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The Great Unknown

Peg Kingman. Norton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-324-00336-6

The anonymous 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a controversial text that anticipated the work of Darwin, serves as the linchpin for this beautifully wrought, panoramic historical from Kingman (Not Yet Drown’d). Events center on the Edinburgh household of the Chambers family and their wet nurse, Constantia MacAdam, all of whom become familiar with how the text challenges their Victorian culture’s prevailing religious and political beliefs. Through meticulously detailed descriptions of the Chambers family and their friends, Kingman shows how the work’s scientific speculations are reflected in innumerable facets of their day-to-day lives: the births and deaths of children, the distinguishing physiological peculiarities of several family members, the horticultural wisdom of the household’s gardener, the fossil hunting obsession of Constantia’s husband, Hugh, and even the couple’s Chartist working-class sympathies. While the plot never veers from the quiet of the English and French countryside, Kingman ably pulls together the many threads to paint the portrait of a time when humanity perched on the precipice of great change. Kingman’s evocation of a specific time and place, and her depiction of the role that chance, rather than deliberate design, plays both in the natural world and in her characters makes for gratifying storytelling. Kingman masterfully combines history with propulsive drama. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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This Town Sleeps

Dennis E. Staples. Counterpoint, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-1-64009-284-6

In this promising but slack debut, Staples depicts a Native American community with a haunted past and a bleak future. Marion Lafournier is a 26-year-old gay Ojibwe man, cynical and wry, who feels stuck in Geshig, a small reservation town in Minnesota that “crushes any form of ambition.” He begins a clandestine affair with former prom king Shannon Harstad, who struggles to square his secret homosexuality with his conception of masculinity. While pursuing this fraught relationship, Marion encounters an otherworldly dog—a manidoo, or revenant—and follows him to the grave of Kayden Kelliher, a teenager murdered by another boy years earlier. Marion seeks to find out what the manidoo wants and why it has visited him in particular. A visit to a sweat lodge ceremony with a wonderfully rendered medicine man leads to the discovery that spirits are real, not a “stupid” superstition, and Kayden’s ghost follows Marion through an investigation of his own family’s history of violence and restless spirits. The novel’s two strands, the desultory mystery and the romance, never fully gel, and neither generates quite enough suspense or emotional resonance. Staples, though, can be marvelously funny (“Good mothers don’t give their sons marijuana. Great ones do”), and there are evocative tableaus of life in Geshig. This offers tantalizing glimpses of talent with a steady hand on mystical material. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Malicroix

Henri Bosco, trans. from the French by Joyce Zonana. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-68137-410-9

In this gothic historical par excellence, Bosco (1888–1976), a multiple Nobel nominee whose other English translations are out-of-print, follows the callow 25-year-old Martial de Mégremut, last living relative of his maternal great-uncle Cornélius de Malicroix. Raised in the early 19th century by female Mégremut relatives after the death of his parents, Martial has never met his uncle, a solitary “incarnation of wildness” whose existence fills him with anxiety. After Malicroix dies, Martial unexpectedly discovers he is the beneficiary, provided only that he spend three months in Malicroix’s crumbling old manse, located on a desolate island in the Rhone River surrounded by marshland and reachable only by ferry. Attended by his great-uncle’s faithful manservant, Balandran, and a long-haired shepherd dog at the estate, Martial soon drifts into a disturbed state, unable to shake the feeling that he is “among the dead.” On a typically storm-wracked night, he receives a rare visitor, the sinister Maître Dromiols, Malicroix’s executor, and Dromiols’s attendant, the cadaverous Uncle Rat. Amid Martial’s paranoid and increasingly wild flights of imagination, brilliantly captured by Bosco in precise prose, he begins to uncover his great-uncle’s secrets. Bosco’s atmospheric investigation of the relationship between environment and mentality successfully merges haunted-house tropes and high modernism. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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While the Music Played

