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Quint

Dionne Irving. 7.13, $19.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-73617-672-6

Irving’s impressive debut follows a set of quintuplets born in Canada in the 1940s and based on the historical 1934 Dionne quints, freshly reimagining their exploitation from several points of view. The first and most whimsical is that of “Sister,” an unnamed sixth identical Phalene sibling who died at birth and was secretly buried by her father. There’s also the quints’ mother, Catherine; their father, August, a poor farmer; Dr. Emile LeFevre, who exercises unrelenting control over the children’s living conditions from the moment of their birth; Anthony Rhys Osborne, the bureaucrat turned impresario who whisks the children away from their parents, makes them legal wards of the Crown, and appoints himself their guardian before building Quintland!, where the growing girls are exhibited from infancy on, as if in a zoo. As the sisters mature—and not all of them survive past adolescence—they learn to rely on each other for protection and a badly needed sense of what is actually real. The well-paced plot includes arson, an attempt to escape from Quintland!, a fatal accident, and more, all handled with aplomb. Much has been written about the real-life quintuplets, including another recent novel, but Irving does justice to the novel’s inspiration. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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By the Time You Read This: Stories

Yannick Murphy. FC2, $18.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-57366-891-0

Murphy’s canny collection (after This Is the Water) serves up an intriguing and illuminating mix of character studies. In “The Good Word,” two American women on vacation abroad meet a German man who invites them to a remote seaside town where they all stay with an old man who competes with his son for attention from the narrator’s attractive traveling companion. The unflappable narrator of “Oyster City” receives calls for her celebrity author boss by men claiming to be Deep Throat, and takes to answering as “Little Bo Fucking Peep or Little Red Fucking Riding Hood.” Gradually, the understated matter-of-fact tone swells into something more emotionally affecting, as the story becomes about longing for a better life. The title story consists of a suicide note addressed alternately to several recipients, including the writer’s husband and 12-year-old daughter: “Dear Paul, by the time you read this, I will be dead; “Dear Cleo, I did this because I love you.” Gradually, the note’s author reveals her sorrows and regrets, imagining different ways she might end her life and the possible effects that would have on her family members and others. As always, Murphy’s cool, minimalist style is undeniably appealing. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Death Fugue

Sheng Keyi, trans. from the Chinese by Shelly Bryant. Restless, $20 (384p) ISBN 978-1-63206-292-5

Chinese writer Sheng (Fields of White) delivers an account of the life of a poet-doctor after a violent protest in his home city of Beiping, Dayang, an allegorical version of Beijing. Two decades after the protest, during one of Yuan Mengliu’s annual searches for Qizi, the love of his life who went missing during the unrest, Mengliu gets caught in a storm on a boat and reaches land in Swan Valley, a foreign and utopian city that’s geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. There, Mengliu becomes a doctor and enters a marriage arranged by the government, an early sign that his new surroundings may be just as repressive as Beiping. The parallels are gradually unfurled with flashbacks on Mengliu’s previous life, and it’s often difficult to follow the shifts in the timeline or make sense of the plot. Sheng’s story evokes the Tiananmen Square massacre and the contemporary Chinese government’s control of day-to-day life in the country, though none of these details are explicitly mentioned, and the allegorical style leaves the characters underdeveloped. Ultimately, this feels flat. Agent: Jérôme Bouchaud, Astier-Pécher Literary & Film Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Jane of Battery Park

Jaye Viner. Red Hen, $16.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-59709-117-6

In Viner’s exquisite debut, a Southern California woman raised in a cult struggles to reconnect with a lost love amid a dystopian society. As an adult, Rachel Jane Dalton goes by her middle name in order to erase the memory of an upbringing by a strict Evangelical Christian family that belongs to the Vanguard, a group of militarized zealots who regularly put celebrities on trial for moral transgressions, which are broadcast live on television. Eight years earlier, she fled the group and her abusive husband, Seth, to attend college in New York City, where she fell for charming Daniel Fletcher, the younger brother of a libertine Hollywood actor. Jane and Daniel’s love affair was cut short by an abduction conducted by kidnappers from the Vanguard, who mistook Daniel for his brother and hauled him off to stand “trial” for his sins. Jane, now working as a nurse in the present day, reconnects with Daniel, who’s been released by the Vanguard after having been maimed and tortured in the group’s prison. Their reunion is further complicated by Jane’s suspicion that Seth, who is now Vanguard’s chief, has found her. With a wholly original and eerily suspenseful story, Viner has created a modern society that’s just creepy enough to be believable. Fans of Margaret Atwood will eat this up. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shallow Waters

Anita Kopacz. Black Privilege, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-1-982179-66-3

Kopacz’s stirring debut novel (after Finding Your Way: Alphabetical Keys to the Divine) features an Orïsha, a Yoruba deity of the sea, who was “ripped from the water” and became a young Black woman engulfed in the violent maelstrom of 1849 America. Yemaya witnesses a tribe of fisherman along with Obatala, the father of all Orïshas, being abducted by slave traders, and is “overcome by the sheer terror and hopelessness, before being captured herself.” Kopacz then describes the horrors Yemaya witnesses on a series of ships across the Atlantic and along trade routes in the U.S., where her captors eventually place her in a tent somewhere on land. She escapes, and Richard Dillingham, a white Quaker, comes to her aid and tells her about the Underground Railroad. Yemaya then goes on a quest to find Obatala while continuing to navigate a strange world where magic is real (after she breaks her ankle, she heals it by rubbing mucas on it into a cast) and cruelty abounds. All of these events are framed by Yemaya’s confusion at her new reality: “What is slavery? Is a Negro another word for an African?” she wonders. It’s a riveting and heartbreaking story strengthened by Kopacz’s superb ability to create a sense of place. Fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer will want to take a look. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shaky Town: A Novel

