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Some of It Was Real

Nan Fischer. Berkley, $17 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-43869-5

Fischer (When Elephants Fly) delivers a pulsating story of an up-and-coming psychic edging toward superstardom, the journalist set on taking her down, and their unexpected romance. Sylvie Young has legitimate paranormal skills, even if her agent insists she check at least a few of her audience members’ social media profiles before each appearance to make sure she can please the crowd with her knowledge. But when Los Angeles Times reporter Thomas Holmes attends one of her performances after posting a fictitious story about losing his wife, Sylvie falls for the bait. Thomas’s crusade to debunk so-called “grief vampires” is personal, as his mother has squandered enormous sums of money over the years trying to contact her dead husband and son through psychics, though he doesn’t like to talk about it. He makes a deal with Sylvie: she will perform without “cheating,” and if it works, he won’t expose her past tricks. As Thomas and Sophie fall for each other, both are scared of what the other might reveal about their lives. Fischer has a natural touch for plotting and clever dialogue, and her fresh, delightful plot charms and entices. Women’s fiction readers will devour this. (July)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Performance

Claudia Petrucci, trans. from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. World Editions, $18.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-64286-110-5

Petrucci’s captivating character-driven debut explores the boundary between reality and illusion in the theater world. Giorgia, a talented actor who abandoned her career three years earlier for an “old fogies’ life” with her partner, Filippo, believes “every relationship is a game that involves acting.” She’s pulled out of premature retirement by Mauro, her former acting instructor, who persuades her to star in the title role of his Peter Pan production. After Giorgia jumps out of a stage window on opening night, she is committed to a private clinic where she is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Romantic rivals Mauro and Filippo swoop in, Svengali-like, to attempt their own cure, coauthoring a script that would manifest who they want Giorgia to be. At a certain level, Giorgia is aware of what the men are doing and recognizes how they employ the theater’s “code of deception,” though their script also tampers with shared memories from their three lives. Petrucci adeptly straddles the blurred line between sanity and madness as Giorgia grapples with “mind altering” hallucinations and with graphic details of hospital treatment, and makes sharp references to characters such as Shakespeare’s Olivia in Twelfth Night, with whom Giorgia identifies. It adds up to an unsettling and stunning tale. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Has Anyone Seen My Toes?

Christopher Buckley. Simon & Schuster, $26.99 (228p) ISBN 978-1-9821-9804-6

Humorist Buckley (Make Russia Great Again) follows, in his funny if silly latest, a ruminating screenwriter in South Carolina. The unnamed narrator is wary of snakes and alligator-filled waters, and hopes to repair his reputation after Hollywood producers turned his screenplay about “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion into a pornographic folly. His new project, which he hopes to make into a blockbuster, features a good-hearted Nazi who kidnaps and befriends FDR. But the screenwriter distracts himself with down the rabbit hole Google searches about writers who committed suicide and deceased cast members of The Russians Are Coming. He’s also obsessed with a local burger joint. As his second wife busies herself with estate auctions that include such rare items as Kirk Douglas’s loincloth from Spartacus and Honor Blackman’s brassiere in Goldfinger, the screenwriter gets caught up by the local race for county coroner, convinced one of the candidates is bent on premature burials and nefarious campaign tactics, perhaps with Russian intervention. Then there’s his pricey concierge doctor, plying him with medications that may be undermining his ability to think clearly. Buckley gets some good gags out of the Nazi/FDR screenplay’s fate, though tangential threads such as the coroner’s race are left open-ended. Still, this amounts to a laugh-out-loud take on the writerly life. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Complicities

Stacey D’Erasmo. Algonquin, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-64375-196-2

