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Godshot

Chelsea Bieker. Catapult, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-948226-48-6

Religious fanaticism, environmental disaster, and gender inequality form the core of Bieker’s propulsive, ambitious debut centered on 14-year-old Lacey May and her drought-stricken hometown of Peaches, Calif. After Lacey’s mother abandons her, she’s left at the mercy of her widowed grandmother, Cherry, a devoted zealot under the spell of enigmatic cult leader Pastor Vern. Vern wears shiny capes, has convinced most of Peaches that he is God and can bring back the rain the area so desperately needs, and convinces a group of girls, among them Lacey, to become pregnant. When his plans for the babies become clear, Lacey’s life is thrown in a harrowing direction and leads her to discover her own resilience and salvation. Bieker straddles the line between darkly comic and downright dark, and excels in portraying female friendships—mother-daughter duo Daisy and Florin, who run a phone sex operation and step in to help Lacey, are particularly memorable—and the setting, a town full of abandoned shops and concrete canals and surrounded by dusty fields. Delving into patriarchal religious zealotry, Bieker’s excellent debut plants themes seen in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale into a realistic California setting that will linger with readers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Marrow and Bone

Walter Kempowski, trans. from the German by Charlotte Collins. New York Review Books, $16.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-68137-435-2

Kempowski (All For Nothing) offers an astute and ever-surprising comedy of the cultural divide between East and West in 1988. At 43, war orphan Jonathan Fabrizius halfheartedly pursues a life of the mind in Hamburg, where he works as a sometime journalist. After Frau Winkelvoss, a representative of the Santubara car manufacturer, offers Jonathan an opportunity to document a trip across Poland for an upcoming rally, Jonathan readily accepts out of interest in his birthplace in former East Prussia. Jonathan takes ironic pride in a painful past (“As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends”) and adopts a wry attitude toward the way he’ll be perceived as a German abroad (“When you’d started a world war, murdered Jews and taken people’s bicycles away (in Holland) the cards were stacked against you”). On the road in Poland with Winkelvoss and a famous race car driver at the wheel of the flashy V8, Jonathan plays the part of arrogant Western intellectual as their adventure turns picaresque, complete with a car jacking. As Jonathan tunes in to the wreckage of war, Kempowski’s unsparing, dagger-sharp prose leads Jonathan to face the loss of his parents and homeland. This hilarious, deeply affecting exploration of postwar dichotomies successfully channels the satire of Confederacy of Dunces and the somber reflectiveness of Austerlitz. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Sin Eater

Megan Campisi. Atria, $27 (304p) ISBN : 978-1-9821-2410-6

Playwright Campisi draws on a punitive English folk ritual in her rousing, impressive debut, a bleak reimagining of palace intrigue in 16th-century England. Convicted for vagrancy, 14-year-old May Owens is condemned to be a sin eater, a woman meant to absorb the sins of the dying by hearing deathbed confessions and consuming symbolic foods (“Bearing a Bastard—Grapes”). After a fellow sin eater refuses to eat a deer heart placed on the coffin of Corlis Ashton, governess to young Queen Bethany (a stand-in for Elizabeth I), the Queen’s secretary, Black Fingers, sentences the sin eater to death. Black Fingers then forces May to eat the heart, but she never hears Corlis’s confession or learns which sin the heart represents—though she senses uncomfortably that the heart signifies murder. As May becomes convinced that Corlis was not guilty, she risks questioning Black Fingers’s judgment and he stabs her, a wound from which she barely recovers. Undaunted, May seeks help from fellow outcasts Bridey, who is a leper, and Paul to untangle a complicated court conspiracy. Campisi’s stirring portrait of injustice is deepened by May’s cleverness, frustration, and grief. This spellbinding novel is a treat for fans of feminist speculative fiction. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Flygirl

