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Brooklyn Thomas Isn’t Here

Alli Vail. Post Hill, $18.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 979-8-88845-289-9

A depressed 29-year-old starts to physically disappear in Vail’s witty and poignant debut. After losing her job as the communications director of a Vancouver marketing firm, Brooklyn moves into her parents’ basement and begins pulling shifts at an artisanal doughnut shop. Then she learns that her best friend, international aid worker Penny Parker, has vanished while working in Syria. As if that weren’t enough, Brooklyn is also back in the orbit of her physically abusive brother; her mom ignores all evidence of her brother’s abuse; and she’s developed a crush on a doughnut shop regular who already has a girlfriend. Before long, Brooklyn feels her heartbeat slowing down and notices that her reflection isn’t showing up in mirrors. Worried that she might be dying, Brooklyn is visited by the ghost of actor Emaleigh Porter, who starred in some of her favorite childhood TV shows. Emaleigh’s wisdom, coupled with Brooklyn’s fitful pursuit of her doughnut shop regular, helps bring her back to life. Vail’s subtle touches of magical realism enrich her insights about the difficulties of young womanhood without overwhelming them. This has charm to spare. Agent: Haley Casey, Creative Media. (May)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Dream

Pedro Almodóvar, trans. from the Spanish by Frank Wynne. HarperVia, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-334976-6

In an introduction, Spanish filmmaker Almodóvar (Patty Diphusa and Other Writings) describes this dynamic collection, which blends fiction and essays, as a “fragmented autobiography” and a “complement to my cinematographic works.” The best entries have a confessional tone. These include two works of fiction—“The Visit,” about a woman’s encounter with an abusive priest, which formed the spine of his film Bad Education, and “Confessions of a Sex Symbol,” which recounts a migraine experienced by porn star Patty Diphusa, a character who featured in Almodóvar’s previous collection. In the strikingly personal title essay, he observes, “I learned much from my mother, without either of us realizing.” The author’s complex feelings about filmmaking form the basis for the story “Too Many Gender Swaps,” about two lovers, a director and actor, and their mutually parasitic creative partnership. Not everything works here. “The Mirror Ceremony” is a stiff riff on Dracula, and “Joanna, the Beautiful Madwoman,” a “Sleeping Beauty”–esque fable, is a snooze. But there are plenty of insights into Almodóvar’s creative process peppered throughout (“To write, you must refuse yourself to others”). The director’s fans will find much to admire in this potpourri of ideas and images. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Us Fools

Nora Lange. Two Dollar Radio, $18.95 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-953387-51-6

In Lange’s resonant debut, a woman reflects on how she and her sister struggled to survive on their family’s Illinois farm during the mid-1980s recession. At nine, Bernadette Fareown and her impulsive 11-year-old sister, Joanna, call themselves “junk kids.” Their family’s homestead has seen better days, and the mood is glum, especially after Jo’s attempted suicide following her diagnosis of severe scoliosis. With their parents unable to pay the bills, Bernadette “watched my family fall apart, over and over.” Bankrupt, they flee to a Chicago apartment, where Bernadette pursues her dream of a formal education while Jo’s behavior becomes increasingly reckless. Bernadette’s recounting of the family’s history follows her recent trip to Alaska to see Jo, who is pregnant and has been recently released from a mental hospital. Lange’s lucid story digs deep into the bonds of family and the alliances that are formed and retained across time and despite changing circumstances. Readers will be captivated. Agent: Martha Wydysh, Trident Media Group. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Living Statue: A Legend

Günter Grass, trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. New Directions, $12.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-0-8112-3810-6

