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Rational Creatures

Edited by Christina Boyd. Quill Ink, $15.95 trade paper (464p) ISBN 978-0-9986540-6-5

This impressive anthology introduces the works of 16 gifted Jane Austen–inspired authors, whose short stories reimagine adventures of Austen’s characters and glow with the beloved novelist’s timeless blend of romantic intrigue, witticisms, and biting social commentary on life’s absurdities. The stories, which complement Austen’s humor, irony, and spirited heroines, bring back characters who are both loved (Elizabeth Bennet) and loathed (Penelope Clay). Some tales refer to love and loss, as in the well-crafted “Charlotte’s Comfort” by Joana Starnes, which features Elizabeth Bennet’s practical friend, Charlotte, who is married to the vile Mr. Collins; many others convey the “serious business” of marriage in high society, as Eleanor Tilney notes in “A Nominal Mistress”; and, in Lona Manning’s “The Art of Pleasing,” Penelope Clay is a naughty widow who is adept at the game of love. While these reimagined characters’ domestic situations vary—unmarried, married, widowed, spinster—they are Austen-esque in principle, desiring men who respect their intellect and strong character. Each author’s style matches the elegance of the Regency period; Austen fans will be pleased. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Stay Up with Hugo Best

Erin Somers. Scribner, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0235-7

Somers’s witty, melancholy debut takes place entirely over a long Memorial Day weekend. June Bloom, 29 and vaguely dissatisfied with her life, has been working as a writers’ assistant for a late-night talk show called Stay Up with Hugo Best. After being on-air for decades, the show has recently ceased production. Following a party for those involved with the show, 65-year-old host Hugo invites June to his estate in Connecticut for the weekend. Hesitant but intrigued, and against the advice of her best friend Audrey, June drifts along with the comic she has idolized for years. While bracing herself for Hugo to make a move, she finds herself queasily attracted to his teenage son, Spencer, home from prep school for the weekend. She eats pizza with Hugo and drives around with him in one of his collection of cars, looks on from the sidelines as he squabbles with his manager, and watches him prepare for an unsuccessful pool party. Somers sidesteps the predictable path the reader might expect this weekend to take, instead meandering into subtle, surprising territory. Within the strict temporal boundaries she has set herself, Somers depicts two equally lost souls unable to connect on a deep level. This is a winning debut. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/08/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Damascus Road

Jay Parini. Doubleday, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-52278-6

Parini’s fantastic latest (after Empire of Self) recounts the journeys of Paul of Tarsus as told from the apostle’s own perspective and that of his traveling companion, Luke, the Gospel’s author. A deeply intelligent and observant Jew determined to fight the burgeoning “Way of Jesus,” Paul transforms into an advocate for the Christ after a life-changing vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Parini details Paul’s clashes with Jesus’s brother James and the apostle Peter, his fraught travels from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome, his continuous struggles with the thorn in his flesh, and Luke’s unflagging efforts to compile an accurate account of Christ’s life. Chapters alternate between Luke and Paul’s perspectives, and in Paul’s chapters his boyhood enthusiasm for pondering the unknown (which continues throughout his life) are rendered as vivid explorations on the nature of divinity, spirituality, and conversion. Paul’s idealistic, often hyperbolized perspective pairs wonderfully with the observations of the more pragmatic but no less faithful Luke. Parini has produced a stellar novel that humanizes the Christian message and its messengers. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lorenzo’s Daggers

Ron McGaw. CreateSpace, $14.99 trade paper (262p) ISBN 978-1-4818-8419-8

When a high school student mysteriously disappears, history teacher Prester John travels back in time to the Italian Renaissance to find him in this smart, suspenseful adventure story. The novel alternates between modern-day New England and 15th-century Italy; it begins in 1478 Florence with an attempted coup, a violent power grab by the Pazzi clan against the ruling Medici family. The story then time-shifts to a prep school history class, when teacher John is showing his students his antique daggers, and surly student Kirk Renzo bolts out a window with one. John gives chase, but Renzo has vanished; John becomes a suspect in the boy’s disappearance, loses his job, and is harassed by Renzo’s wealthy father. When a physicist speculates that Renzo has time-travelled to Renaissance Florence, John, intent on bringing the boy home, travels back to the same parallel universe by touching a “timetree” while holding the other dagger at a precise day and time, He discovers that Renzo has become a powerful prince because of his prophesies about the future and does not want to leave. The story has a lively tempo, including a close call with the hangman’s noose and sparkling interactions with Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Machiavelli. It ranges widely between the history of Florence’s political rivalries and the riveting cultural contributions of the era’s most famous artists and thinkers. This is a splendid narrative linking art, history, and the modern world. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Diary of a Murderer

Young-Ha Kim, trans. from the Korean by Krys Lee. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $13.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-328-54542-8

This dark, innovative story collection from Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself) is rife with grim plots and unreliable narrators. The lengthy title story, a first-person account of a former serial killer stricken with Alzheimer’s, is told in a series of notes the narrator writes to himself amid his concerns that another serial killer is stalking his adoptive daughter (whose mother he murdered). As the plot progresses and the killer decides he needs to make one last kill, characters swing into new identities—readers learn about the protagonist as they learn not to trust a thing. “The Origin of Life,” the weakest story in the collection, tells the story of an affair between one-time childhood sweethearts gone wrong. The somber “Missing Child” explores what might happen when an abducted child is returned to a family 10 years later. “The Writer,” the book’s strangest and funniest story, is a twist-filled account of a blocked novelist who is sent to New York by his new publisher and finds inspiration in an unlikely source. The collection, with its universally bleak stories, suffers from diminishing returns, but the title story is exceptional. The best stories are engrossing and disturbing, and are excellent showcases of Kim’s talent. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Outside Looking In

