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The Behavior of Love

Virginia Reeves. Scribner, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5011-8350-8

Reeves (Work Like Any Other) forms an intense love triangle between a doctor, his wife, and one of his patients across the 1970s and ’80s in her introspective latest. Psychologist Ed Malinowski recently moved to Montana to oversee the Boulder River School and Hospital, a chronically underfunded and understaffed mental institution. In order to quell his wife Laura’s fears about his long sessions with, and not entirely professional praise for, his 16-year-old epileptic patient Penelope, Ed encourages Laura to come to the institution to teach art once a week. The plan backfires and Laura grows more weary of Ed’s denials. In an effort to save his marriage, Ed releases Penelope to her parents as a shining example of his sweeping deinstitutionalization plans that are criticized by state officials and family members of the institutionalized. Soon, Laura is pregnant, but Ed misses the early birth of their son when he rushes to visit Penelope in the hospital after she abruptly stops her seizure medications. Things quickly fall apart for the characters—an unmoored Ed drifts through a period of womanizing and heavy drinking, until a medical crisis brings all three together in unexpected, difficult ways. Readers who enjoy complex depictions of the lingering commitments of relationships will be swept away by Reeves’s crisp, powerful novel. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Abolitionist’s Daughter

Diane C. McPhail. Kensington/Scognamiglio, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-2030-6

McPhail’s dramatic but uneven debut centers on a land dispute in the antebellum South. Emily Matthews is the kind daughter of Southern abolitionist Judge Matthews, who educates runaway slaves that he cannot free (because Mississippi has outlawed manumission) at his illegal school. Two years before the Civil War begins, Emily and Ginny, Emily’s friend and a slave Matthews educated, learn that the violent Holbert Conklin wants to sell his slave Nathan, which would separate him from his wife. After Matthews buys Nathan and his family to keep them together, doctor Charles Slate, who courts and marries Emily, tends to the severely injured Nathan. The Matthews farm, an underground save haven, becomes the center of unwanted attention when Emily’s brother Jeremiah returns after learning Matthews changed his will to leave Emily his land. The family is further thrown into disarray as Belinda, the widow of their dead brother, also seeks a claim on the land. After the Civil War begins, the family strife and wartime violence force naive Emily to mature into a resilient mother who endures multiple tragedies. Unfortunately, Matthews, Jeremiah, Charles, Nathan, and Nathan’s family are barely explored. McPhail lays out many intriguing threads but fails to bring them together into a coherent whole. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters

Balli Kaur Jaswal. Morrow, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-264514-2

Jaswal’s witty, emotional second novel (after Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows) is a heartfelt story of three sisters agreeing to the wishes of their deceased mother. The Shergill sisters—Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina—travel to India to embark on a Sikh pilgrimage and scatter their mother’s ashes. The sisters have never been close, and are quite distant now. Both Rajni, a school principal, and Jezmeen, a struggling actress, live in the U.K. Shirina moved to Australia, where she lives with her husband, Sehaj, and his controlling mother. Their journey in India is filled with bickering between Rajni and Jezmeen over Jezmeen’s clothing choices, while Rajni and Jezmeen express concern over Shirina and her limited participation in the trip. As the three women view the splendor of some of the Sikh temples of India, the bond of sisterhood becomes stronger. When Rajni and Jezmeen sense that Shirina is in trouble, they are able to look past their own problems to come to her aid. Jaswal reveals much about the sisters’ personalities through the use of flashbacks, explaining how previous events shaped their lives. Teen and adult fans of women’s fiction will find much to appreciate here. Agent: Anna Power, Johnson & Alcock. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Favorite Daughter

Patti Callahan Henry. Berkley, $16 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-58313-1

