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Becoming Belle

Nuala O'Connor. Putnam, $25 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1440-8

In this lively novel from O'Connor (Miss Emily) the story of Isabel Bilton is tracked from a dull Hampshire upbringing under her mother's thumb to a giddy yet difficult life as a Victorian music hall entertainer and Irish countess. Isabel follows her dream to move to London, cajoling her sister Flo to join her. The two find success as a music hall sister act, and Isabel becomes entangled with a con artist claiming to be a baron from America; her subsequent pregnancy causes him to flee. A good friend, Mr. Wertheimer, sets her up in his country home, where her pregnancy progresses far from the scandal sheets, and helps her find a nursemaid to raise her son. After returning to the stage as “Belle Bilton,” she takes up with an Irish viscount. But after their marriage, his dismayed father forces him to leave the country and eventually sign divorce papers. Awkwardly written sexual encounters and the tedious back and forth between the lovers during their separation are a drawback, but O'Connor skillfully captures the mores of the time and tops it off with a wonderfully suspenseful court case. This is a transportive, enjoyable novel. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color

Edited by Christopher Soto. Nightboat, $16.95 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-1-937658-78-6

Soto (Sad Girl Poems), a cofounder of the Undocupoets campaign and founder of the eponymous online journal at Lambda Literary, reaches back as far as the Harlem Renaissance to offer a taste of the past century’s “queer of color literary history.” In the introduction, Soto cites Gloria E. Anzaldúa as the source of the journal’s name, which, she writes, is “a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio.” The intention is to convey “the feeling of shifting between various communities and identities,” Soto notes, and the work he reproduces here duly follows that premise. Lighter-hearted, more joyful pieces (Danez Smith, Justin Chin) abut works of emotional turmoil (Paul Tran, Luther Hughes), just as challenging language experiments (Fatima Espiritu, Akilah Oliver) appear amid elegant lyrics (Ocean Vuong, Donika Kelly). According to Soto, three elements were considered in choosing the more than 100 poems included here: a poem’s emotionality, the risks a poet is taking, and whether the poet has been “absolutely pivotal to development of other queer of color poets.” Soto also recognizes the limitations of such an anthology, particularly in regards to the nebulous nature of defining terms of identity and ways included poets self-identify, as well as the various ways the work may be seen by other members of related communities in the U.S. and internationally. Despite these caveats, Soto succeeds in assembling an expansive, sonorous, and literarily significant volume that reveals the broad range of engagements queer poets of color have undertaken over the years. (June)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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New Poets of Native Nations

Edited by Heid E. Erdrich. Graywolf, $18 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-55597-809-9

Erdrich (Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media), an Ojibwe writer and scholar, goes some way toward rectifying a noticeable dearth of anthologies of contemporary Native poets with this essential volume. To do this, Erdrich selected 21 writers of varying backgrounds and statures who published their first collections in the 21st century, which she describes as “an era of witness, of coming into voice, an era of change and of political and cultural resurgence.” Given that there are 573 recognized Native nations across America, the volume is far from comprehensive, yet it demonstrates the remarkable breadth of formal styles and substantive concerns among even this small cohort of Native writers. Several of the poets here have garnered recognition in wider literary circles, including Cedar Sigo, Layli Long Soldier, and Tommy Pico, and others—such as dg nanouk okpik, Brandy Nalani McDougall, and Eric Gansworth—deserve greater attention. Through this first anthology of Native poets since 1988, Erdrich offers readers a path into a “brilliantly lit dimension” that has long been obscured by colonialism in the worlds of academia and cultural production. (July)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing

Edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin. Kore, , $40 ISBN 978-1-888553-85-7

