Rudy, a lifelong local who spouts antigovernment paranoia and practical advice in equal measure. Soon, Karen and Lily, a neighboring couple, give birth to a son, Perley, and are no longer welcome at the radical Women’s Land Trust, so Helen offers them a new home with her, hoping they’ll all manage the land together. It becomes apparent, however, that it’s hard to mesh their personalities. As the years go by and Perley decides he wants to go to school and be a part of the world the others so despise, the life this family has built threatens to fully unravel. The story is told in the alternating voices of Helen, Karen, Lily, and Perley, and Ffitch navigates their personalities beautifully, creating complex, brilliantly realized characters. As the stakes rise, for both the family and the preservation of the region, the novel skewers stereotypes and offers only a messy, real depiction of people who fully embody the imperative of the novel’s title. This is a stellar novel. (July)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Poison Thread

Laura Purcell. Penguin, $16 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-14-313405-3

Pairing unreliable narrators from vastly different social classes, Purcell (The Silent Companions) offers a chilling Victorian gothic thriller with supernatural overtones. Heiress Dorothea Truelove continually frustrates her father by spurning advances from “proper” suitors—instead, she possesses a clandestine passion for a handsome but socially unsuitable police officer and a not-so-secret fascination with phrenology, the study of the purported relationship between head shape and moral character. Dorothea’s research trips to Oakgate Prison introduce her to a young servant, Ruth Butterham, who was recently imprisoned for murdering her mistress. Ruth narrates her personal history to an increasingly horrified Dorothea, revealing that this is only the most recent death of many for which she bears responsibility (with varying degrees of intent). Ruth, a talented seamstress, is convinced that her malice is transformed through her needlework into violence toward a garment’s wearer, from a schoolyard bully to her own family members. Meanwhile, Dorothea (whose pseudoscience causes her to harbor secret doubts about her own moral qualities) begins to suspect parallels between Ruth’s story and her own. The novel’s suspenseful plot is a fittingly knotty one, even if the final strand is a bit too hastily tied off. But what elevates Purcell’s novel is its inflection with issues of class, race, gender, and educational inequities, upon which much of the novel’s dramatic irony relies. This smart and sophisticated historical thriller will appeal to fans of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. (June)

Reviewed on 03/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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