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The Next Thing You Know

Jessica Strawser. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-24164-1

Strawser (A Million Reasons Why) spins a magical tale of love and loss in her wildly unpredictable latest. After botched surgery renders accomplished singer-songwriter Mason Shaylor unable to play the guitar, he believes his life is over at 36. But is it? That is a question Strawser expertly explores through the fraught and impossibly beautiful story of Mason and his end-of-life doula, Nova Huston, who herself survived a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Mason arrives at Nova’s office and implies he has a terminal condition, her business partner Kelly Monroe assigns Mason’s case to Nova, who treats him at home. After his death (which appears to be a suicide), Nova and Kelly learn he was not terminally ill after all, and Mason’s enraged mother files a lawsuit against them. As the story toggles back and forth between the past and present, Nova and Kelly attempt to understand what really happened to Mason, and Kelly learns Mason and Nova had fallen in love. The author skillfully keeps the plot twists coming, leading to a bittersweet yet ultimately comforting finale. Strawser sensitively handles the grief and pain that surrounds a death, and buoys this with a strong cast of supporting characters. This smart and tender story gives a nice payoff. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Groundskeeping

Lee Cole. Knopf, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-32050-1

Cole’s nimble debut combines elements of Southern fiction, the campus novel, and youthful romance. Twenty-eight-year-old Owen Callahan, an aspiring writer, returns to his native Kentucky in 2016 after being semi-homeless in Colorado. He takes a job as a groundskeeper at Ashby College, where he audits a writing workshop and meets Alma Hadzics, the daughter of Bosnian immigrants. Alma has already published a book of short stories and is at Ashby on a fellowship. Alma has a sort of boyfriend, and she and Owen drift into a relationship that slowly becomes more serious. Inevitably, he introduces her to his dysfunctional family and she introduces him to her prosperous mother and father. Owen’s uncle Cort is a MAGA-lover, and Alma’s parents always have MSNBC on. In the end, it’s not politics that threatens to derail Owen and Alma’s romance but fealty to their own professional aspirations as Owen’s literary career begins to take off. Cole fills his novel with a gallery of fascinating supporting characters such as Owen’s conspiracy theorist coworker Rando; Owen’s grandfather, a WWII vet who keeps a VHS collection of classic westerns; and Alma’s Springsteen-loving father. And though Owen makes some questionable choices, he and Alma make for an odd couple worth rooting for. In the end, this is the strongest story about young writers in love since Andrew Martin’s Early Work. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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End of the World House

Adrienne Celt. Simon & Schuster, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-982169-48-0

Celt (Invitation to a Bonfire) returns with a confounding fun house that plays with the nature of time and existence to diminishing returns. In a near future, a restless California cartoonist named Bertie travels to Paris with her best friend, Kate. Things turn dark when Kate accepts an offer from a man named Javier to take a private tour of the Louvre. The moment they set foot in the museum, Kate disappears, and Celt introduces Dylan, a past (or future?) boyfriend of Bertie’s. Nothing makes sense after that, and with Kate gone, Bertie and Dylan return home (or do they?). When Dylan reacts strangely to Bertie’s idea for a graphic novel, Bertie realizes something is very wrong. Dylan seems to know everything about her, but he’s keeping something big a secret. She takes another trip to Paris and begins to sketch out her novel (which turns out to be picture after picture of Kate), and returns to the Louvre to look for her friend and confront the upside-down world she’s discovered. Some readers may be initially hooked by the ambitious premise, but storytelling pyrotechnics aside, neither the narrative nor the characters are fully realized. It’s intriguing, but more so frustrating. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Orchard

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry. Ballantine, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-35601-2