Lou Mathews. Tiger Van, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-73530-380-2

Mathew’s vibrant if uneven novel in stories (after L.A. Breakdown) tours a 1980s East Los Angeles neighborhood through the varied perspectives of its residents. Emiliano Gomez, the self-proclaimed “mayor” of Shaky Town who claims to have lived there since 1922, once worked as a carpenter for MGM, but was fired for drinking. In “Crazy Life,” Emiliano’s niece Dulcie convinces her boyfriend, Jesús “Chuey” Medina, to get out of a drive-by shooting rap by testifying against his friend “Sleepy” Chavez. Chuey ends up a junkie and is later murdered by Sleepy’s little brother. In “Dona Anita,” Emiliano’s neighbor Mrs. Espinosa recounts Emiliano’s many family tragedies. Later, Emiliano overcomes a decadeslong rift between Mrs. Espinosa and himself and gives a speech at her 75th birthday party. Less successful are sections focused on white high school boys causing trouble and a lengthy account of a priest who loses his faith. Emiliano reappears in a brilliant personal history of Chavez Ravine involving a curse his Aunt Lupe put on Dodger Stadium that comes to fruition when Shaky Town lives up to its name with an earthquake. It’s a mixed bag, but the best pieces linger. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Red Crosses

Sasha Filipenko, trans. from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. Europa, $17 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-60945-693-1

Belarusian author Filipenko lays bare the recent history of a ruthless Russian state with the story of an unlikely friendship between a young widower and a survivor of Stalin’s gulag. In 2001, having just moved to Minsk, a grieving Sasha finds his apartment door marked with a red cross. It’s “here to help me find my way back home,” declares his neighbor, Tatyana Alexeyevna, who has Alzheimer’s. Tatyana wastes no time befriending Sasha and recounts the story of her life. Born in London in 1910 and educated abroad, she moved to Russia in 1919 with her Russian father, and married an architect in 1934 and had a daughter, before her husband became a POW during WWII. As punishment for being the wife of a traitor—for no true Soviet patriot would allow himself to be caught—Tatyana was arrested. After rape, torture, and a decade in the gulag, she was released, but her husband and daughter had long since disappeared. The narration and dialogue are often comically absurd: “God’s afraid of me. I have too many inconvenient questions for him,” Tatyana declares. This author brings freshness and wit to a familiar story of Soviet tragedy. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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In the Field

Rachel Pastan. Delphinium, $36 (240p) ISBN 978-1-953002-03-7

Pastan (Lady of the Snakes) delivers an inspiring story of triumph against the odds in a historical based loosely on the life of Nobel-winning scientist Barbara McClintock. Kate Croft is the black sheep of her family—she’s more interested in college than boyfriends­—and after she enrolls in a biology 101 class her freshman year, the question of “how we come to be the way we are” sets her on course for a lifetime of scientific inquiry. Guided by her vexing mentor at Cornell, she chooses to study the genetics of maize. As her career blossoms, Croft is crushed and then angered by the repeated intellectual thefts committed by her male colleagues. Nonetheless, she perseveres. Alliances and romances with other women are a balm, but they also bring conflict, as Croft confronts a choice between love and ambition. Pastan makes a spirited character study out of Croft’s doggedness and triumph, and describes various complex scientific concepts with aplomb. This swift story educates as much as it excites. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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From the Caves

Thea Prieto. Red Hen, $14.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-63628-002-8

In Prieto’s trenchant debut, the survivors of an apocalypse navigate a scorched land full of desolation and desperation. Among the enigmatic cast is Mark, a bossy young man; Tie, a compassionate pregnant woman; Teller, a wise old man with a limp; and Sky, an impressionable eight-year-old mourning the death of Green, formerly his mentor and quasi-leader of the group. Mark gladly takes on the role as leader, with Tie in the final stages of pregnancy and Teller’s limp worsening as an infection spreads through his leg. With summer fast approaching, they head for shelter in a group of seaside caves. After they reach the caves, tensions rise as Sky begins to distrust Mark’s motives after he insists on helping to deliver Tie’s baby. Meanwhile, Teller suffers a high fever, but remains hopeful that others will come to their rescue. Along the way, Prieto describes the unforgiving elements of nature with beautiful prose: “the suck of low tide holds pockets of noise—a hissing wind, the boom of brown ocean waves.” This is a gut punch of a dystopian novel. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Damnation Spring

Ash Davidson. Scribner, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-982144-40-1

Davidson’s impressive debut chronicles life in a working-class community so thoroughly that the reader feels the characters’ anguish as they’re divided over environmental concerns that threaten their lives and livelihoods. The tale unfolds between 1977 and 1978 and follows the Gundersen family: husband and wife Rich and Colleen; and their kindergartner son, Chub. Rich is a fourth-generation logger who dreams of a less financially burdensome future for his family when, without telling Colleen, he plunks down their savings to buy a ridge near their home in Northern California with a harvestable forest of primordial redwoods. Meanwhile Colleen—who has suffered eight miscarriages before and after Chub’s birth and who, as the local midwife, has witnessed a disturbing number of defective births—is listening to an environmentalist friend’s warning that the defoliants used by the timber company that employs Rich are leaching lethal toxins into the local water supply. Davidson mirrors the tension between Rich and Colleen with empathetic descriptions of the struggles of their neighbors, many of whom cling desperately to their jobs in the face of mounting evidence that their duplicitous employer is poisoning them. The depiction of ordinary people trapped by circumstances beyond their control makes for a heart-wrenching modern American tragedy. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, the Gernert Co. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/25/2021 | Details & Permalink

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