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August

Callan Wink. Random House, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-812993752

Wink’s accomplished debut novel (after the collection Dog Run Moon) explores the nuances of present-day agricultural life. August grows up on the family dairy farm in Michigan with his divorced parents, shuttling between the “old house” where his mother, Bonnie, lives, and the “new house” built by his father, Dar, with Bonnie’s inheritance. After Dar shacks up with a woman just out of high school, Bonnie moves with August to Bozeman, Mont., where August attends high school and has his heart broken after sleeping with an older woman. He spends summers working for his father in Michigan, and after graduating, August defers college (“something people do to put off actually doing something”) for a position on a Montana cattle ranch. Wink takes an assured, meandering approach to narrating August’s life, as August creeps toward adulthood through a series of minor adventures, such as mending fences, drinking at the local watering hole, and learning how to dance. Wink brilliantly captures the stultifying effects of small-town life and the tension between free-spirited August and those stuck in the Montana “suckhole,” concluding with a stunning, indelible image from August’s rearview mirror. Like a current Jim Harrison, Wink makes irresistable drama out of an individual’s search for identity in landscapes that are by turns romantic and limiting. (Mar)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Society of Reluctant Dreamers

José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. from the Portugese by Daniel Hahn. Archipelago, $18 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-93981-048-9

False memories and clairvoyant dreams combine in Agualusa’s sweeping, intricately plotted tale (after A General Theory of Oblivion) of personal and political history in Angola. After criticizing the Angolan government in a Portugese newspaper, middle-aged journalist Daniel Benchimol is fired at the behest of his powerful father-in-law and soon divorced. Set adrift, Daniel checks into a beachside bungalow. While swimming one day, Daniel recovers a waterproof camera containing photographs of a woman who has been appearing in his dreams. She turns out to be Moira Fernandes, a Cape Town artist who takes dreams as her subject. A romance develops between Daniel and Moira after he tracks her down, and she begins working closely with Hélio, a researcher who is developing a technology by which dreams can be recorded and viewed by others. Meanwhile, protests in Angola revive decades-old tensions and build to a violent attempted coup. While the dense and tangled story, rife with diary entries, recounted personal histories, and thinly drawn tertiary characters, is almost too short for its own good, Agualusa manages to pull off a deeply satisfying ending. Readers not well versed in Angolan history will have a hard time, but those with some familiarity will best appreciate Agualusa’s populous, multilayered commentary on the fogs of love and war. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Vanishing Monuments

John Elizabeth Stintzi. Arsenal Pulp, $17.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-55152-801-4

In Stintzi’s ambitious debut novel (after the poetry collection Junebat) a nonbinary photographer based in Minneapolis struggles to break through the barriers of their past. The photographer, Alani Baum, navigates their “memory palace” after their mother’s dementia takes a turn for the worse and they return to their childhood home in Winnipeg for the first time in 30 years. The components of the palace guide the narrative through collaged passages that examine the space’s fixed points. Chapters titled “The Living Room” and “The Stairs” open on scenes narrated in the second person, bringing the reader into rooms where walls are “covered in memories.” Stintzi ties Alani’s troubled history with their mother to readings of Ovid, descriptions of photographs, and past travels from the narrator’s life that reach as far as Hamburg, where Alani worked as a model for photographer Erwin Egger. Certain moments stand out vividly—a description of Alani navigating their nonbinary identity through the metaphor of a labyrinth and a Minotaur, the detailed construction of Erwin’s photographic compositions—but they don’t all cohere in the long run. Still, Stintzi’s skill shines through in well-crafted sentences and narratives. Despite its weaknesses, Stintzi’s first foray into the novel form displays a visionary approach with the refreshing touch of a poet. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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In the Lion’s Den

Barbara Taylor Bradford. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-18742-0

Bestseller Bradford adds a leisurely paced installment to her House of Falconer series (after Master of His Fate), set in Victorian England. The story tracks aspiring merchant James Falconer’s rising career at the shipping and real estate firm Malvern Market, run by Henry Malvern. While Henry’s middle-aged daughter, Alexis, the company’s expected successor, grieves for her dead fiancé, Henry promotes the ambitious James, 21, to second-in-command. After a family member embezzles from the firm, James proposes building a gallery of shops as a way to recoup those losses, but arson strikes the half-built gallery. (Though, curiously, no suspects are suggested, leaving readers to anticipate a reveal in a future series installment.) Bradford does offer a secret from James’s past love life, staging a seductive tryst between James and the lovely Irina, a dress designer, while a highly charged love affair between James and Alexis moves the plot. Bradford evokes the Victorian setting with aplomb, but a ham-handed intervention by Alexis’s late fiancé’s adult daughter, who professes to have looked up to her while telling her to “get back [her] looks,” muddles the author’s apparent appeal to current values with its adherence to Victorian convention. Series fans will enjoy following along as the plot deepens. (May.)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tropic of Violence

