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Antiquities

Cynthia Ozick. Knopf, $20 (192p) ISBN 978-0-593-31882-9

Ozick (Foreign Bodies) delivers a beguiling novel of a man living in the past. In 1949, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired lawyer estranged from his friends and his only son, has returned to live at the Temple Academy, the boarding school he attended as a child, which has been converted into a makeshift retirement home for its trustees. There, with his beloved Remington typewriter, he labors over his memoirs. His account revolves around two axes: his childhood fascination with the archaeological adventures in Egypt of his distant cousin Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, which Lloyd’s father impulsively joined, and a school-age infatuation with a mysterious classmate, Ben-Zion Elefantin, who claimed to be from Egypt. Ozick is adept at capturing the vicissitudes of fading memory or flashes of lucid insight, and she unspools the story at a brisk pace. While Petrie’s lively venom and wit are sometimes overdone by Ozick’s overwrought efforts to develop his private-school mannerisms (Ben-Zion Elefantin has a “farcical pachyderm name”; Temple retains “Oxonian genuflections”), the novel becomes a fascinating portrait of isolation, memory, and loss as Petrie’s health and the state of Temple become more perilous. While it doesn’t reach the heights of her greatest work, this is impressive nonetheless. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Honey Girl

Morgan Rogers. Park Row, $17.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1102-7

In Rogers’s frothy debut, a high-achieving 20-something Black woman blows up her life. Grace Porter is spending a weekend in Las Vegas with her two friends to celebrate completing her doctorate in astronomy, when she wakes up to find a note from Yuki Yamamoto, a woman she’d hooked up with—and gotten married to—the night before. Back home in Portland, Ore., Grace reckons with her reckless behavior and hazy “champagne-pink” memories while trying to continue living up to her strict, financially supportive military father’s expectations as she pursues a career in a field dominated by white men. Even though Grace is surrounded by a loving group of friends and roommates, she still feels alone and untethered. She decides to abandon her life plan to travel to New York to meet Yuki, a waitress and late-night radio storyteller. Still feeling restless, Grace heads to Florida to work on her free-spirited mother’s orange grove. There, Grace searches for a way to move forward on her own terms. While the story’s minimal tension gives the reader ample time to wonder if it’s worth plowing through, the dialogue is pitch-perfect (“What the hell would I look like on Dateline talking about how you disappeared in Las Vegas?” a friend admonishes Grace). Patient readers will find plenty to appreciate in this rom-com. Agent: Holly Root, Root Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Eternal

Lisa Scottoline. Putnam, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-0-525-53976-6

Scottoline’s admirable foray into historical fiction (after her Rosato & Associates series) visits pre-WWII Italy during Mussolini’s rise to power as three teenage friends navigate a love triangle. Elisabetta D’Orfeo works at a restaurant to support her alcoholic father. Marco Terrizzi, the son of a bar owner, begins his rise in the Fascist government, using his wit and charm to hide the secret of his learning disability and inability to read. Sandro Simone, a brilliant student, lives in Rome’s Jewish quarter with his obstetrician mother and lawyer father, Massimo. Sandro’s parents want him to date a Jewish girl, but he is determined to court Elisabetta, plans that are put to a halt by Mussolini’s racial laws barring relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Elisabetta succumbs to Marco’s charms, but their relationship is derailed after Marco falsely takes credit for a notebook left for her by Sandro to encourage her writing. As the Nazis occupy Rome, threatening to arrest and deport Jewish residents, the Simones are stripped of their livelihoods. Sandro and Massimo are eventually rounded up by the Nazis, and Marco and Elisabetta go to increasingly dangerous lengths to try to rescue them. While the dialogue is a bit wooden at times, Scottoline expertly brings historical events to life. Fans of WWII fiction will be drawn to this immersive, emotional novel. Agent: Robert Gottlieb, Trident Media Group. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Narrowboat Summer

Anne Youngson. Flatiron, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-76461-4