Three women consider their relationships with a white-collar criminal in this perfect outing from D’Erasmo (Wonderland). The lion’s share is narrated by Suzanne, whose ex-husband, Alan, “did things with people’s money that you aren’t really supposed to do” when they were married. After the divorce, Suzanne moves to Chesham, Mass., a down-at-the-heels Cape Cod beach town, to figure out her next move. The second woman is Lydia, whom Suzanne describes as “young, willowy, blonde.” Lydia, who is partially disfigured from a car accident, falls in love with Alan after he’s released from prison; her take on Alan is that “he’d done his time.” Then there’s Sylvia, Alan’s estranged mother, a former “wild child” in Suzanne’s view, from whom he inherited his talent with numbers. Into this nuanced story D’Erasmo drops an unexpected fifth character, a whale that beaches near Suzanne’s new home in Chesham. The whale—enormous, otherworldly, and in distress—awakens a part of Suzanne that she never knew existed. “Maybe,” she thinks, “all of our misfortune had happened to bring me there, to meet and help this grand, suffering creature.” The sentiment leads her to an act with cascading and devastating consequences for Lydia, Sylvia, and Alan. With smooth shifts in perspective and understated and precise prose, D’Erasmo demonstrates a mastery of the craft. The result is propulsive and profound. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The War Librarian

Addison Armstrong. Putnam, $17 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-32806-4

In the exciting latest from Armstrong (The Light of Luna Park), two young women decades apart struggle to find their place in the old boys’ club culture of the military. Kathleen Carre realizes her lifelong dream when she becomes one of the first women to accepted into the Naval Academy in 1976, but her grandmother Nellie, who raised Kathleen and served in the Motor Corps during WWI, expresses skepticism that a military career will lead to happiness. Kathleen enrolls anyway and meets with hostility from her mostly male peers. Soon after training begins, Nellie dies of cancer, a diagnosis she had hidden from Kathleen, leaving Kathleen to piece together the mysteries of her grandmother’s past. Meanwhile, in 1918, Emmaline Balakin travels from Washington, D.C., to Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, France, to work as the librarian at a U.S. Army base. She’s told “war is no place for women,” but sticks around in hopes of reuniting with her childhood crush who’s stationed in France, along the way finding a kindred spirit in Nellie. However, Emmaline’s interest in banned books gets her into trouble and compels her to make a difficult decision with long-lasting consequences. The dual story lines masterfully reflect how nominal moves toward institutional inclusion can belie the persistence of cultures of exclusion. Historical fans will devour this intimate story about fighting for dignity and respect during trying times. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Panics

Barbara Molinard, trans. from the French by Emma Ramadan. Feminist Press, $15.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-55861-295-2

Molinard’s startling and surreal collection, first published in France in 1969, presents the pitfalls of mental illness in a world made foreign. Prolific yet terrorized by self-doubt, Molinard (1921–1986) destroyed everything she ever wrote, save for the stories preserved by her husband as well as her friend Marguerite Duras, who contributed an introduction. The opener, “The Plane from Santa Rosa,” sets the tone with a woman traveling around a city killing time before a flight, window shopping and making chit-chat with clerks. In “Come,” an unnamed narrator sits in a train station and struggles to write a travelogue that might be entirely imagined. A section titled “Untitled” consists of various fragments. “Taxi” echoes many of the recurring themes Molinard uses to explore displacement, depression, and despair; in it, a man who doesn’t remember getting in a taxi observes the world as it rolls past his window. The collection ends with “The Vault,” in which Duras and Molinard have a conversation wherein the author explains her desire to live in a windowless darkened vault, away from all of society. Her writing often reads like a diary, churning with a force driven by illusory sadness. Ramadan’s translation is a great gift to readers. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Querelle of Roberval

Kevin Lambert, trans. from the French by Donald Winkler. Biblioasis, $16.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-77196-354-1

Lambert (You Will Love What You Have Killed) relocates the title character of Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest to a sawmill in Roberval, Quebec, in this vibrant if unwieldy homage. Querelle, 27, and his coworkers are on strike at the mill. Almost everyone desires him; his body is “born to be nude... his presence takes on a mystical, bewitching quality.” He also “captivates and shocks” his coworkers, particularly Jézebel. There’s also a subplot involving her sister, Judith, who considers working as a double agent among the strikers. In addition, three gay teens perform explicit sexual and criminal acts including necrophilia, featured in Dennis Cooperish sequences. The fuguelike narrative swells to include sections introducing a union buster known as the Hulk as well as the author himself, who, perhaps with a bit of sarcasm, claims to hold a “clear-cut position in support of the employers” as the story builds toward a violent showdown. The writing is strong, though the author threatens to sink the ship with an increasingly fragmented structure and an uneven tone, vacillating from graphic sex to quotidian tedium to political screeds. While fans of Genet’s original will likely be disappointed, Lambert has unleashed his own strange beast. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Dead-End Memories: Stories