Nathacha Appanah, trans. from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-64445-024-6

Orphaned gang members and desperate refugees live on a machete’s edge in Appanah’s blistering depiction (after Waiting for Tomorrow) of postcolonial chaos in Mayotte, an island in the Mozambique channel. A carousel of first-person narrators recount the abrupt life story of Möise, abandoned as a baby and taken in by Marie, a white nurse in Mayotte. After Marie dies, the teenage Möise’s simmering identity crisis leads him into the island’s unforgiving slum, a “violent no-man’s land” called Gaza. There, the book-loving Möise, who names his dog after the author Henri Bosco, falls sway to gang leader Bruce, whose child soldiers run Gaza’s economy by drug dealing, burglary, and political graft. Marked as a middle-class interloper, Möise is ripe for Bruce’s exploitation. The calamitous chain of events that follows is narrated from beyond the grave by players who are helpless to change it and can only affirm its inevitability. “This country turns us all into beings who do wrong,” Marie says in her ghostly narration. A journalist and native Mauritian, Appanah has a knack for reportorial detail that crystallizes the characters’ commentary. Seen from above, present-day Mayotte is adrift in its own history, neglected by France, its parent state; at ground level it’s bloodstained and redolent with “sour urine on street corners, ancient shit in the gutters, chicken being grilled on top of oil drums, eau de cologne and spices outside the houses, the sour sweat of men and women and musty reek of laundry.” Appanah skillfully lets these perspectives merge in the short, brutal lives of her characters. This heralds Appanah as an essential cosmopolitan voice. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Strange Country

Muriel Barbery trans. from the French by Alison Anderson. Europa, $18 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-60945-585-9

In the convoluted follow-up to The Lives of Elves, Barbery pits humans and elves against a common enemy bent on destruction. In an alternate history, it’s 1938, a world war rages, and Spain is mired in civil war. Gen. Alejandro de Yepes and his right-hand man, Maj. Jesús Rocamora, are at de Yepes’s ancestral home, Extremaduro, when a snowstorm begins and three strangers appear on the property without leaving footprints. The three—Petrus, Marcus, and Paulus—are elves, sent to Extremaduro to make an alliance in an attempt to stop Aelius, an elf who is responsible for the war ravaging both the human and the elven worlds. Petrus leads the way over a magical bridge into “the fog” of the elven world, which is disappearing for unclear reasons. Due to the recently discovered notebook of a 16th-century painter, the elves believe Alejandro may be the chosen person to save their world in a battle foretold for the next day. At its best, Barbery’s imaginative tale reads as a mix of J.R.R. Tolkien and Hayao Miyazaki, epic in scope yet grounded by humor. However, the plot is often confusing and gets bogged down by Barbery’s florid scene-setting. Meanwhile, the poetic prose (the elves are big fans of verse) regarding the allegorical nature of the elven fog and climactic finale hint at a deeper message—but what that message is remains frustratingly obscured. Series fans will want to take a look, but the uninitiated need not apply. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Villa of Delirium

Adrien Goetz, trans. from the French by Natasha Lehrer. New Vessel, $26.95 (324p) ISBN 978-1-939931-80-1

A young man comes of age in the artistic and intellectual milieu of belle époque France in Goetz’s lushly detailed English-language debut. Scholar Theodore Reinach hires teenage Achilles, son of servants employed by Gustave Eiffel, to make sketches for Kerylos, his new seaside villa in the Côte d’Azur. Despite the anti-Semitism directed at the Reinachs over their support of Alfred Dreyfus, the house is acknowledged as a creative marvel upon completion. Achilles soon comes to live at Kerylos, where he studies Greek, becomes Theodore’s protégé, and grows closer to the Reinach circle: Theodore’s erudite brothers, Joseph and Salomon; Theodore’s wife, Fanny; and Joseph’s son, Adolphe, who becomes Achilles’s best friend. Goetz’s tale spans both world wars, which bring tragedy and destruction to the Côte d’Azur, and neither Achilles nor the deeply patriotic Reinach family escape unscathed. The elderly Achilles returns to the house to seek a treasured relic of his past, and while the nominally suspenseful premise of Achilles’s hunt falls slack amid extended digressions into the past, Goetz pulls off an impassioned portrait of Kerylos as “a place that makes you want to travel, do somersaults and stretches, drink champagne in evening dress, read, think.” Goetz’s deeply felt novel has an equally intoxicating effect. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Only the River

