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The Chanel Sisters

Judithe Little. Graydon House, $17.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-525-89595-1

Little (Wickwythe Hall) imagines the relationship between Coco Chanel and her younger sister, Antoinette, in this admirable fictional biography. The story of the sisters’ onerous childhood begins in 1897 after their mother dies when they are 11 and eight, and their father, a wandering peddler, abandons the family and gives the girls to a convent orphanage. The author mines the girls’ austere upbringing by the nuns to show how they would later develop their fashion sensibility (“An insistence on craftsmanship, of stitches perfectly made. The calming contrast of black and white,” Antoinette observes), which is further stoked after their aunt shows them fashion magazines. Later chapters follow Coco’s trajectory from Paris hatmaker to fashion force of nature, as well as both sisters’ shifting fortunes in romance. Antoinette improves on the construction of Coco’s signature hats, while accepting Coco’s personal life as a well-kept mistress. Though aspects of each sister’s love lives occasionally come off as tiresome, the descriptions of the millinery trade are consistently fascinating. Little’s story of two indomitable women offers an eye-opening account of the unsung Antoinette and her pivotal role in her famed sister’s success. Fashion aficionados in particular will appreciate this take on the life of a legend. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Ardent Swarm

Yamen Manai, trans. from the French by Lara Vergnaud. Amazon Crossing, $24.95 (204p) ISBN 978-1-5420-2047-3

Manai’s vibrant English-language debut turns on rising political instability and religious populism in Sidi Bou, a fictional country that closely resembles Tunisia after the Arab Spring. In the village of Nawa, ascetic beekeeper Sidi wakes to find colonies of his beloved “girls” destroyed by hornets. Meanwhile, the nation’s first “truly” democratic elections are imminent and fundamentalist benefactors hailing from the Party of God have descended upon Nawa to ply the villagers with food and clothes in a bid to win their votes. As increasingly radical fundamentalist Islam infiltrates the once peaceful village, Sidi discovers the Party of God members were behind the death of his bees. Determined to learn how to protect his bees, Sidi leaves them in the care of sympathetic neighbors to visit the capital, where he can find books to help him battle the hornets. Though the parallels are occasionally heavy-handed, such as a bee-ravaging parasite as metaphor for colonial invasion, lyrical prose and layered insights transform what might have been a predictable fable into a vivid meditation on societal discord and harmony. This elegant allegory of globalization’s insidious nature finds rich drama in the tense, turbulent reckoning with questions of modernity versus tradition. Agent: Pierre Astier, Astier-Pécher Film & Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Here Lies a Father

Mckenzie Cassidy. Kaylie Jones, $15.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-61775-757-0

In Cassidy’s engrossing debut, a teenager in upstate New York makes a painful discovery about his late father. Ian Daly’s parents had been separated for six months before his father, Thomas, died. After Ian arrives from Wellbourne, N.Y., in his father’s hometown for the funeral, he learns his father had two previous families he never knew about. Ian’s relationship with Thomas had already been strained by Thomas’s drinking and long stretches away from home for temporary work at a series of vacation resorts, and as Ian meets various relatives and exes of his father, he’s disappointed his overtures toward them are met coldly. While he learns more about the dark history of his father’s treatment of his other families, Ian also deals with pressure from his best friend, Scott, and a beer-guzzling bully, Rick, to party and hook up with girls back home in Wellbourne. Boxing lessons help him find the strength and courage to make his own choices, though Cassidy’s treatment of the gym and the training leaves a bit to be desired. Still, the author convincingly depicts the ways his sensitive, turbulent protagonist navigates the murky period between adolescence and adulthood. Cassidy’s distinctive coming-of-age story will move readers. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Ferdinand, the Man with a Kind Heart

Irmgard Keun, trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann. Other Press, $17.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-63542-035-7

