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The Archive of Alternate Endings

Lindsey Drager. Dzanc, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-945814-82-2

Traversing time and space, the captivating latest from Drager (The Lost Daughter Collective) employs nonlinear structure and the cyclical, 75-year path of Halley’s Comet to link centuries of siblings and partners to the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” In 1835, storytellers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collect versions of the narrative, and in one, Hansel is banished to the forest for being gay. Wilhelm recognizes the impact this discovery has on his brother, whom he suspects is homosexual. In 1986, a computer programmer constructing an early form of the internet contracts AIDS and visits the Witch, who dedicates herself to comforting ailing gay men in their final days. A lesbian sent to an asylum in 1910 has an affair with one of her nurses, watches for the comet, and crafts a series of illustrations of “Hansel and Gretel,” while in 1456, Johannes Gutenberg shows his sister the magic of his new printing press by duplicating copies of the fairy tale. Stretching as far back as the comet’s pass in 1378, which incorporates interactions between a real Hansel and his sister, and forward to 2365, when the comet passes an Earth void of life, Drager’s plot is ambitious and emotionally resonant, making for a clever, beguiling novel. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Correspondents

Tim Murphy. Grove, $27 (448p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2937-6

In this ambitious but schematically plotted novel, Murphy (Christodora) refracts the American experience through the lives of an extended Lebanese-American family from 1912 to the early 21st century. The main character, Rita Khoury, is the daughter of Irish and Lebanese parents. Rita is working as a journalist in Beirut when, in the aftermath of 9/11, she is sent to cover the war in Iraq, and her relationships—with Palestinian and Jewish boyfriends and an Iraqi interpreter—and postings in the Middle East and (later) Washington are drawn to encompass the social and political issues that shaped America and the rest of the world around the turn of the 21st century. Rita is well-developed as a character, but as her and her family and friends’ lives progress through decades punctuated by those issues—including war, gay coming-of-age, racism, and domestic gun violence—they seem less to be participants in history than hostages to it. Murphy’s authorial voice also frequently intrudes in the narrative, as when he uses Arabic words for foods and then immediately explains them in English. The resulting story comes across as more instructive than immersive. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Rationing

Charles Wheelan. Norton, $26.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-324-00148-5

In this not-so-far-fetched debut satire set just over a decade from now, when American political parties have been restructured and an independent president sits in the White House, the unexpected shortage of a vital medicine leads to national and global political jockeying. Framed as a nonfiction account by a scientist from the National Institutes of Health, this tale reconstructs the chain of events concerning the so-called Outbreak of a mysterious flu-like illness that’s often fatal and can only be treated by the miracle drug Dormigen. Unfortunately, through accident and negligence, America’s supply of Dormigen is unavailable. As the American government attempts to secure the drug from other countries while keeping the scope of the emergency under wraps, doctors and scientists, including the narrator, desperately look for the Outbreak’s cause and other options for treatment. Wheelan (Naked Economics), who teaches public policy and economics at Dartmouth, has a keen handle on political intricacies and maneuverings, focusing on the give-and-take among individuals and countries, the domino effect of minor factors, and the influence of globalism. However, his approach robs the story it of intimacy and immediacy. The plot and characters are not especially unique, but readers looking to explore challenging contemporary topics with just a touch of speculative fiction’s distancing effect will find this well worth a look. Agent: Tina Bennett, William Morris Endeavor. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

Maxim Osipov, trans. from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk, Alexandra Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-68137-332-4

Osipov makes his English-language debut with this masterful and sublime collection, largely set in rural Russian villages. In “Moscow-Petrozavodsk” a young doctor is taking the 14-hour trip from Moscow to Petrozavodsk for a medical conference. When Tolya, a fellow traveler, goes into alcohol withdrawal, the doctor, trying to be helpful, alerts the train crew that Tolya needs medical treatment. Instead, he unwittingly causes Tolya to be thrown off the train and beaten by police at the next stop. Indignant, the doctor pays a visit to Colonel Schatz, a local arbitrator of law and order, who promptly turns the doctor’s simple narrative of justice and injustice upside down. In “On the Banks of the Spree,” Betty is flying to Berlin from her home in Moscow to meet a half-sister for the first time, whose existence is one of several secrets her father, a retired KGB spy, has recently revealed. The title story, the stand-out of the collection, begins as a simple, pastoral tale as Ksenia Nikolayevna Knysh, head of the region’s legislative assembly, plans to build a new chapel in memory of her deceased daughter. At first, the story seems a simple sketch of a mid-level bureaucrat, but when an ethnic Tajik seasonal worker is accused of murder, themes of religious tension and gender injustice break the surface. This collection showcases Osipov’s talent in creating subtle, sophisticated character portraits that carry a good dose of suspense. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Crossing