Hunt (Arcade) and Martin (Good Stock Strange Blood) treat the intersection of blackness and womanhood with deserved complexity and curiosity in this exceptional anthology, which operates like a master class in the variety and virtuosity of black women’s art. This volume showcases poetic innovators such as Tracie Morris, Harryette Mullen, and M. Nourbese Philip, who carved spaces for the voices of newer poets such as LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, Harmony Holiday, and numerous others. The editors also expand the frame of “radical writing” to include the work of artists in other disciplines such as Kara Walker and Adrian Piper. Micro-essays establish a sense of community across the otherwise formally diverse writing. Shared by all contributors is an interest in language that, like the terms of the anthology’s title, is not self-evident. For instance, Claudia Rankine’s contribution is not from either of her high-profile “American Lyric” works but rather from Plot, her challenging third book, which uses prose, poetry, and allegory to think through pregnancy. In challenging what readers think of as blackness, womanhood, and writing, this collection’s ambition and vision sets it apart from seemingly similar anthologies. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Foundryside

Robert Jackson Bennett. Crown, $27 (512p) ISBN 978-1-5247-6036-6

Bennett’s stunning fantasy, the first in a series, is set in Tevanne, a city-state run by four merchant houses, funded by pillaging nearby lands and powered by scrivers who use sigils to make devices that defy reality. When talented thief Sancia Grado steals a sentient golden key named Clef, she’s pursued by paladin-like police captain Gregor Dandolo, scion of the Dandolo merchant house. Clef and Sancia are both shocked when they find they can communicate telepathically. This and Sancia’s other abilities—linked to a painful scar on her skull—hint at strange, terrible things in her past. When someone tries to kill Gregor to get Sancia, they discover that a very ambitious and powerful figure is building something that could “annihilate scriving on a mass scale,” a disastrous disruption of Tevanne’s society. With a little help from Gregor and Clef; Orso Ignacio, the eccentric Dandolo head of research; scriver Berenice Grimaldi; and other singularly skilled allies, Sancia sets out to pull off the most dangerous theft of her life. The endlessly inventive Bennett (the Divine Cities trilogy) brings humor and empathy to his portrayal of Sancia, a dark-skinned woman who bears substantial physical and psychological scars from being enslaved and experimented on, and who deeply resents her unwanted talents. Sancia and Clef’s friendship is poignant, and her journey of self-realization serves as a backbone for nearly nonstop, cleverly choreographed action sequences. This is a crackling, wonderfully weird blend of science fiction, fantasy, heist adventure, and a pointed commentary on what it means to be human in a culture obsessed with technology, money, and power. Agent: Cameron McClure, Donald Maass Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Blind Kiss

Renee Carlino. Atria, $16 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-8962-3

Carlino (Wish You Were Here) impresses and astonishes with this complicated, beautiful contemporary that shifts between past and present with devastating effect. Penny Piper and Gavin Berninger meet at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in a most unusual way: participating in a psych class experiment that has them kissing blindfolded. Little does either realize that kiss will be life-changing. Dance is Penny’s deepest passion, and she refuses to allow herself to fall in love with Gavin, even though she thinks the engineering student is drop-dead sexy. An accident ends Penny’s dancing dreams and leads to both Penny and Gavin making a series of terrible life decisions, and it seems that the two of them will never find their way back to each other, but after almost two decades, they get a second chance. Carlino’s sharp, incisive prose calls the traditional romance novel ending into question throughout. The expert characterizations and a constantly surprising plot are enthralling. Deep and complex, this heartbreaking and heartwarming tale will live in readers’ memories long after the final page is turned. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Red, White, Blue

Lea Carpenter. Knopf, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-524-73214-1