A German man drifts through his days a couple of years after WWII in Keun’s droll satire (after Gilgi), originally published in 1950. Ferdinand Timpe returns to Cologne after his release from a POW camp. He rents a room from a landlady who sells jam on the black market while he struggles to write a story for his acquaintance Heinrich’s newspaper before learning Heinrich had drunkenly mistaken him for a different, more literary Ferdinand. He feels trapped in his engagement to Luise, which he agreed to at a low point during the war, and attempts to find Luise a different suitor, but his “loose” cousin Johanna steals the men’s attention. Ferdinand takes a job at an occult clinic, doling out advice to clients who participate in a color therapy program (“Find the color of your soul,” reads the inspirational wall text). Ferdinand’s frequent digressions turn to his acquaintances, patients, and family, including his mother, Laura, “a genius of sleep” who avoided problems by taking serene naps, and his determination to find a way out of his engagement climaxes with a fraught family reunion. Keun (1905–1982) shows a sure hand in this biting sendup of postwar Germany, full of absurd moments and amusing foibles. It’s a genuinely funny, ambling story full of sharp character studies. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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I’m Staying Here

Marco Balzano, trans. from the Italian by Jill Foulston. Other Press, $16.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-63542-037-1

A mother living through the early days of WWII in northern Italy writes to her absent daughter, in Italian author Balzano’s quietly devastating English-language debut. As a teenager and aspiring teacher in the village of Curon in 1923, Trina must switch to studying Italian after Mussolini, who annexed the region the year before, forbade the use of German. After Trina’s marriage to Erich, she fails to land a teaching job and begins secretly teaching German until, in 1939, “Hitler’s Germans” offer residents “the Great Option”: join the Reich and leave Italy. Many locals take up the call, but Trina and her husband stay, only to discover that their young daughter, Marica, elects to leave with an aunt and uncle. The narrative is framed as Trina’s letter to Marica, with heartbreaking accounts of her attempts to escape from the advancing Germans in 1943, and of the potential construction of a dam approved by Mussolini before he was deposed, which would condemn their villages to “disappear in a watery grave.” The writing can be simplistic, but Balzano’s unvarnished approach heightens the poignancy of a story based on real events: after the dam was built following the war, all that’s left of Curon today is a bell tower. This tale of destruction is a blunt reminder of war’s ability to destroy: a village, a way of life, and, in particular, a family. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Ancient Hours

Michael Bible. Melville House, $15.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-61219-864-4

The small town of Harmony, N.C., serves as a microcosm for America in Bible’s vivid if disappointingly slim latest (after Empire of Light). Harmony, a town “older than America,” is the site of a tragic event in 2000: teenager Iggy entered the First Baptist Church during a service and set the place on fire, killing 25 worshippers inside. In quick scenes marked by staccato writing and shifting perspectives, Bible creates portraits of the townspeople affected by the crime, among them a teacher who rescued a four-year-old boy from the blaze and was fired for praying at school in defiance of a Supreme Court order, the girlfriend who reminded Iggy of “the circus girl from La Strada,” and members of a Christian cult who believe the devil floats in a person’s bloodstream. The passages are well-written, but they fail to resonate in the overstuffed narrative. This is especially true in the second half, which features thinly developed stories about a mysterious woman who arrives at the town library, and the rescued four-year-old boy’s experiences as an adult. Still, Bible does a good job adding texture to the town’s characters, such as a minister with an extensive gun collection. At its best, the novel highlights in bracing clarity one town’s reckoning with a monstrous act. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Arctic Fury

Greer Macallister. Sourcebooks, $16.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-72821-569-3

Macallister (Woman 99) delivers an exciting if thin historical thriller based on real events. In 1850s Boston, adventurer Virginia Reeve is summoned by Lady Jane Franklin, who asks Virginia to lead a women’s expedition to the Arctic in order to find out what happened to her husband, Sir John Franklin, who disappeared there with his crew. Virginia agrees to lead the team of explorers, which includes a wealthy young woman, Caprice Collins, who undermines Virginia’s authority from the start. As Virginia and crew travel north, flashes forward find Virginia on trial for Caprice’s murder. Macallister pulls no punches depicting the grisly, dangerous realities of 19th-century Arctic journeys, and while tensions run high throughout to the shocking conclusion, the prose is run-of-the-mill (“She’d been through far worse, of course, but this always amazed her: how the worst pain, no matter how terrible, could recede into the past”) and the characters one-dimensional, with Virginia being cloyingly noble and brave, and Caprice coming across as a single-note cowardly interloper willing to step on anyone to get her way. While Macallister’s fans will enjoy, others will be disappointed. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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That Old Country Music