T.C. Boyle. Ecco, $27.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-288298-1

Boyle (The Terranauts) returns with a satisfying, if overlong take on Timothy Leary’s LSD studies from the early 1960s. After a brief explanation of LSD’s discovery in a Swiss laboratory in 1943, the novel leaps forward to center on Fitz Loney, a Harvard psychology graduate student, and his wife, Joanie, in 1962. They join Harvard professor Leary’s inner circle of hallucinogenic test subjects and researchers who are working to develop therapeutic methods of employing the drug. To avoid employer interference, Leary relocates his study to Mexico. Fitz and Joanie tag along, frequently trip, and sexually experiment with others, but caught in the middle is the couple’s teenage son, Corey, who gradually isolates himself from his parents. After Harvard fires Leary, he moves his group to an estate in Upstate New York, where Fitz theoretically works on his thesis while Joanie loses faith in the cause; she and Fitz drift apart, and Corey realizes his own rebellious nature. While early chapters set the scene, the real ride begins when the scientific evaluations wane and the characters give themselves over to the drug. Though it takes its time hitting its stride, Boyle’s novel picks up momentum and is an evocative depiction of the early days of LSD. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Miracle Creek

Angie Kim. FSG/Crichton, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-15602-2

In Kim’s stand-out, twisty debut, Young and Pak Yoo live in Miracle Creek, a small town in Virginia, with their daughter, Mary. After immigrating to Virginia from Seoul, they start the business that operates in the barn behind their home: hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) sessions in a chamber designed like a submarine. But then the fatal explosion that kicks off this winning novel happens, leaving two people dead, Pak in a wheelchair, and Mary permanently scarred. One year later, the Yoos must testify in court against Elizabeth Ward, who’s been accused of orchestrating the incident to kill her son, Henry, a child who’d been undergoing HBOT to treat his autism, and who died in the explosion. As the trial progresses, each person who’d been present that night must reckon with what really happened. There’s a rich cast, among them Matt, a doctor who’d been using HBOT for his infertility and who’d had a not-completely innocent relationship with Mary, and Young, whose desperation to be a good wife and mother leaves her wanting as both. Kim, a former lawyer, clearly knows her stuff, and though the level of procedural detail is sometimes unwieldy, nonetheless what emerges is a masterfully plotted novel about the joys and pains of motherhood, the trick mirror nature of truth, and the unforgiving nature of justice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

Ann Beattie. Viking, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-525-55734-0

Beattie’s discursive, unfocused novel (following The Accomplished Guest) chronicles the coming-of-age of Ben, an intelligent teenager who, as the book opens, is studying at an elite New Hampshire boarding school called Bailey Academy. In the months before and after 9/11, he pines for his alluring fellow student LouLou Sils, copes with his fragmented family, and joins the group that congregates around enigmatic philosophy teacher Pierre LaVerdere. After graduation from Bailey and then Cornell, Ben eddies through a series of unsatisfactory jobs, fleeting sexual encounters, and a relationship with a troubled young woman named Arly. After he moves to a small town in 2011, LouLou, LaVerdere, and his family reveal themselves in new and challenging ways. Beattie’s depiction of the aimless and largely unremarkable Ben is overshadowed by the detail lavished on scores of vivid minor characters who pass briefly through his life. LaVerdere, whose interactions with Ben frame the novel, is also unsatisfying: pretentiously cerebral and verbose, he feels implausible as either a defining influence in his students’ lives or the dramatically problematic man who emerges at the novel’s close. As always, Beattie offers sharp psychological insights and well-crafted prose, but the novel lacks the power and emotional depth of her best work. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Walking on the Ceiling

Aysegül Savas. Riverhead, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-525-53741-0

The dislocations of place, identity, time, and truth eddy through Savas’s elegant debut. Back in her native city of Istanbul after her mother’s death, Nurunisa lives amid its constant changes while reflecting on a short but transformative period when she lived in Paris. Seeking to avoid a conventional future and a painful family past, she enrolls in a literature program there. At a bookstore reading, Nunu meets M, an older man whose English-language novels about Turkey she admires. In their emails and long walks, Nunu finds the sense of connection she has longed for. Though their bond is deep, Nunu is not entirely candid with M about the ambiguous figures who have shaped her life, at first eliding some of her most complex experiences with her father, a former writer who descended into mental illness, and her mother, Nejla, with whom she has a fraught relationship; only gradually do these stories emerge. Interweaving past and present, Paris and Istanbul, evasion and epiphany in spare yet evocative prose, Savas’s moving coming-of-age novel offers a rich exploration of intimacy, loneliness, and the endless fluidity of historical, cultural, and personal narrative. Agent: Sarah Bowlin, Aevitas Creative Management. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Ash Family

Molly Dektar. Simon & Schuster, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5011-4486-8

In her excellent debut, Dektar probes life in a cult with a masterful hand, excavating the troubled mind of a young woman who joins what she thinks is a modern-day commune. Rather than boarding a plane for college, 19-year-old Berie leaves her home in Durham, N.C., and meets an alluring man named Bay at an Asheville, N.C., bus stop. He invites her into the Ash family fold, where he tells her she can stay “three days, or the rest of your life” on their co-op farm tucked away in the mountains. The Ash family follows a hypnotic and powerful leader called Dice, who engages in violent “actions” against developers who will harm the natural world. Dice dubs Berie “Harmony,” and she begins the hardworking life of living off the grid and rejecting everything outside the family as a “fake world.” Berie cuts off her mother and ex-boyfriend, believing that she has found a place where she belongs, but as much as she struggles for trust and acceptance—and craves intimacy with Bay—she makes mistakes and pays the price. She also learns that the family can be a threat to those who go astray. Dektar’s eloquent, often poetic prose draws readers into this disturbing, powerful novel. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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