Youngson (Meet Me at the Museum) tosses together two middle-aged women on the precipice of change in this pleasing buddy tale. Ailing but hardened Anastasia, who lives on an English canal narrowboat, meets Sally Allsop and Eve Warburton when the two strangers break onto her boat after thinking Anastasia’s barking dog is in trouble. Quickly feeling trust for the women, Anastasia asks them to take up the duties of her vessel while she gets medical treatment for a mysterious illness. With just a few navigating tips and some gruff advice, recently fired Eve and recently separated Sally travel off down the canals of England, eagerly leaving their former lives behind. Youngson moves the wispy plot—which largely concerns the novice crew’s mishaps and encounters with colorful locals—along at a slow pace, frequently drawing parallels to nautical life: “How was it that, when they could plan all this and carry it out, she seemed incapable of following the routes they had chosen on a perfectly reproduced, accurate, annotated, scaled map.”Oddball characters, such as Billy the singing historian and Arthur the vagabond accountant, buoy the pleasant narrative. Youngson’s meditative story satisfies with its take on the joys of new friendship and the happiness that can be found in the mundane. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Garden in England

Julia Kelly. Gallery, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982107-82-6

Three women across time are connected by a garden in Kelly’s enjoyable and richly detailed latest (after The Whispers of War). In 1907, Venetia Smith is hired to design elaborate gardens for the Highbury House estate in Warwickshire. In 1944, Beth Pedley works there as a land girl. For both women, the gardens become scenes of loss and grief, tragedies that are hidden until landscaper Emma Lovett reconstructs the history of the grounds while restoring them in 2021. Venetia falls in love with a young botanist while renovating the garden, and after she becomes pregnant, the career she had worked for and the life she hoped to build are threatened by his controlling sister. Later, as WWII envelops Britain and Highbury House is turned into a hospital, Beth’s tense relationship with the house mistress, Diana Symonds, becomes a shared dedication to protect the gardens from the ravages of war. While much of the narrative is given over to describing the design and work of gardening, Kelly balances Emma’s detective work reviewing papers and records found in the house with Venetia’s slow-burn tragedy and the twist that defines Beth’s relationship to the gardens. Kelly easily delivers everything her fans will expect. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Bone Fire

György Dragomán, trans. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Mariner, $16.99 trade paper (480p) ISBN 978-0-544-52720-1

At the start of this evocative work of magic realism from Dragomán (The White King), 13-year-old Emma, who’s been living since the death of her parents in an orphanage in an unnamed city and country that’s recently overthrown its Communist government, is claimed by a grandmother she didn’t know existed. The grandmother convinces Emma with a bit of magic that they’re related. At her grandmother’s house, Emma regularly observes and participates in minor bits of domestic magic, such as interacting with her grandfather’s ghost and engaging in homely rituals. At school, she faces mean girls as she tries to find where she fits in, eventually becoming part of the long-distance running team. Some accuse her grandfather of having been an informer for the previous regime, but others dismiss that as nonsense. Below the surface, violence is still simmering from the revolution that could strike close to Emma. One small incident follows another until some dramatic action in the final pages. The striking mix of magical elements and post-Communist setting compensates for the lack of much of a plot. Fans of Gabriel García Márquez may want to have a look. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, Gernert Company. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Imhotep

Jerry Dubs. mhotep Literary, $14.99 e-book (444p) ISBN 978-1-5190-7028-9

Dubs’s exciting debut and series launch brings to life the political intrigue of ancient Egypt through the stories of time-traveling American tourists. Artist Tim Hope is in Egypt with plans to spend his vacation sketching his surroundings and recovering from a lost love, until he witnesses two other Americans, Brian Aldwin and Diane Maclaine, disappearing into Kanakht’s tomb. Tim follows them and finds they’ve all been thrown back 5,000 years into “Ineb-Hedj,” in the days of King Djoser and Imhotep. When the three emerge from the tomb, they’re viewed as gods, but corrupt priests and suspicious royalty are not easily convinced they are deities. Tim, Brian, and Diane try to adapt to this different way of life that includes plenty of public nakedness and sexual encounters. They also face attempts on their lives, portrayed in intense action scenes, find love interests, and wonder how—and whether—they will return home. The characters are skillfully developed, and Dubs particularly impresses with his descriptions of life in ancient Egypt. This series is off to a great start. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Family Ship