Nathaniel Lande. Blackstone, $29.99 (528p) ISBN 978-1-9826-3233-5

Lande’s gripping debut entwines a complex set of relationships brought together by music and disrupted by the Nazis. In Prague just before WWII, 12-year-old Max Mueller, a precocious piano tuner, and his father, Viktor, the conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, are not directly affected by the pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe, as they aren’t Jewish. But Max’s pianist girlfriend, Sophie, and his best friend, David Grunewald, an aspiring journalist, are, and the next six years pass in increasing horror as Sophie’s father is taken by soldiers and Viktor’s composer friend Hans Krasa protests the German occupation. After Gen. Reinhard Heydrich recruits Viktor to be his personal secretary in the German Army, Max is mortified, unaware that Viktor is a loyal member of the Resistance. Things reach a critical stage when Heydrich begins to transfer children to the Terezin concentration camp, which Hitler calls “a gift to the Jews.” It is anything but that, and David, Hans, and Sophie fear for their lives when transports to Auschwitz begin. Lande describes the Nazis’ appreciation for music in stark irony, as Max’s initial respect for a camp commandant’s perfect pitch turns to horror when he learns of the gas chambers. This is a fine addition to the shelf of WWII fiction. (May)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Vagablonde

Anna Dorn. Unnamed, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-951213-00-8

Dorn’s fresh, startling debut tracks the quick rise to fame of a restless L.A. rap artist. Prue Van Teesen, a 30-year-old lawyer and bedroom lyricist, believes the antidepressants she’s taking are cramping her style. “Rap and the law aren’t as different as you’d think,” she considers silently after sharing her ambitions with her psychiatrist. “They’re both adversarial.” When she meets a music producer named Jax and joins his “Kingdom” of singers and hangers-on, she’s encouraged to share her talent. Self-medicating with Adderall, cocaine, and alcohol, Prue collaborates with Jax’s crew to produce some exciting material as the group Shiny AF. Jax leads her through an exhausting series of parties that raise her profile on social media, adding to the endorphin rush of her drug cocktail. In the moment, Prue often loses sight of where she is or who she’s been with, and when one of her law clients joins Shiny AF, she hasn’t the fortitude to separate her professional life from her rising “Edgy Internet Persona” on Soundcloud. It comes as no surprise that as success looms, things veer out of control, but Dorn is most successful when she charts Prue’s interior life, which knows there’s more to life than likes (“I want to watch a movie that doesn’t exist”). Dorn’s voice slices like a serrated knife through a wacked-out world of contemporary music culture, where glittery dreams go viral and die. (May)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Swimming in the Dark

Tomasz Dedrowski. Morrow, $25.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-06-289000-9

Dedrowski’s dazzling debut charts an evocative sexual awakening and coming of age amid political unease in early 1980s Poland. At a summer work camp in 1980, 22-year-old Ludwik Głowacki meets the broad-shouldered Janusz, with whom he discusses the repression and loneliness of gay men in their society. In second-person narration addressed to his new friend and lover, Ludwik reflects on furtive childhood desires (“Years of yearning compressed like a muscle, pulsating mercilessly”) and describes their secret savoring of a banned James Baldwin book. Despite their ease of connection, Ludwik and Janusz are on opposite sides of a political divide: Janusz is happy to work within the system and gets a government job deciding which books should be published, which Ludwik—who has to carefully craft a literary doctoral thesis that won’t go against the party line—sees as censorship. Additionally, Janusz’s sexual relationship with a wealthy young woman named Hania, which he carries on in hopes of benefiting from her father’s political connections, creates conflict between the two men. Readers will relish the indelible prose, which approaches the mastery of Alan Hollinghurst. Dedrowski’s portrayal of Poland’s tumultuous political transformation over several decades makes this a provocative, eye-opening exploration of the costs of defying as well as complying with social and political conventions. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Expectation

Anna Hope. Harper Perennial, $15.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-295607-1

Hope’s enthralling latest (following Wake) propels readers into the lives of three women steeped in personal and political anxieties. Lissa and Hannah, best friends from college, live in London, while Cate, their former roommate and Hannah’s best friend from high school, has settled down, gotten married, and moved to Canterbury, where she rues the isolation of her new home and struggles with postpartum depression. Meanwhile, Hannah exhausts herself with rigid routines as she and her husband give it one last go at an IVF pregnancy, and Lissa dreams of life on the stage amid crippling loneliness, a fraught relationship with her artist mother, and regret over her acting career not panning out. Hope breaks the narrative into succinct, startlingly focused chapters that cut between the characters’ experiences in their youth with tensions in adulthood, tracing a jagged triangle around their lives as they face adultery, fierce competition, and lingering guilt over not being there for each other in the past. The book’s best moments emerge in the women’s frank discussions about their sex lives and sexuality, and their anxious grappling with the future. Hope has a bead on what her readers want—and she delivers. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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All Adults Here

