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Josephine’s Daughter

A.B. Michaels. Red Trumpet Press, $15.99 trade paper (508p) ISBN 978-0-9975201-2-5

Michaels’s fifth book in the Golden City series (after The Price of Compassion) offers a vivid portrait of San Francisco’s Gilded Age through the eyes of Kit Firestone, an impassioned nurse who was born into high society. The story opens in 1893 with 13-year-old Kit angry with her well-meaning but controlling mother, Josephine. Fast forward to age 18, and Kit has a romantic and sexual encounter, learning afterward that her beau had syphilis and has infected her friend, Cecily, and gotten her pregnant; Kit’s insistence on a prophylactic spares her. After caring for Cecily, unconventional and spirited Kit eschews marriage and becomes a nurse. She begins a complicated relationship with Tom Justice, a young surgeon, that intensifies in tandem with dramatic events—the 1906 earthquake, Tom’s arrest for “willful murder” while treating earthquake victims, and her mother’s diabetes. Through alternating narratives of Kit and Josephine, readers learn of Josephine’s youthful involvement in the Black Veil Society, which publicly shamed men who assaulted women, and sense how Kit follows in her mother’s footsteps as an advocate for women’s rights. Michaels is adept at handling medical practices of the time and women’s health topics, such as sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, with sensitivity and intelligence. Part family drama, part romance, Michaels’s tale will satisfy both fans of the series and newcomers alike. (Self-published.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Little Gods

Meng Jin. Custom House, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-293595-3

Jin’s stunning debut follows 17-year-old Liya on her journey to China with the ashes of her recently deceased mother, a mysterious and mercurial woman whom Liya both loved and resented. Su Lan, her mother, was a former physicist from China who died in America, where she had lived and worked for nearly two decades. Intertwined with Liya’s grief-stricken quest is the voice of Zhu Wen, Su Lan’s former neighbor in Shanghai, whose memory of Su Lan as a beautiful, charismatic, and fiercely brilliant physics student in a happy marriage to a handsome doctor does not square with the woman Liya knows. The third narrative strand belongs to Yongzong, Su Lan’s husband and Liya’s father, who has long lost touch with Su Lan and has never known Liya. Liya arrives in China with only her mother’s last known address, in Shanghai, where Su Lan had once lived with Yongzong. On first meeting Zhu Wen there, Liya realizes just how little she knew about her mother. Liya then visits the small mountain village where her mother was raised, and goes to Beijing, where she finds out what happened during the night of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when she was born and Su Lan began to transform from a promising young student to a living ghost. Artfully composed and emotionally searing, Jin’s debut about lost girls, bottomless ambition, and the myriad ways family members can hurt and betray one another is gripping from beginning to end. This is a beautiful, intensely moving debut. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Real Life

Brandon Taylor. Riverhead, $26 (336) ISBN 978-0-525-53888-2

Taylor’s intense, introspective debut tackles the complicated desires of a painfully introverted gay black graduate student over the course of a tumultuous weekend. Wallace, a biochemistry student from Alabama at an unnamed contemporary Midwestern university, discovers his experiment involving breeding nematodes ruined by contaminating mold. Though distraught and facing tedious work, he reluctantly meets up with friends from his program to celebrate the last weekend of summer. He discloses to them the recent death of his estranged father, who did not protect him from sexual abuse by a family friend as a child. Wallace is perpetually ill at ease with his white friends and labmates, especially surly Miller, who unexpectedly admits a sexual interest in Wallace. Over the following two days, Wallace and Miller awkwardly begin a secret, volatile sexual relationship with troubling violence between them at its margins. As Wallace begins to doubt his future as an academic and continues to have fraught social interactions, he reveals more about his heartbreaking past to Miller, building toward an unsettling, unresolved conclusion between the two men. Wallace’s inconsistent emotional states when he’s in Miller’s company can be jarring; the novel is at its best and most powerful when Wallace is alone and readers witness his interior solitude in the face of the racism and loneliness he endures. Taylor’s perceptive, challenging exploration of the many kinds of emotional costs will resonate with readers looking for complex characters and rich prose. Agent: Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, DeFiore and Company. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Mercies

Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Little, Brown, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-52925-9