Sonja Yoerg. Lake Union, $14.95 trade paper (438p) ISBN 978-1-5420-0469-5

Yoerg takes the pulse of a Navy veteran’s large family in this keen novel (after Stories We Never Told). In 1980, Maeve and Arthur Vergennes have nine children with a 10th on the way in a small Virginia town on the Chesapeake Bay. The oldest, Jude, left the family under duress five years earlier, so Verity, the next oldest at 18, is considered captain of Nepenthe, the family’s dry-docked oyster boat. The vessel came with their sprawling house on a small island property and is central to the children’s lives, where every Saturday they head off on imaginary voyages, a family tradition that helps distract the children from the trauma of Jude’s departure and, eventually, Maeve’s death following a miscarriage. In chapters that alternate from different family members’ points of view, Yoerg does justice to their perspectives as they navigate various conflicts. At the center is a sexual assault endured by Verity at 13, and her controlling father’s unwillingness to allow her to leave home for college. The author tackles a full range of events with élan: the loss of innocence, the push-pull divide between father and son, and how tragedy can cause a family to implode or come out stronger. This richly-drawn and insightful story demonstrates an exceptionally deep understanding of family relationships. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Tiara

M.J. Rose. Blue Box, $15.99 trade paper (438p) ISBN 978-1-952457-09-8

Rose’s engrossing latest (after Cartier’s Hope) chronicles a New York City architect’s quest to unravel the mystery behind a tiara she finds hidden in a wall of her late mother’s Manhattan apartment in 1948. Upon finding the tiara, Isobelle consults Jules Reed, a handsome jeweler who takes a romantic interest in her. Isobelle worries Jules is more interested in the tiara than in her, after he tells her about his involvement in a secret society of jewelers dedicated to returning stolen objects to their owners. A parallel narrative of Isobelle’s mother, Sofiya, as a 19-year-old art restorer in love during the Russian Revolution, fills in the blanks, as the reader learns the tiara was given to Sofiya by Olga, a daughter of Russian royalty tutored by Sofiya’s mother. Sofiya also chronicles her love story with Isobelle’s soldier father, Carpathian, whom she meets with Olga while touring an art-filled palace-turned-hospital, and sheds light on a wonderfully twisty plot involving a man with a Russian accept who seems to be following Isobelle. Rose unfurls an engaging structure that keeps the reader wanting to know more. Fans of Russian history and art will find much to appreciate in this winning story. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Gerta

Katerina Tuckova, trans. from the Czech by Veronique Firkusny. Amazon Crossing, $14.95 trade paper (460p) ISBN 978-1-5420-4314-4

Tuckova’s English-language debut slogs through the unfortunate life of a Czech-German woman after the liberation of Brno, Moravia, at the end of WWII. Gerta Schnirch is the daughter of a diffident Czech mother, who dies during the war, and an officious ethnically German father, who takes advantage of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia to rise socially and economically. When the war is over, the teenage Gerta—who has been raped by her father, Friedrich, and borne his daughter, Barbora—is among a group of German Czechs sent on a forced march to the west of the country by the Czechoslovak government, while Friedrich has vanished. Unlike many on the march who are raped or killed or die of dysentery, Gerta finds work as a farm laborer and secretary to the area administrator. When Barbora is five, Gerta returns with her to Brno, where she is dismayed to find Barbora stigmatized for her German surname, which sets Barbora back in school and drives a wedge between mother and daughter. While the central character is a bit one-note, Tuckova offers many rich period details; the scenes of Czech nationalist fervor are particularly wrenching, but they aren’t enough to sustain the novel. Though the lesser-known story of German expulsion is a worthy subject, this doesn’t quite do it justice. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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