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Marlene

Phillipe Dijan, trans. from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Other Press, $15.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-59051-987-5

Two 30-something veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen grapple with assimilating back into civilian life in this abrasive novel from French writer Dijan (Elle). In a small, unnamed town, Mona, 18, unexpectedly shows up to crash with Dan, the best friend of her father, Richard, while Richard serves a three-month jail sentence for unspecified petty crimes. Richard’s sister-in-law, Marlene, who attracts “whatever calamity is nearby,” annoys her sister Nath by moving to town and announcing she’s pregnant. After Richard is released, his gambling, illegal street racing, drug use, and violence contrast with Dan’s striving to be “the only more or less palatable veteran.” While Dan fights off unwelcome advances from Mona and launches a tentative sexual relationship with Marlene, he and another veteran suggest Richard invest in a laundromat. Richard agrees, while Marlene aggravates Dan by appearing at his house uninvited, and Nath struggles to end an affair in the tangle of unspoken, furtive frustrations that threaten to capsize all the relationships following a sudden tragedy. Dijan’s disjointed style results in several jolting shocks and hazy situations, which form a piercing psychological group portrait. Readers who appreciate messy interpersonal dynamics will enjoy piecing together this shadowy story. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Like a Bird

Fariha Róisín. Unnamed, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-951213-09-1

Róisín’s engrossing debut novel (after poetry collection How to Cure A Ghost) follows a mixed-race teenage girl’s experience of trauma and survival. Taylia Chatterjee, born into economic privilege on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to a Jewish mother and Bengali-Indian father, is viewed as a disappointment by her parents compared to her sister, Alyssa, the “white-passing majesty,” and both are expected and pressured to succeed. Eventually, the heaviness of their familial roles proves too much, leading Alyssa to commit suicide. Amid the family’s grief, Taylia is raped by a friend of her parents. They blame Taylia, still living at home while enrolled at Columbia, and throw her out, forcing her to cobble together a life from the generosity of new friends: Kat, Ky, and Tahsin. Bouncing from home to home, Taylia makes decisions refracted through both her naiveté and an overwhelming understanding of how cruel the world can be. As she gains a sense of purpose, she feels empowered knowing she can make decisions for herself. Róisín’s portrayal of Taylia’s surrogate family offers a life-giving chronicle of Taylia’s emergence from pain into a new life. Well-paced and hopeful, this stirring work will resonate with those interested in stories of young women breaking free of oppression and trauma. Agent: Mark Gottlieb, Trident Media Group. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Turncoat

Siegfried Lenz, trans. from the German by John Cullen. Other Press, $17.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-590510-53-7

Lenz (1926–2014) effectively mines his experiences in the German army for this memorable account of a German soldier, written in 1951 and posthumously published. Six years after fighting in WWII, Walter Proska plans to write a confessional letter to his sister, blaming himself for her living alone, and prepares for her to curse him in response. Walter then flashes back to the war and his first encounter with Wanda, an attractive Polish woman whose life he helps save before learning she is a partisan with plans to blow up the train they’ve been riding on. The story line builds through camraderie between Walter and his fellow soldier Milk Roll and encounters with Walter’s brother-in-law, and on the battlefield and prison camp, where Walter’s allegiance is sorely tested. A gut-punch of a climax brings out the full ramifications of a central tragedy, which only becomes clear at the very end. Lenz is especially good at conveying the quotidian details of a German army grunt, from the way his comrades achieve sexual release by using trees, to making sure that a gift intended for an officer who’s killed before he receives it is still made use of. Lenz’s meaningful exploration of loyalty owed to one’s country and family is packed with thrills and chills. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Daughters of the Wild

Natalka Burian. Park Row, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-77831-001-3