In Henry’s satisfying latest novel set in Watersend, S.C. (after The Bookshop at Water’s End), a woman returns to the town she fled from and is forced to relive her own recollections while trying to record her father’s. Minutes away from marrying who she thought was the perfect man, Colleen instead caught him kissing her sister, Hallie. Grabbing the suitcase packed for her honeymoon, she ran, creating a new life in New York and limiting contact with her family; her ex eventually married Hallie. Ten years later, when her brother, Shane, tells her their father is losing ground to dementia, she reluctantly goes home. Hallie is angry that Colleen abandoned their family, never letting Hallie tell her side. While creating a memory book to help her dad battle his Alzheimer’s, Colleen learns that memories and history are often impossible to run from or bury. Readers will be immersed in this moving tale, hungry to learn whether love and family will overcome betrayal, secrets, and heartache. Agent: Marly Rusoff, Marly Rusoff Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Resistance Women

Jennifer Chiaverini. Morrow, $26.99 (608p) ISBN 978-0-06-284110-0

Chiavernini (Mr. Lincoln’s Dressmaker) offers an intimate and historically sound exploration of the years leading up to and through WWII. At this novel’s center, four women—Mildred Fish, Greta Kuckoff, Sara Weitz, and Martha Dodd—do what they can to help the resistance in Germany. Aspiring author Greta and Sara, a Jewish student of literature, are German nationals; Mildred is an American who married her college sweetheart, German writer/economist Arvid Harnack; and Martha Dodd is the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany. Together, they work to fight the malevolent rise of fascism and risk their lives by pursuing their activities even when under close Gestapo observation, and refusing to expose one another despite torture. Their connections are helpful: Arvid gains information in his position as an economist with the Germans; Mildred, Greta, and Sara find resistance fighters who can pass on information; and while Martha remains in the country, she’s able to contribute through her connections as the daughter of an ambassador. This fictionalized version of real-life heroes is told with prose that ranges from forthright to eloquent, and the focus on the road to war and evolving attitudes regarding fascism and Nazism is exceptionally insightful, making for a sweeping and memorable WWII novel. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Devil Comes to Town

Paolo Maurensig, trans. from Italian by Anne Milano Appel. World Editions, $14.99 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-64286-013-9

In Maurensig’s crafty publishing fable, a Mephistophelean figure sows discord in a community of scribblers. A renowned novelist receives an unsigned manuscript about a certain Father Cornelius, the vicar of a small Swiss community, Dichtersruhe, which is in the midst of “an episode of collective madness.” The insular town is remarkable because “there was no other place in the world with such a high number of would-be writers.” The townspeople are content with their modest literary ambitions until a flashy Lucerne publisher arrives and offers a cash prize for the region’s best manuscript. Dichtersruhe’s citizens are overcome by vainglory and envy (as well as a rabies epidemic). These ominous signs convince Father Cornelius that the out-of-towner is the devil himself, exploiting this “pond teeming with disillusioned fish.” Maurenig (Theory of Shadows) skillfully handles the tale’s mysteries and ambiguities: has Father Cornelius really spotted the devil, or is he an unreliable narrator in thrall to his own infernal, Faust-inspired fictions? And is the widespread urge to write, to “indelibly engrave ourselves on the metaphysical plate of the universe,” demonic or divine? This nested narrative is an entertaining exploration of the manifold powers—creative, confessional, corrupting—of fiction. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Loudermilk: Or, the Real Poet; Or, the Origin of the World

Lucy Ives. Soft Skull, $16.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-59376-390-9

In Ives’s clever novel (after Impossible Views of the World), it is 2003 and the title character is a brashly self-absorbed walking “boxer-briefs commercial” who concocts a brilliant plan for how to extend his college years of sleeping with hot coeds, with the added bonus of free money: graduate school. Specifically, the MFA in poetry program at the Seminars in Writing, obviously modeled after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The only problem is that Loudermilk is—to put it kindly—a literal-minded idiot. Enter Harry Rego. Somewhat of an agoraphobe and a former child prodigy who enrolled in college at 15, Harry discovers his surprising penchant for poetry, which Loudermilk submits as his own. The poems get him into the Seminars and garner him praise from his professors and classmates, among them the haughty Anton Beans, an “emerging conceptual lyricist” who cannot believe he is being upstaged by someone as crass as Loudermilk. Harry’s growing resentment of Loudermilk, combined with Anton’s dogged attempts to unveil him, propels the novel to its final confrontation and reveal—settled by, of course, poetry. The nuanced subversion of tropes and full-throttle self-indulgence of Ives’s writing lend a manic glee to this slyly funny and deeply intelligent novel. Agent: Chris Clemans, Janklow & Nesbit Associates.