R.D. Kardon. Acorn, $16.99 trade paper (310p) ISBN 978-1-947392-21-2

Kardon’s exciting, spirited debut follows a new female pilot as she vies to move up to the captain’s seat. Thirty-something Patricia “Tris” Miles abandons her career as a middle school English teacher to pursue a lifelong dream of learning to fly planes. After training with a commuter airline, she accepts an offer to become a copilot for a corporation’s private jet, which she thinks will allow her to advance in her career more quickly. Instead, she faces stiff, rude competition with male counterparts such as Ed Deter, a misogynist ex-military pilot who “hadn’t met a woman yet whose hands he’d put his life into,” and who resents the assignment to train Tris. Another pilot, Larry Ross, considers standing up for Tris, but worries that his coworkers will tease him for having a crush on her. Tris brushes off Ross’s flirtation, driven by her laser focus on achieving her goals, and eventually an opportunity presents itself to shine next to Deter and save the day. Kardon, a pilot, convincingly describes the intricacies of flying, and a passage in which a plane must be flown through thick fog, with nothing but the instruments for guidance (“Woman and machine entwined in the exceptional conversation of flight”) is particularly well done. This soaring testament to the value of following one’s dreams delivers the goods. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Greenwood

Michael Christie. Hogarth, $28 (528p) ISBN 978-1-984822-00-0

Christie’s rugged, riveting novel (after If I Fall, If I Die) entwines a family’s rising and falling fortunes with Canada’s dwindling old-growth forests. In a frightening, nearly treeless 2038, 33-year-old dendrologist Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood guides tourists on a British Columbia island where a rare forest withstood the global environmental disaster and ensuing economic collapse known as the Great Withering. While Jake worries about spots appearing on two fir trees, her ex-fiancé, Silas, now a lawyer, informs her she could inherit a large sum from the Greenwood estate. Orphaned at age eight, Jake knows little about her family, and the more she learns through reading her grandmother’s journal, the less she wants the money. Her father, Liam, was a carpenter and gifted woodworker. Liam’s mother, Willow, was the ecoterrorist daughter of lumber tycoon Harris Greenwood. Willow, though, was not Harris’s biological daughter. Abandoned as a baby, she was rescued by Harris’s brother Everett and entrusted to Harris for safekeeping. Nor were Harris and Everett biological brothers; they were survivors of a train wreck who were raised together by a lumberjack’s widow and given the name Greenwood. Christie recounts each generation’s story through concentric flashbacks in which families, like forests, experience both devastation and renewal, anchored in Jake’s recognition that she’d rather inherit the earth than a fortune derived from its destruction. This superb family saga will satisfy fans of Richard Powers’s The Overstory while offering a convincing vision of potential ecological destruction. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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These Ghosts Are Family

Maisy Card. Simon & Schuster, $24 (288p) ISBN 978-1-9821-1743-6

Card’s profound, assured debut explores Jamaican colonial history to uncover a family’s painful past. Spanning two centuries and eight generations of the Paisley family, the narrative begins in 2005 with Stanford Solomon, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States who was once known as Abel Paisley before faking his own death 35 years earlier, assuming his dead friend’s identity, and estranging himself from his family. After Stanford finally reaches out to his daughter, Irene, a 37-year-old home health aide in New York City, to confess that he’s been alive all this time, her late mother, Vera, a ghost who spent decades without knowing what happened to her husband, notes that “death is just one long therapy session.” Meanwhile, Stanford’s daughter by a second marriage, Estelle Solomon, struggles with heroin addiction and grief that she cannot support her 18-year-old daughter. As Card traces the family’s roots back through Jamaica’s history under British rule and enslavement, literal and figurative ghosts animate the novel, and a wrenching description of the violent 1831 Christmas Rebellion and its aftermath reveals that Stanford was not the first of the Paisleys to rewrite the history of their lineage. Through a fluid blend of patois and erudite descriptions of Jamaica, Card offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of a troubled but resilient family whose struggles are inscribed by the island they once called home. This masterful chronicle haunts like the work of Marlon James and hits just as hard. Agent: Monica Odom, Liza Dawson Associates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Above Us the Milky Way: An Illuminated Alphabet

Fowzia Karimi. Deep Vellum, $28 (440p) ISBN 978-1-64605-002-4

Karimi’s inventive, allegorical debut renders a family’s wartime emigration through a polyphonic mix of voices and genres along with evocative color illustrations and photographs. With a newly elected government dropping bombs on civilians, Father finds out he’s on a list to be arrested. Mother visits a soothsayer for guidance and is told they will flee their unnamed country for a new land. Heeding the prophecy, Mother and Father depart with their five daughters and squeeze into a small apartment. The unnamed sisters, along with their mother and father, alternate the narration, giving definition to their new lives through alphabetical chapters (such as H for “Home. What we carried with us no matter how often we moved, who and what we left behind”). After Mother and Father find jobs, the family moves into a house, leaving the sisters to fight among themselves until Mother encourages them to reflect on a spirit world inhabited by relatives who didn’t survive the war, which Karimi alludes to with haunting drawings of demons and beheaded men juxtaposed with peaceful, happy family photos. Karimi’s steady pace and loosely defined setting will allow readers to share in the characters’ dreams and visions of their “first land.” Fans of Lost Children Archive will love this. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Prettiest Star