Emma Straub. Riverhead, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59463-469-7

In Straub’s witty, topical fourth novel (after Modern Lovers), members of a Hudson Valley family come to terms with adolescence, aging, sexuality, and gender. After 68-year-old widow Astrid Strick witnesses an acquaintance get struck and killed by a bus in the center of Clapham, N.Y., she feels compelled to come clean with her children about her new relationship with Birdie, the local hairdresser before its too late (“there were always more school buses,” she reasons). Astrid’s kids have their own issues to contend with. Thirty-seven-year-old Porter, pregnant via a “stud farm” (aka a sperm bank), is having an affair with her old high school boyfriend, while Elliott, the oldest, is preoccupied with a hush-hush business proposal. Nicky, the youngest, and his wife have shipped their only child, 13-year-old Cecilia, up to live with Astrid after a messy incident at her Brooklyn school involving online pedophilia. Despite Cecilia’s fear of not fitting in, she finds friendship with a boy who longs to be recognized as a girl but isn’t ready to come out as trans. As per usual, Straub’s writing is heartfelt and earnest, without tipping over the edge. There are a lot of issues at play here (abortion, bullying, IVF, gender identity, sexual predators) that Straub easily juggles, and her strong and flawed characters carry the day. This affecting family saga packs plenty of punch. (May)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Roxy Letters

Mary Pauline Lowry. Simon & Schuster, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-9821-2143-3

In Lowry’s fizzy epistolary novel (after Wildfire), an aspiring artist tries to thwart gentrification in her Austin, Tex., neighborhood, with madcap results. Roxy, a 28-year-old vegan, never thought she’d be working at a Whole Foods deli counter. Her housemate and ex-boyfriend, Everett, rarely pays rent on time; her dog’s vet bills are through the roof; and the tweakers next door seem bent on making her life miserable. When she notices that a shiny athleisure shop has replaced her favorite video store, she vows to “tackle” the place “to the motherfucking ground.” Lowry’s choice to write the novel as letters to Everett has the destabilizing effect of making Roxy’s new friends seem imaginary, like the fabulously quirky Artemis Starla, who seems to Roxy to have been reading her mail after they trade barbs against consumerism. In the letters, Roxy documents her crusade (a hand-painted protest sign reads “NO $100 TIGHTS, WE WANT OUR RIGHTS”) and its frequent side trips, divulging accounts of shockingly bad sex (no matter how many offerings she makes to the goddess Venus) and a hilariously humiliating experience at an orgasm convention. While bighearted Roxy manages to land on her feet, her misadventures are often so absurdly cartoonish that the few sobering moments have less impact. Fans of screwball comedies that don’t delve too deep should be pleased. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Knockout Queen

Rufi Thorpe. Knopf, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-65678-4

Thorpe’s fierce third novel (after Dear Fang, with Love) observes the development of and challenges to an intense friendship between two outcasts at a Southern California high school in the early 2010s. Michael, gay and closeted, has lived in a shabby house with his aunt and cousin, since he was 11, when his mother was sent to prison for nonfatally stabbing his father. In the mansion next door lives Bunny Lambert, an immature volleyball star who desperately wants a boyfriend and, at 6‘3“ at the end of her junior year, fears she is a “complete monster.” While Bunny copes with an alcoholic father and bullying by her classmates, Michael hooks up with guys he meets online. Neighbors and classmates since middle school, Bunny and Michael don’t meet until 10th grade, and their friendship develops as Bunny explores her “girliness” around Michael, while he can “practice being gay.” When students start gossiping about Michael, Bunny pummels one of the girls hard enough to cause a critical injury. While the novel’s plot is thin and rests perhaps too heavily on the dire consequences of this moment of violence, the two central characters are deeply realized and complex. The result cannily dissects the power and limits of adolescent friendship. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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