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Obsoletes

Simeon Mills. Skybound, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-501-19833-5

In his fantastic second novel, Mills (Butcher Paper) provides a clever twist on the high school bildungsroman. Set in an alternate 1990s, Darryl and Kanga Livery are twin brothers dealing with the typical angst of freshman year, except that they are also robots. After their parents (also robots) disappeared five years ago, Darryl took over as caregiver for the more reckless Kanga. Unfortunately, the brothers live in the robophobic city of Hectorville, Mich., and thus must conceal their true identities or risk destruction at the hands of their neighbors. Staying safe means acting as human as possible while hiding that they sweat oil and grease, plug into electrical outlets to recharge, and can’t digest food. But when Kanga develops a preternatural talent for basketball, the brothers’ lives come under dangerous scrutiny. Kanga begins to rely less on his brother and puts both their lives on the line by hanging out with robot-killing teammate James Botty. In turn, Darryl becomes less cautious while pursuing the affections of Brooke Noon, the oddball basketball team manager. Told from the perspective of Darryl, a consummate yet dissatisfied robot struggling to figure out his own programming, Mills creates a world where what it means to be a teenager is deliciously complicated. While the ending doesn’t tie up all the story’s myriad implications, this intelligent comedy will captivate readers. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Home Remedies

Xuan Juliana Wang. Hogarth, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-9848-2274-1

Wang’s formidable imagination is on full display in this wide-ranging debut collection about modern Chinese youth. Her characters include artistic and aimless 20-year-olds eking out a living shooting subversive music videos for bands in Beijing (“Days of Being Mild”); a Chinese-American girl in Paris, who finds her life changed when she begins wearing a dead girl’s clothes (“Echo of the Moment”); and a struggling writer who receives a mysterious gadget in the mail that ages whatever she puts into it, whether it’s avocadoes, wine, or her cat (“Future Cat”). Wang plays with form as well, as in “Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments,” written as a catalogue of such ailments as “Inappropriate Feelings” and “Bilingual Heartache,” or “Algorithm Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships,” which allows a computer science–minded Chinese immigrant father to apply his discipline’s techniques to his relationship with his second-generation Chinese-American daughter. One of the best stories in the collection is “Vaulting the Sea,” in which Taoyu, an Olympic hopeful synchronized diver, struggles with complicated feelings for his partner Hai against a greater backdrop of sacrifice, ambition, and tragedy. Though some of the stories’ narrative momentum can’t match the consistently excellent characters, nonetheless Wang proves herself a promising writer with a delightfully playful voice and an uncanny ability to evoke empathy, nostalgia, and wonder. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Four Nails

G.J. Berger. G. J. Berger Publishing, $16.95 trade paper (398p) ISBN 978-0-9883982-4-5

Berger’s well-researched and richly imagined historical opens in 227 BCE India and follows the life of Ashoka, a young elephant trainer sold into slavery by his family and sent to Carthage to fight in war. Ashoka is the younger of two sons in a warrior caste family that runs an elephant camp in central India; he’s sent with Syrian traders on a long journey westward. On the way, they stop at the town of Exhandahar where Ashoka trains and then sets free the supposedly mad elephant that he names Four Nails. From Carthage, after years of slavery working in the elephant camp of Senator Mintho, Ashoka is sent to New Carthage in Iberia. There, he is reunited with Four Nails, whom Hannibal himself names Surus. Ashoka leads Hannibal’s elephant corps through skirmishes and trials over the Alps and into Italy during the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE). Once the elephants die, brought down by wounds or disease, Hannibal releases and rewards Ashoka, who eventually makes his way home. Berger describes each location with care, from its natural environment to the customs of its people, giving his tale a certain vibrancy. Readers interested in the ancient world, and specifically ancient warfare, will find much to savor here. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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