Nobel winner Grass (1927–2015) wrote this alluring allegory against capitalism and nationalism in 2003. While touring a cathedral in the late 1980s GDR, the unnamed narrator, a West German author, remembers how the Nazi era’s “nationalist nonsense” extended to the medieval figures depicted among the cathedral’s statues, including disdained Polish princess Reglindis, and Reglindis’s successor, Uta of Naumburg, who was exalted as a “true Nordic” exemplar of the Aryan race. Then, in a fantastical twist (“You can do anything on paper,” the narrator offers by way of explanation), he invites the sculptures’ subjects to lunch. The delightfully strange episode unfolds like a scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as the medieval guests enjoy fish sticks and Uta gets hooked on Coca-Cola. The narrator’s fascination with Uta continues over the years as he travels to various cities in search of a living statue busker made up as Ute, and the story culminates in modern-day Frankfurt, where the narrator and the busker conspire in a drastic act, which Grass depicts in striking detail. There’s a pleasingly timeless quality to this time capsule from a master. ,em>(Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Blessings

Chukwuebuka Ibeh. Doubleday, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-55064-2

In Ibeh’s engrossing debut, a gay Nigerian man is ostracized by his family and society as he struggles to be himself. As a boy, Obiefuna is close with his mother, Uzoamaka, but feels distant from his father, Anozie, who invites another young boy to live with their family and work in his building supply store. Obiefuna develops a crush on the boy, and when Anozie witnesses them acting on their shared feelings, he sends Obiefuna away to a religious boarding school, much to Uzoamaka’s dismay. Anozie continues to isolate Obiefuna from the family, banning him from returning for holidays, prompting Uzoamaka to vigorously object. As the years go by at school, Obiefuna carries on various sexual relationships despite the country’s prohibition of homosexuality, while his mother continues to protest his father’s choice to send him away (“It’s one thing to love a child, but it’s an entirely different thing for the same child to feel loved”). When Uzoamaka is diagnosed with cancer, she hides the news from Obiefuna, fearful of how he’ll be affected and hopeful she’ll be cured before they see each other again. Ibeh incisively portrays the family members’ conflicting emotions and strife, and offers a bracing depiction of queer life in Nigeria. Readers won’t want to miss this. Agent: Emma Leong, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (June)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Freedom Is a Feast

Alejandro Puyana. Little, Brown, $29 (448p) ISBN 978-0-316-57178-4

Puyana debuts with a gripping story of a family shaped by Venezuela’s tumultuous history during the Cold War and early 21st century. In 1964, 20-something Stanislavo Atanas joins a leftist guerrilla movement, through which he meets and falls in love with Emiliana Rodriguez. After he’s captured and imprisoned by the government, he makes a dramatic escape. Emiliana then reveals she’s six months pregnant with their child, but the couple are separated again as Stanislavo prioritizes freeing his comrades from prison, prompting Emiliana to vow he’ll never know his child. In 2002, after Emiliana has died of breast cancer, their daughter, Maria, rushes her nine-year-old son, Eloy, to the hospital after he’s wounded by a stray bullet during a gang fight. She unexpectedly meets Stanis, whom her mother told her about, and who’s now a reporter. Stanis helps save Eloy’s life, but Maria doesn’t reveal their connection to him. The wrenching final section, set in 2012, follows a grown-up Eloy as he faces a new kind of danger, prompting Maria to consider reaching out to Stanis for help. Puyana’s beautifully crafted narrative explores the complexity of his characters’ choices and loyalties. It’s impossible to put down. Agent: Emily Forland, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Oceans of Cruelty

Douglas J. Penick. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-68137-766-7

Penick (Journey of the North Star) offers an elegant retelling of the Vetala Panchavimshati, or 25 tales of betrayal, an eerie 11th-century Sanskrit collection. The stories feature brutal King Vikramaditya and a demon spirit known as a vetala, whom Penick calls Corpse-Spirit. Like Scheherazade, the corpse-spirit ensnares the king with his stories, which he relates in a whisper and which have the flavor of fairy tales seasoned with horror. Most involve kings, who come across as thinly veiled cautionary examples for Vikramaditya to follow. In “Wise Birds,” kindly King Rupasena walls in his city only to find that doing so doesn’t protect him from thieves. In “Transposed Heads,” King Dharmasila’s plan for securing an heir takes a tragic turn. In “Beauty,” the lovely Unmadini fulfills her spousal duty by walking into a burning pyre after her husband betrays her king. An extra layer of creepiness is provided by the story’s setting, a dark forest haunted by unsettling sounds and fierce winds. Penick’s introduction illuminates the collection’s history and his creative process for the project, which he likens to “painting a mural, moving from large underpainted volumes to ever smaller details.” The highlight is the memorable corpse-spirit, which materializes at will like a nightmare to bedevil the king. This is worth seeking out. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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To After That