Gorcheva-Newberry’s stunning debut novel (after the collection What Isn’t Remembered) follows two girls as they navigate the hardships of growing up in communist Russia. Anya Raneva’s and Milka Putova’s childhoods in the early 1980s are deeply impacted by the Cold War. They play war (and sex) games with limbless dolls, belittle their parents’ concerns about the toilet paper shortage and rationing, and dream about running away from Moscow and eloping in Paris. They reference Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard repeatedly, in heated discussions with their other friends about social class, inequality, and change. (The play becomes something of a manifesto for Anya and her peers, even if they don’t relate specifically to its antiquated characters.) As the story progresses, the author builds a complicated and intense friendship between the independently minded Anya and Milka, who question tradition during a time when Russians tended to build close families in order to survive (“Could a woman be happy without a man? Could she be respected if she had no children? Could she ever be as free as a man?”). They spend their early teenage years longing for more freedom, but at 16, when the iron curtain falls, a cascading tragedy involving a pregnancy swiftly follows, and their dreams of seeing the world together and studying at a prestigious university turn bitter. Gorcheva-Newberry pulls off a tragic and nostalgic love letter to a much-tried generation. This is a winner. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Echoland

Per Petterson, trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Graywolf, $15 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-64445-076-5

A journey from Norway to Denmark becomes a life-changing rite of passage in Petterson’s beautifully understated story, first published in 1989 and set to publish in the states alongside the author’s Men in My Situation. Both books feature protagonist Arvid Jansen. Here, Arvid is 12, and the death of his infant brother several years earlier has cast a pall over the family. An inveterate reader, Arvid lives vicariously through Huck Finn, Martin Eden, and Pelle the Conqueror, and while visiting his grandparents in Jutland with his parents and older sister, Gry, he imagines having adventures in the region’s rugged terrain. Arvid falls in with a brash older boy, Mogen, who lusts after Gry and says he wishes Arvid were a girl. Arvid also has a strong bond with a widowed aunt, who gives him a book of poetry originally intended for her husband. Later on, Arvid’s mother asks, “What’s wrong with this family?” “Nothing,” his father replies. A budding writer, Arvid keenly observes this exchange but doesn’t yet understand its implications. Petterson’s portrayal of the inner life of a preteen boy is precise and moving, and the remarkable prose captures the landscape as well as the painful deterioration of Arvid’s parents’ marriage. This early work from a master leaves an indelible mark. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Very Nice Girl

Imogen Crimp. Holt, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-79277-8

Crimp’s modest debut follows a cash-strapped London opera student who gets in a bit too deep with an older man. Anna, 24, falls for 30-something Max after he chats her up at a bar. Though they keep the relationship casual at first, Anna begins to spend more time with the cagey Max, who works in finance and reveals little about himself other than the fact that he is separated from his wife. Soon, Max sets her up in an apartment of her own and gives her money so she can quit her side jobs, and she starts blowing off lessons and rehearsals to be at his beck and call. Anna continues to drift away from her art until an audition before a panel of creepy older men traumatizes her to the point of not being able to sing at all. Crimp layers her characters with personality and crafts smart moments of humanity and observation (“there was nowhere obvious for me to stand,” Anna narrates tellingly of an awkward audition), yet the story hinges on well-worn, predictable tropes of romance, dependency, and the struggling artist. As a result, it’s too easy to see where things are headed. Crimp’s characters, while memorable, cannot escape a garden-variety plot. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Lucky Breaks

Yevgenia Belorusets, trans. from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky. New Directions, $14.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2984-5

Belorusets, a documentary photographer and activist, captures the extraordinary lives of ordinary Ukrainian women in her arresting fiction debut, a story collection. The brief entries survey lives upended by the political and military turmoil over the past two decades: “that’s the kind of country we have, okay? The unprotected kind,” recounts the eponymous narrator of the excellent “Lena in Danger,” about a woman who leaves Ukraine for Germany in the 2000s. Some have a magical or fantastical element, such as “The Woman Who Caught Babies into a Mitt,” in which a powerful witch places curses on whole buildings. As the war in the Donetsk region begins in 2014, many of the women disappear—in “The Florist,” a woman spends all her time in her flower shop (“it was only inside her store,” the narrator says of her, “that she knew how to exist”), until she and the shop disappear. In “A Woman at the Cosmetologist’s,” another woman finds comfort visiting her cosmetologist, who gives massages and fulfills the role of a therapist. As suicide rates increase, the characters’ despair becomes palpable in a series of standout stories, namely “The Stars” and “The Crash.” Two of Belorusets’s photo series supplement her writing, but her words speak for themselves. The combination makes for a powerful exercise. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/31/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokarczuk, trans. from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. Riverhead, $35 (992p) ISBN 978-0-593-08748-0