Banana Yoshimoto, trans. from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda. Counterpoint, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-64009-369-0

Yoshimoto’s resonant collection centers on women struggling through challenging events. Though the characters in each of the five stories have been struck by bad luck and duplicity, they are intrinsically good-natured and are also greatly influenced by the generational traditions of their forebears, as evidenced in the heartwarming opener, “House of Ghosts,” in which the college-student daughter of restaurant owners observes a pair of ghosts in a classmate’s apartment, thus setting the mood for the young couple’s unexpected and lifelong romance. After the book editor in “Mama!” consumes poisoned curry in the publishing company’s cafeteria, the ordeal is followed by an emotionally disturbing revelation. Yoshimoto’s characters share a staunch, unfailing allegiance to the idea of love, and they work toward closure amid heartbreak, as in the title story in which a betrayal recalibrates a young girl’s understanding of contentment. Similarly, in “Tomo-chan’s Happiness,” a sexual assault victim discovers hope, catharsis, and new love after years of internal torment. Yoshimoto embellishes these gorgeously written gems with sensual descriptions of food and sex, and makes them memorable by showing how the women set themselves free from misfortune via friendship and resilience. This is a gem. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Hester

Laurie Lico Albanese. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-27855-5

Albanese (Stolen Beauty) imagines in her standout historical the inspiration for The Scarlet Letter. Her proxy for Hester Prynne is Isobel Gamble, a skilled seamstress who has synesthesia and left her native Scotland for the U.S. in 1829 after her apothecary husband Edward’s addiction to opium sent them to the poorhouse. Isobel’s father paid their way out, and the couple took passage onboard a ship bound for America. Once stymied in her ability to express herself creatively, in Salem she uses her talents with needle and thread. She has a chance encounter with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, recognizing in him a kindred spirit yearning for freedom, a spirit that moves Isobel to risk her life to protect people fleeing slavery. Later, her independent-mindedness leads to suspicions of adultery. Albanese describes Isobel’s synesthesia brilliantly, such as in this memory of her cousins in a Scotland valley: “Their voices rise up in vibrant wisps of yellow and gold. The wind was sometimes fierce pink, and the sound of the waterfall on rocks glinted silver.” Even those unfamiliar with the classic will be hooked by this account of a capable woman standing up to the sexist and racial prejudices of her time. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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When We Were Bright and Beautiful

Jillian Medoff. Harper, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-314202-2

In Medoff’s emotional latest (after This Could Hurt), a young woman and her adoptive family contend with her younger brother’s trial for sexual assault. Cassie Forrester-Quinn, 23, returns home to Manhattan from her graduate studies at Yale after Billy, a junior at Princeton, is arrested following accusations from his girlfriend, Diana. Cassie’s older brother Nate bemoans how Billy will be skewered in the media as the “whole trifecta: rich, white, Ivy League athlete,” despite his complicated, rocky history with Diana, whom Cassie sees as “manipulative and vindictive.” As trial preparations begin, their mother, Eleanor, refuses to allow Billy to accept a plea deal, while their father, Lawrence, favors the plan in order to protect family secrets. Meanwhile, when a detective interviews Cassie, she mentions a sexual relationship she had with an older married man named Marcus when she was a teen. She’s always believed the relationship was consensual, but now she begins processing how it’s affected her life. Still, Cassie continues to support Billy, believing “women’s feelings eclipse men’s civil rights.” Some of the twists end up feeling contrived after the revelations emerge, such as the full picture of Cassie and Marcus’s connection, but Medoff does a good job developing Cassie’s complicated feelings, and leaves readers reflecting on the family’s intergenerational abuse of power. By the end, this is both satisfying and heartbreaking. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/10/2022 | Details & Permalink

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