This dark, dramatic historical from Hargrave (The Girl of Ink & Stars) begins on Christmas Eve 1617 when 40 men from Norway’s remote island settlement of Vardø die in a storm at sea, setting in motion events that lead to witch trials and executions. Maren Magnusdatter, age 20, having lost her father, brother, and fiancé in the storm, lives quietly in Vardø with her mother and sister-in-law Diinna, of the Sámi people. That changes with the arrival of noted witch-hunter Commissioner Absalom Cornet, who comes from Scotland with his Norwegian wife, Ursa, to root out nonbelievers. Unused to such meager conditions, Ursa hires Maren to help her with household chores. Their friendship grows, as does Ursa’s fear of her husband, an enthusiastic participant in the branding, strangling, and burning of suspected witches. Encouraged by the feudal lord who brought him to Vardø, Cornet seeks out nonchurchgoers in a crusade against evil that puts Diinna and other Sámis at risk. Eventually, Cornet arrests two local widows, tortures and burns them at the stake, then comes to arrest Maren, while Maren and Ursa turn to each other for affection and support. Hargraves’s tale offers a feminist take on a horrific moment in history with its focus on the subjugation of women, superstition in isolated locations, and brutality in the name of religion. This is a potent novel. Agent: Kirby Kim, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Bird Summons

Leila Aboulela. Black Cat, $16 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-8021-4915-2

Aboulela’s impressive latest (after Elsewhere, Home) follows three Muslim women as they travel through the Scottish Highlands. Moni, a former banker, is the mother of Adam, a five-year-old with severe cerebral palsy. Her devotion to him has driven a wedge between her and her husband, Murtada, who’s pressuring her and Adam to join him in Saudi Arabia. Iman is on her third doomed marriage; she was brought to Britain from war-torn Syria by her second husband. Having lived her entire adult life as someone’s wife, she looks up to independent Salma, the de facto leader of the group, who’s a successful massage therapist and has a Scottish husband and four children. Recent social media overtures from Salma’s college ex back in Egypt, meanwhile, have left her questioning what could have been. The three women set out on a weeklong trip to the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. After they arrive at their cabin, they receive spectral visitations: a healthy young boy who makes Moni think of her son, a runner Salma begins to believe is her ex, and the Hoopoe, a mythical bird, for Iman. There’s a not-entirely-successful vein of magical realism, but readers will root for Aboulela’s well-drawn cast as they reconcile their desires with their faiths and the obligations of their everyday lives. Aboulela’s novel is empathetic and insightful, offering a nuanced representation of the three characters through a blend of Islamic faith and Scottish folklore. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Exhibition of Persephone Q

Jessi Jezewska Stevens. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-15092-1

Stevens’s striking, unique debut explores the increasing alienation a young woman feels as eerie phenomena creep into her life. In Manhattan, just weeks after 9/11, Percy, a freelance copy-writer, discovers that she’s pregnant. She feels unable to tell her new husband, Misha, who suddenly feels like a stranger to her. To her horror, she repeatedly tries to cut off Misha’s breathing while he sleeps by squeezing his nostrils shut, then stops herself. Meanwhile, her apartment building is filled with complications—a neighbor and self-help author she works for keeps inviting her to poetry readings; the cartoonist next door has vanished without a trace. Percy’s strange feelings come to a head when a package arrives containing a book of photographs from a gallery exhibition downtown. The photos are all of a nude woman on a bed, with digital modifications removing aspects of the image. Percy realizes that the exhibition is of work by her former fiancé—and the photos are of her, 10 years earlier. But when she tries to get them taken down at the gallery, no one believes the images are of her, and the line between reality and fantasy threatens to overwhelm her. The 9/11 aspect is unnecessary, but the plot is often fascinating and the reader will race to the end to figure out what, exactly, will happen to Percy. Stevens is a talented writer, and her debut is a propulsive experience. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Serotonin

Michel Houellebecq, trans. from the French by Shaun Whiteside. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-26102-3