In Burian’s darkly atmospheric adult debut (after the YA novel Welcome to the Slipstream), two foster siblings confront a supernatural power. Joanie, 19, returns to live with her abusive foster parents, Sil and Letta, and her five foster siblings in 1998 West Virginia after a brief marriage at 16 to Josiah, who died suddenly in mysterious circumstances. Joanie has given birth to a baby boy, never named in the text, and is desperate not to reveal his existence to Josiah’s mother, a powerful woman known as Mother Joseph, out of fear she will claim him. Mother Joseph holds the foster family—and much of the surrounding area—in thrall with a mysterious and intoxicating vine, which Joanie and her foster sisters are duty-bound to tend, in arcane rituals bound up in menstrual cycles. When the baby disappears, Joanie’s foster brother Cello vows to help find him, while pursuing his own dreams of escaping the family and going to college. Flashbacks to Joanie’s brief but unsettling tenure at Mother Joseph’s are interspersed with Joanie and Cello’s narratives, which become intertwined. Physical and psychological abuse, addiction, isolation, and abandonment all play out against a backdrop of overgrowth and decay as Burian makes the characters’ desperation and claustrophobia deeply palpable through vibrant prose. This is worth a look. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Town Crazy

Suzzy Roche. Gibson House, $16.99 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-1-948721-12-7

Singer-songwriter Roche (Wayward Saints) probes the secrets of a small American town in this immersive character-driven tale. In 1961, the usually serene Hanzloo, Pa., and its Catholic residents are unsettled after Lil O’Brien, a frustrated poet and the mother of seven-year-old Alice, develops what her husband, Jim, describes as a “disease of the soul.” The townspeople consider Lil crazy—she speaks in jumbled sentences, can’t keep herself or the house clean, and doesn’t look after Alice. No one knows Lil is suffering an emotional collapse over a decision she’d kept to herself. Then, Luke Spoon, a handsome artist, moves to town with his young son, Felix. When Felix and his classmate Alice are discovered after hours in the darkened cafeteria, huddled under a table, town do-gooder Clarisse McCarthy jumps to the conclusion that Felix exposed himself to the girl—an accusation that leads to a tragedy. Roche’s characters are memorable, if not unique. Clarisse’s two-faced gossiping and resentment of those who “hadn’t fallen under her spell” have been done many times before, and so has Lil’s bored housewife character (“Don’t get married,” she tells Alice). Still, Roche’s deep understanding of them will keep readers engaged all the way to the end. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett

Annie Lyons. Morrow, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-302606-3

Eudora Honeysett, a British woman in her twilight years, resolves to die on her own terms in the witty, endearing latest from Lyons (The Happiness List). After a fall on the pavement sends Eudora to the hospital, an encounter with another older woman in the waiting room (“ ‘Not long now for you and me,’ she wheezed,”) plants a seed in her mind, and she realizes she’s through with the pains, weakness, and fatigue of old age. She applies for a voluntary death provided by a medical clinic in Switzerland and marks her “Freedom” on the calendar, counting down the days until her appointment. Lyons unfurls Eudora’s life story, including her grief over losing her father in WWII, alongside a surprising new friendship for Eudora with Rose Trewidney, a 10-year-old spitfire who’s moved in next door and thrust herself into the daily routine of Eudora and her widower neighbor Stanley Marcham. As Eudora’s hardened exterior softens with this newfound kinship, she is still adamant about getting on with her plans (“If I can have the choice of how I live my own life, why can’t I choose how to die my own death?”). Lyons strikes a winning balance, reaching deep feelings while avoiding the traps of sentimentality. Agent: Laura Macdougall, United Agents LLP. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Pink Mountain on Locust Island

Jamie Marina Lau. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-56689-594-1