Nobel laureate Tokarczuk’s subtle and sensuous masterpiece (after Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) weaves together the stories of characters searching for a meaningful life and spiritual truth in Central and Southeastern Europe during the second half of the 18th century. The novel’s wide cast includes Nahman, a Jewish merchant who has abandoned his familial responsibilities to study religious philosophy; and Moliwda, a Polish Christian ashamed of his past and intrigued by Judaism. They are connected by their fascination with the novel’s central character, Jacob Frank, a charismatic Jewish merchant who proclaims himself the Messiah and gathers a following with his erotic and liberated vision of life. Jacob’s Jewish followers are encouraged to eat religiously banned food products and get baptized, and—importantly for the libidinous Jacob—adultery is no longer frowned upon among his following. Readers are rewarded throughout with tender and ebullient moments, such as the jubilant dancing of Jacob and his followers as they wait to cross into Polish territory on a mission to spread his message. Nahman and Moliwda spend a good deal of time holding conversations on conundrums that are difficult for them to square, such as life’s difficulty despite the purported goodness of God. In the hands of Tokarczuk and Croft, these concerns feel real and vital—the result of Tokarczuk’s deep investment in her material. This visionary work will undoubtedly be read and talked about by lovers of literature for years to come. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Mrs. Elias

Barbara Chase-Riboud. Amistad, $26.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-301990-4

Chase-Riboud’s revelatory if uneven saga (after Hottentot Venus) draws on the true story of Hannah Elias, a Black woman who rose from poverty in early 20th-century New York City to become a landlord and proprietor of high-class brothels. City planner Andrew Green is shot on the street in 1903. His killer, Cornelius Williams, says he did it because Green stole his sweetheart, Bessie Davis, whose identity Hannah had shed 15 years earlier. Since then, Hannah, now 38, has transformed herself. She passes as Cuban, is awash in expensive gowns, and lives in a gilded palace, thanks in part to her much older millionaire client John Rufus Platt. As the police investigate Hannah in connection with Green’s killing, she relives her past as Bessie, who once rented a room to Cornelius at her boarding house. She also flashes back to her impoverished youth in Philadelphia, where she worked in a brothel and gave up her child. Back in the present, Hannah is dismissed from the murder case, but she’s not out of the woods: Platt falsely charges her with blackmailing him out of $685,385. The narrative is too long and too baggy, but Platt’s betrayal and the question of how the whole story fits together will keep readers holding on through the doldrums. It also offers a different perspective on a story recently covered in Jonathan Lee’s otherwise more accomplished The Great Mistake. Despite the work’s flaws, the author deserves credit for her vivid character portrait. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Panpocalypse

Carley Moore. Amethyst Editions, $17.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-952177-60-6

Moore (The Not Wives) offers an evocative if undercooked story of New York City at the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Orpheus, a 47-year-old poet who’s lived in the city since her early 20s, buys a bike before they sell out across the city, maxing out her credit card to do so. Her idea is to go somewhere, anywhere besides staying indoors. She bides the time of the pandemic cultivating social pods with her friends Gina, Lana, and Beemer, all the while hoping vestiges of the city as she knew it will survive. Orpheus’s loneliness is made palpable and expertly portrayed in short chapters that feel like diary entries; she resolves to “put the world in the book,” and Moore doesn’t miss a step, chronicling Orpheus’s involvement in Black Lives Matter protests and the All Cops Are Bastards movement. The short chapters can waver, especially when Moore drifts between recent events and unflagged flashbacks to Orpheus’s childhood. Some of the accounts of 2020 feel unprocessed and lacking in perspective, but Moore shines when channeling readers’ collective fears for the future. It’s a little slight, but it works as a pandemic time capsule. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/17/2021 | Details & Permalink

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