In his latest provocation, Houellebecq (Submission) brilliantly pokes at modern questions of free trade, social decline, and overmedication, while continually undermining the work with puerile sequences that have little to do with the plot. Florent-Claude Labrouste is an aging, chain-smoking Ministry of Agriculture employee based in Paris. After a brief interlude in Spain, he realizes that he despises his live-in girlfriend, Yuzu. Shortly after, he also discovers that she has been in a sequence of gang-bang videos (one involving dogs) and decides to vanish. Labrouste quits his job, takes up residence in a hotel, and starts taking a pill for his depression, one that kills his libido. Suddenly emboldened, he goes back to the Normandy of his youth in search of his lost love, Camille. There, he lives with his old friend Aymeric, a depressed dairy farmer struggling against E.U. quotas. The farmers arm themselves, and a violent denouement looms. Along the way there is a bizarre child pornography sequence that seems to exist mainly to perpetuate Houellebecq’s long-standing enfant terrible reputation. And yet, despite so much that alienates (Labrouste’s causal racist and sexist remarks pepper the book), Houellebecq is a seductive, talented writer, and he remains strangely prophetic about current issues (in this case, protests against free trade). The result is an unexpected page-turner about the dairy trade. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Teacher

Michal Ben-Naftali, trans. from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir. Open Letter, $14.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-948830-07-2

Ben-Naftali’s captivating English-language debut is based on events of a Holocaust survivor’s life and subsequent suicide, as imagined by one of her former students. Elsa Weiss, an English teacher in Tel Aviv, is the favorite instructor of the nameless narrator. The narrator and her fellow students are fascinated by and afraid of their teacher, who they sense is hiding a mystery, though they are incapable of comprehending her hidden trauma. At 60, Weiss doesn’t even bother learning student’s names and seems different from their other teachers. The narrator grows up and becomes a teacher and remains mystified by Weiss. As an adult, she fictionalizes the path Weiss travels from her native Hungary after being separated from her parents in 1944 as she and her husband depart on a Kastner train to Palestine. The narrator imagines the atrocities that befall Weiss in the Bergen-Belsen camp and dreams that Weiss taught the imprisoned children. After her release from a sanatorium, Weiss learns the war is over, reunites with her brother’s family in Tel Aviv, and obtains a divorce. In researching Weiss, the narrator does some footwork and meets other survivors who tell her of the atrocities they witnessed. This heartbreaking novel is highlighted by Ben-Naftali’s spare prose and insightful observations. The author seamlessly blends history and fiction to forge a riveting novel. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Perfect Explanation

Eleanor Anstruther. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (320p) ISBN 978-0-35-812085-8

In her splendid debut, Anstruther portrays an aristocratic woman’s abandonment of her husband and three young children in the 1920s for life in a British Christian Science retreat, and the subsequent custody battle that followed. That this story is based on the author’s grandmother, Enid Campbell Anstruther, brings veracity to a complex tale. After nearly two years of no communication, Enid writes her husband from the retreat, intending to return to being a mother but wanting a divorce. He agrees with the proviso that he has full custody of their children. The ensuing, dragged-out court case places Enid at odds with her older sister, Joan, who not only holds the family fortune, but has made Enid’s son, Ian (the author’s father), her heir, having taken care of Enid’s two other children during her absence. The story unfolds primarily through Enid’s daughter, Finetta, bemoaning the weekly visits to her mother in a nursing home in 1964, and Enid, who has just learned she’s about to see the son she hasn’t laid eyes on in 25 years, and whom she essentially gave to her sister for £500. This robust story provides insight into aristocratic duties, sibling revenge, and the convoluted feelings that can arise between mothers and their children. This lush family saga will appeal to fans of Ann Patchett. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Last of Her Name

Mimi Lok. Kaya, $16.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-885030-61-0

Lok’s impressive debut spills over with the diasporic voices of women displaced, disconnected, and discarded. From WWII Hong Kong to the streets of California over the last few decades, readers sail through various time periods, locales, and even genres. In the title story, a young girl, frightened by a stalker, is taught to defend herself by her quiet mother, who trained as a warrior during WWII in Hong Kong. As the young girl grows stronger, her mother finds the warrior within that she abandoned years ago. In “Wedding Night,” Lok uses an almost poemlike format—pages with one small phrase or paragraph on each—as readers witness the inner thoughts of a young couple on their wedding night, and learn of the past betrayal between them. And in the collection’s piece de resistance, “The Woman in the Closet,” readers follow Granny Ng, an elderly woman whose son wants to place her in an abusive nursing home. Instead, she escapes, first living in homeless encampments before sneaking into a young professional’s home, living in his closest for a year, and secretly cleaning and cooking for him. In all her stories, Lok is an expert at peeking into the souls of those who have been displaced or disregarded: through war, neglect, and even lost love. Seemingly simple yet deep in heart, this touching collection is easy to pick up and hard to put down. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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