Carter Sickels. Hub City, $27 (308p) ISBN 978-1-938235-62-7

A man dying of AIDS returns home to Chester, Ohio, from 1986 New York City in this heartfelt novel from Sickels (The Evening Hour). Brian, a documentary filmmaker whose boyfriend recently died, leaves behind the “ghosts” of the West Village for Chester, “to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved.” As paranoia and fear around the AIDS epidemic escalates, Brian’s family finds themselves the targets of malicious gossip and ostracizing, and Brian’s presence changes how his sister, Jess; mother, Sharon; father, Travis; and grandmother Lettie relate to each other and to their friends and neighbors. Brian gains additional support from Annie, his best friend from New York and a very out lesbian, who flies to Chester to help brace him from the homophobic taunts endured by him and his family as he documents his experience on video. After Brian feels he’s bringing too much trouble to his family, he moves in with a new friend, who eventually invites Brian’s grandmother, Lettie, to come and care for him after his condition worsens. Sickels is at his best in his characters’ most painful moments, poignantly revealing Lettie’s regret of offering Brian too little, too late. This tragic story of AIDS and violent homophobia stands out by showing the transcendent power of queer communities to make their voices endure through art. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The American People, Vol. 2: The Brutality of Fact

Larry Kramer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40 (896p) ISBN 978-0-374-10413-9

Kramer’s sprawling, intermittently brilliant conclusion of his massive two-volume alternate history (after Search for My Heart) imagines battles within the government over drug testing that leads to an AIDS-like epidemic. From the 1950s through a satirical, nightmarish version of the 1980s ruled by Ronald Reagan stand-in President Ruester, Kramer’s characters work inside and outside the system. Strivinv to stop the spread of a deadly virus known as UC, secretly launched by the government to exterminate gay people in the U.S., are G-man David Jerusalem, who starts as an operative in “Hoover’s Homosexual Whorehouse,” a club run by Hoover to trap and blackmail homosexual spies; David’s brother, Daniel, a doctor who assassinates a Ruester appointee planning to oversee a massive quarantine; and screenwriter Fred Lemish, who collaborates with a young, gay protégé of Cary Grant before advocating for gay rights in the ’80s. In a style reminiscent of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, Kramer weaves news blurbs and references to real life celebrities with dozens of fictional characters, spinning rumors about the sexual preferences of such glitterati as Grant and Barbara Stanwyck into narrative threads that entangle with the rise of gay activism in response to government intransigence. This is a feast of relentless gibes and vitriol, shot through with savage humor and earnest passion. Kramer’s righteous rage makes for irresistible, provocative reading. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The King at the Edge of the World

Arthur Phillips. Random House, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9548-0

All the world’s a stage, and spies are the most committed players, in Philipp’s winning latest (after The Tragedy of Arthur). In 1591, a Turkish doctor, Mahmoud Ezzedine, accompanies a diplomatic Ottoman mission to Queen Elizabeth’s court in England, a “far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth.” A guileless scholar surrounded by schemers, he becomes the queen’s pawn. A decade later, a spy and actor named Geoffrey Belloc recruits the doctor—still languishing in England and having outwardly converted to Christianity—to befriend the “canny James the Scot,” the heir to the throne who many in Elizabeth’s Protestant court fear is secretly Catholic. Ezzedine agrees to engage James in a discussion of theology to determine the future monarch’s true religious allegiance, while Belloc schemes a dastardly alternative to the plan Ezzedine agrees to. So begins a chess game, literal and figurative, in which the doctor, having infiltrated the Scotsman’s Edinburgh circle, attempts to discern James’s true faith through increasingly drastic, and potentially fatal, means. While the expository dialogue occasionally feels stilted, Phillips masterfully renders the period and packs the narrative with surprising twists. This clever, serpentine novel recalls the historical dramas of Hilary Mantel and the thrillers of John le Carré, and will reverberate in readers’ minds. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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