Anne Raeff. Counterpoint, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64009-334-8

Raeff’s engrossing tale of refugees and war (after Winter Kept Us Warm) traces the connection between two families affected by the Nicaraguan Revolution. After the Anschluss in 1938, 13-year-old Pepa, a Jew, flees Vienna with her family for Nicaragua, eventually settling in El Castillo, where, as doctors, her parents dedicate themselves to fighting yellow fever. At 14, Pepa walks though the jungle at night and watches people dancing in the plaza, where she meets a boy named Guillermo and falls in love. However, a few years later, while Pepa carries Guillermo’s child, her family abruptly leaves for New York, and she is separated from Guillermo forever. Pepa marries a Jewish man and has another child with him, Liliana. Decades later, Pepa’s son, William, sets out to join the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, where he is presumed dead in 1982. Guillermo’s daughter, Federica, also fights the Contras. It isn’t until Liliana travels to Nicaragua in the mid-2000s to find answers about her older brother’s disappearance, that Pepa’s and Guillermo’s stories merge again. Raeff’s seamless web artfully depicts the characters’ will to survive and to fight for what they believe in. This heartfelt story of separation and confluence will move readers. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Narcissism of Small Differences

Michael Zadoorian. Akashic, $28.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61775-817-1

Zadoorian (The Leisure Seeker) serves up a wry, unflinching tale of an underachieving couple in midlife crisis mode as the recession grips the industrial Midwest. Joe and Ana live in Ferndale, Mich., a mile outside Detroit, where they’ve been shacked up (but not married) for 15 years. Joe’s a freelance journalist just getting by, while Ana, once an aspiring documentary filmmaker, works in advertising and has become the breadwinner. Despite their cramped living quarters, they live in separate spheres. While Ana befriends and fantasizes over a coworker, Joe stays out late drinking and, while home, develops a heavy porn habit. After Ana catches Joe at the screen, she expresses doubts about their relationship and ongoing living situation. Things don’t get any easier at work. Ana questions how far she’s willing to stray from her progressive values to serve a Christian client, and Joe is reduced to a “telemarketing Willie Loman,” selling ads for a newspaper. Zadoorian’s comedy of contemporary manners resonates by virtue of its introspective characters and depictions of the small moments in life that, taken together, have great significance. Piquantly titled chapters (“Out Come the Freaks”) provide additional comic snap. Zadoorian’s subtle, timely story hits the mark. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor. Europa, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-1-60945-593-4

O’Connor’s high-spirited latest (after The Star of the Sea) puts ample flesh on the bones of the little-known story of the theatrical ménage involving celebrity actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and Irving’s business manager, Bram Stoker. Composed (like Dracula) in epistolary style from diary entries, letters, recording transcripts, and the like, the narrative follows Stoker as he moves with his family from Dublin to London in 1879 to help Irving establish his Lyceum Theatre. Over the next quarter century the two indulge in a frequently bitter love/hate relationship—Irving drives Stoker mercilessly and cruelly taunts him for his literary ambitions. Via commentary from Terry on Dracula, O’Connor’s narrative suggests that Stoker likely channeled the personality of Irving and the drama of their contretemps into his tale of the imperious vampire scourge. O’Connor’s characters are magnificently realized and colorfully depicted by the virtues that define them: Irving’s egotism, Terry’s feminism, Stoker’s stoicism, and—for the brief time he appears—Oscar Wilde’s witticisms. The repartee O’Connor imagines between them is priceless, in particular when they refer to each other by their nicknames (“Chief” for Irving, “Auntie” for Stoker), and he fills the tale with numerous rib nudges that readers of Dracula will recognize. This novel blows the dust off its Victorian trappings and brings them to scintillating life. (May)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | Details & Permalink

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