Kevin Barry. Doubleday, $23.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-385-54033-9

Irish writer Barry follows Night Boat to Tangier with a rather mixed story collection. “The Coast of Leitrim” and “Deer Season” tread well-worn romantic territories, depicting doomed and all-too familiar relationships. “Who’s-Dead McCarthy,” about a morbid townie chatterbox, is entertaining, yet it ends with a punch line that falls flat. On the other hand, the title story, which follows a pregnant teen as she waits for her criminal fiancé to return from a robbery, pulses with electricity and emotion, despite its abrupt conclusion. “Toronto and the State of Grace” showcases the author’s gift for dialogue and wit, as a brash son and his elderly mother hold court in a sleepy pub, drinking their way through the pub’s liquor and showering the barkeep with stories. And “Roma Kid” transforms what initially seems to be a depressing runaway child story into a fairy tale of finding family and purpose. As always, Barry can’t write a bad sentence (“A light rain began to fall and it spoke more than anything else of the place through which she moved”), but the too-tepid stories don’t do justice to the author’s considerable talents. This won’t go down as one of Barry’s finer works. Agent: Lucy Luck, C&W. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Lie Someone Told You about Yourself

Peter Ho Davies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (240p) ISBN 978-0-544-27771-7

Davies (The Fortunes) delves into fatherhood in his thoughtful latest, intertwining musings on pregnancy, marriage, family life, and work. The unnamed narrator, a writer and creative writing professor, makes the difficult decision with his wife to terminate their pregnancy after the fetus tests positive for mosaicism and their doctor gives them a long list of potential birth defects. A subsequent successful pregnancy brings new fears over their son’s development, as the couple processes their internalized shame over the abortion and their son’s potential autism (“Abortion is shameful, because pregnancy is shameful, because sex is shameful, because periods are shameful. It almost makes me relieved we had a boy,” the wife says). Davies explores their emotions in unflinching honesty, as the narrator contends with lingering fears over getting their son tested for autism. Davies’s smooth prose and ruminations on language (a synonym for “imagine,” the narrator considers, is also “to conceive”) are the stars of this work. While an anticlimactic, philosophical conclusion somewhat undermines the narrator’s character development after he embraces his role as a father, it resonates with the key theme of paradoxes. Davies’s meditation on the complexities of parenthood is at once celebration and absolution, finding truth in human contradictions. Agent: Maria Massie, Massie & McQuilkin Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Black Buck

Mateo Askaripour. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-0-358-38088-7

Askaripour eviscerates corporate culture in his funny, touching debut. Darren, a young Black man, lives with his mom in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood and manages a midtown Manhattan Starbucks. He’s content with his life and girlfriend, Soraya, but people tell him he could do more—he was valedictorian at Bronx Science, after all. Opportunity knocks when Darren persuades Rhett Daniels, the CEO of tech startup Sumwun and a Starbucks regular, to change his usual order. Rhett is impressed (his response: “Did you just try to reverse close me?”) and invites Darren to an interview, which leads to a sales job before he understands what the company actually does (it’s a platform for virtual therapy sessions). Darren makes good money, but struggles to keep up his commitments to his family and Soraya as Rhett pulls him into heavy after-hours partying. When an employee in China is charged with murder, Sumwun crashes, and so does Darren’s life. In an author’s note, Askaripour suggests the book is meant to serve as a manual for aspiring Black salesmen, and the device is thrillingly sustained throughout, with lacerating asides to the reader on matters of race. (“The key to any white person’s heart is the ability to shuck, jive, or freestyle. But use it wisely and sparingly.”) Darren, meanwhile, is alternately said by various white characters to resemble Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier, MLK, and Dave Chappelle, while he struggles to hold onto a sense of self, which the author conveys with a potent blend of heart and dramatic irony. Askaripour is always closing in this winning and layered bildungsroman. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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