Renee Gladman. Dorothy, $16.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-948980-25-8

This slippery and stimulating novella from Gladman (Calamities), which was originally published in 2008, explores the writing process behind one of her unpublished novels and the relationship between writing and living. The story begins with Gladman as a 20-something poet in an unnamed city in the mid-1990s. Drawing inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Red Desert and a fictional film about two Black women artists who are lovers, she begins writing a novel called After That to express what it feels like to be alive, attempting to develop a plot out of her distaste for cellphones and her unease about gentrification (as the reader learns from a partial summary of After That, a pivotal scene involves a neighbor annoying Gladman’s narrator by showing up in her apartment while talking on a cellphone). Incredibly, Gladman pulls off a story about a failed piece of writing that doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Instead, it’s packed with wonderfully strange ideas (while writing After That, Gladman wondered if she was existing in the realm of fiction), and it builds to a clarifying conclusion about the relief of letting a project go. This is a marvel. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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On the Back of the Tiger

Zülfü Livaneli, trans. from the Turkish by Brendan Freely. Other Press, $17.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-63542-391-4

Livaneli (Disquiet) offers a comprehensive if stilted tale of Abdülhamid II (1872–1918), the deposed sultan of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The year is 1909 and the sultan is under house arrest in his mansion in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki). Much diminished in health, he’s tended to by army doctor Atif Hüseyin, a spy sent to keep tabs on him. Atif keeps notes on Abdülhamid’s stories, which cover his childhood and 33-year reign, and over their nearly four years together, Atif comes to appreciate Abdülhamid as a complicated man capable of forward-thinking, despite having ruled as a despot. The narrative’s highlights include a lavish official trip Abdülhamid and his brother take to Paris with their uncle, Sultan Abdülaziz, when the two young princes are in their 20s, and the thrilling denouement, in which Abdülhamid is rescued from Salonica as it falls to Greece and returned to Istanbul by sea. Unfortunately, the frequent repetition of certain details wears on the reader, as does the unnatural expository dialogue. Ottoman history buffs might want to check this out, but it has scant appeal for the general reader. (June)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The World After Alice

Lauren Aliza Green. Viking, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-83355-1

Green evokes The Big Chill in her dramatic if undercooked debut about a Maine wedding that takes place 12 years after the groom’s older sister’s suicide. Alice Weil, a 16-year-old violin prodigy, jumped to her death from the George Washington Bridge. Now, her brother, Benji, is marrying Alice’s childhood best friend, Morgan. In attendance are Alice’s divorced parents, Linnie and Nick; Morgan’s divorced dad, Peter; and Alice’s grandmother, who has dementia. Nick, who’s secretly dealing with financial troubles, brings his younger wife, Caro, while Linnie is accompanied by her new boyfriend, Ezra, a philosophy professor and former high school teacher of Alice’s. Complicating things further is Peter’s long-standing crush on Linnie. Though Benji sees the wedding as a chance for the families to heal old wounds, Morgan realizes “no one had abandoned their grief” for Alice; “they’d merely found better places to hide it.” The plot—complete with love notes accidentally shared with the wrong person, wedding guests hiding in closets, and secret rendezvous—hints at farce, but the tone never finds its footing, as Green keeps things somber and sedate and the intimations of an illicit relationship between two of the characters evaporate on the way to an enigmatic conclusion. Only the most patient readers need apply. (July)

Reviewed on 06/28/2024 | Details & Permalink

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