Carpenter follows her debut, 2013’s Eleven Days, with a beautifully written spy novel told in short segments, many of them narrated by a nameless CIA officer. Successful banker and stockbroker Noel spied for the CIA for 30 years. During this time, his wife, Lulu, abandoned the family, and Noel was left to raise their precocious child, Anna, alone. When Noel dies, Anna tries to piece together her father’s life in the face of accusations that he was really a spy for the Chinese. The nameless CIA agent, who was Noel’s protégé and is now missing, is wanted by the CIA for unofficially exfiltrating a Chinese double agent, who was recruited by Noel. Where most thrillers showcase familiar tips on spy craft and weaponry, Carpenter depicts the more esoteric and often byzantine facets of intelligence work. She skips the easy morality of guns, patriotic loyalty, and heroic action to slowly disclose the complexities of the secret world and how it relates to the human heart. Readers should not expect to come away satisfied with pat solutions, but rather to be seduced and enthralled with the far more challenging questions that arise and are sometimes, as in life, left unanswered. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Pretty Things

Virginie Despentes, trans. from the French by Emma Ramadan. Feminist Press, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-936932-27-6

Despentes, a French author best known stateside for her feminist theory memoir King Kong Theory, delivers a forceful, visceral novel about femininity, violence, and personhood. It opens with Claudine, who is flashy, crude, and ambitious, and is willing to use her beauty and sexuality to achieve fame as a singer. Unfortunately, she has none of the talent to back it up. Enter her contemptuous twin, Pauline, who takes no interest in her appearance and looks like the sensual Claudine—but who has the voice Claudine needs. They have a fraught relationship, stemming from a childhood with abusive parents who introduced and then encouraged division between the two. Pauline’s boyfriend is in jail and her regular life is on hold, and so she has come to Paris. Soon after her arrival, Claudine commits suicide, and Pauline decides to lie about her identity, slipping into her sister’s life. What follows is a downward slide into the trap of femininity and beauty, which Pauline has rejected for as long as her sister has embraced it. As she falls further into her ruse, Pauline thinks, “I would have preferred not to know what I really am,” but perhaps who she becomes is less a reflection of her than it is of the male desires that have shaped her. Despentes’s novel is chilling and wonderful, coolly presenting the raw, jagged edge of womanhood. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Notes from the Fog

Ben Marcus. Knopf, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-101-94745-6

Marcus’s refined and uncompromising third story collection (following Leaving the Sea), dissects the American experience through language that is always precise, unexpected, and alive. In the tone-setting first story, “Cold Little Bird,” a 10-year-old boy’s sudden aversion to affection threatens to dismantle his parents’ marriage. Two married architects attempt to build a potentially unbuildable memorial for a terrorist attack in the excellent “Blueprints for St. Louis,” while a mother leaves her own family to care for the husband and sons of her recently deceased sister in “The Boys.” The somewhat straightforward plots of these stories cede center stage to the brutal strangeness and ominous mood of Marcus’s language, which is best expressed in the collection’s centerpiece, “A Suicide of Trees,” a nightmarish tale of a middle-aged man searching for his missing father. Throughout, each story features moments of considered, lacerating prose (“A husband, these days, is a bag of need with a dank wet hole in its bottom. The sheer opposite of a go bag.”) threaded together by sentences that, like a marionette’s strings, bring the world to full, expansive life. This is a bracing, forceful collection. Agent: Denise Shannon, Denise Shannon Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Go with Your Heart

Savannah J. Frierson. SJF Books, $0.99 e-book (116p) ASIN B01F0IATFC

This sweet but shallow historical novella pairs up Shiloh, an enslaved black woman, and Nashoba, a Choctaw man reluctantly fighting in the Confederate Army, as the Civil War careens to an end. The two bond as they defy their mutual enemy, the Confederacy, and hope to build a new life that doesn’t revolve around America’s “peculiar institution.” Although Shiloh must part ways with Nashoba when she escapes bondage, they eventually reunite after the war. Frierson develops accurate cultural portrayals, avoiding clichés and stereotypes. The story is told in a nonlinear format, which is perfect for this couple’s erratic journey. Unfortunately, too little time is spent on the characters’ conflicts both inside and outside of the relationship, and the story moves too quickly for the reader to savor each special moment. This is a tender, quick romance that’s perfect travel reading, but romance fans who desire something a bit deeper or hotter will be disappointed. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 06/15/2018 | Details & Permalink

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