In Australian writer Lau’s perceptive debut, an angsty teen misunderstands the actions and intentions of those around her. Monk, 15, lives with her volatile father in the Chinatown of an unnamed city, where “the gutters bulge with sesame oil” and her father’s “voice swells, fattening the timber.” After she starts hanging out with Santa Coy, a moody 19-year-old aspiring artist, Monk’s father, a former art teacher, begins showing Santa Coy’s art to his former colleagues. Monk feels excluded from the bond between the two as they achieve sudden financial success, and grows tired of cleaning up Santa Coy’s messy painting studio. She asks a friend’s mother, Honey, for some voodoo tips, hoping to cast a spell on them (“I’ll tell them, you’re not the kings of the world, you know?”). When Monk’s father is badly beaten by strangers, Monk assumes it is mystical retribution and goes back to Honey, who instructs her to set a woman’s house on fire. Instead, Monk discovers there’s more than paintings behind her father and Santa Coy’s newfound wealth. The immediacy of the terse, somewhat choppy style amplifies Monk’s confusion and emotional turmoil. This inventive work satisfies in its blending of teenage ennui and a fragmented noir aesthetic. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Forgotten Work

Jason Guriel. Biblioasis, $14.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-77196-382-4

Guriel’s playful debut novel (after the poetry collection Satisfying Clicking Sound) explores the nature of fandom and inspiration. Writer Geoff Gibson is obsessed with musical auteur Jim Gordon and the only album produced by his group, Mountain Tea, titled The Dead. Guriel begins with passionate Jim putting together his “garage band” with sky-high artistic aspirations while under the influence of Nabokov (he considers calling the band Pale Fire, after his favorite artwork of any medium). The fact that band members Lou, Hal, and “wet and woeful” Dennis have different passions augurs ill for the group. Years later, they get a rave review and attention from an influential writer, which impresses the dogged Gibson. After Gibson expresses his devotion to the group’s legacy, a former “Tea” member sends Gibson a message requesting that they meet. A feast of allusions—musical, literary, and cinematic—is the book’s most entertaining aspect, and it speaks to the powerful currents flowing between artists and artworks across disciplines, as well as to the effect of art on its consumers. The name Mountain Tea, for example, comes from an obscure poem, while the work of Orson Welles is a touchstone throughout and Gibson writes in a coffeeshop called Swann’s Way; the narrative itself is written in iambic pentameter. Guriel’s bountiful celebration of connections between art finds an inspiring, infectious groove. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Ancestry of Objects

Tatiana Ryckman. Deep Vellum, $15.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-64605-025-3

An unemployed, suicidal woman recounts a passionate affair in Ryckman’s seductive experimental novella (after I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)). After the narrator loses her job and begins contemplating killing herself, she meets a guy named David at a bar. After they see each other at a grocery store a short time later, he drives her home, and though he is married, the two embark on a passionate affair. As their relationship grows more intense, she becomes obsessed, admitting, “The fantasy is not to have David but to be known by David.” Vivid phrases and short, sharp chapters—sometimes as little as a single sentence or paragraph—keep up the momentum, while an unusual use of first-person plural narration (“Me too, we think,” the narrator says, referring to herself) keeps the reader on their toes, even if the prose’s rhythm and inventiveness can feel precious (“we stop to notsee, notlisten, notthink about what is or is not in the house with us”). Still, readers of lyrical, genre-bending fiction will be spellbound. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Midnight Library

Matt Haig. Viking, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-525-55947-4

Haig (How to Stop Time) draws on quantum wave theory in this charming if sometimes laborious account of the many possible lives of a depressed woman. Nora, in her mid-30s and living in the small English town of Bedford, suffers from “situational depression”—though, as she wryly observes, “It’s just that I keep on having new... situations.” After she gets fired from her job and her cat dies, she attempts suicide, only to wake up in a book-lined liminal zone, where she is guided by a librarian: “Between life and death there is a library... Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived.” There, Nora discovers what would have happened had she not abandoned her promising swimming career, called off her engagement, or left the rock band she started with her brother. Each time an alternate life disappoints or doesn’t feel quite right, Nora exits, reappearing in the library to continue browsing for the perfect story. While the formula grows repetitive, the set changes provide novelty, as Haig whisks Nora from Australian beaches to a South American rock concert tour to an Arctic encounter with a polar bear. Haig’s agreeable narrative voice and imagination will reward readers who take this book off the shelf. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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