Pajtim Statovci, trans. from the Finnish by David Hackston. Pantheon, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4749-7

Two young Albanian men yearn to escape their fractured country in this disorienting but affecting novel from Statovci (My Cat Yugoslavia). Fourteen-year-old Bujar struggles to cope with his father’s death in 1990, just as Albania lurches toward capitalism in the aftermath of communist leader Enver Hoxha’s death. With his mother incapacitated by grief, Bujar and his best friend Agim, who is tentatively exploring his gender identity, decide to earn money any way possible in order to fund their dream of seeking asylum in Western Europe. They sell stolen cigarettes in the capital, Tirana, and then tourist trinkets in the port of Durrës. Their story of escape blends with the Albanian myths Bujar’s father told and appears in between stories about the dizzyingly fabricated identities one of them takes on during a series of moves to Italy, Germany, Spain, and the United States. A final move to Finland in 2003 sets the stage for the deep betrayal of a new love interest and the shocking conclusion that explains why the two boys are no longer together. The matter-of-fact depiction of numerous traumas intensifies the impact. Statovci memorably portrays the struggles and dislocations of his complicated characters. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Key to Happily Ever After

Tif Marcelo. Gallery, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9758-1

Marcelo (West Coast Love) charms in this feel-good story about three Filipino sisters, the Alexandria, Va., bridal boutique they inherit from their parents, and their bumpy roads to happily-ever-after. Mari de la Rosa is the oldest at 32, and the most type-A of the bunch, immediately minting herself as CEO of Rings and Roses; Jane, 30, is an even-keeled single mother to a young son and takes charge of the shop’s books; and 26-year-old Pearl is creative but incapable of showing up on time. The story toggles between Mari’s point of view and Pearl’s as Pearl asks for more responsibility and Mari is reluctant to comply. After Pearl brings in a coveted local bride, a wealthy socialite, she and Mari have a bitter fight about Mari’s rigidity and Pearl’s fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants nature. The layered plot, which includes a dark period in Mari’s past that places roadblock to finding love in the present, and the cast of colorful supporting characters, particularly sassy shop seamstress Amelia, are a treat. Fans of Jill Shalvis and Jane Green will particularly enjoy this. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Tubman Command

Elizabeth Cobbs. Arcade, $24.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-948924-34-4

Cobbs (The Hamilton Affair) delivers an immersive account of Harriet Tubman’s involvement in the 1863 Combahee Ferry raid. As a spy for the Union Army in Yankee-occupied Beaufort, S.C., Harriet works for General David Hunter. In order to convince Hunter to take ships down the Combahee River to free slaves, Harriet must discover the location of torpedoes in the river, which she does with the help of scouts Samuel Heyward and Walter Plowden. After the raid commences, complications arise when there isn’t enough room on the ships to transport all the rescued slaves, though many are freed in the raid. Rich historical detail adds texture, but the highlight is Harriet, a woman who repeatedly risks her life for the freedom of others. Cobbs’s terrific portrait of Tubman will both move and inform readers. (May)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Dual Citizens

Alix Ohlin. Knopf, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-525-52189-1

Ohlin’s third novel (after Inside) is the engrossing, intricate tale of half-sisters Lark and Robin Brossard. In their Montreal childhood, Lark, a few years older, stands in for Robin’s mother, Marianne, who is mostly absent. Creative Robin is an excellent pianist while Lark is a quiet scholar. Lark wins a scholarship to a college near Boston, and her time there is the only period she isn’t tasked with being her sister’s keeper—until Robin appears at her doorstep during Lark’s second year. Lark becomes Robin’s guardian and the sisters move to New York: Lark to graduate film school as she hones her documentary filmmaking prowess and Robin to Juilliard for piano. Most of Lark’s time is spent working as an assistant for a reclusive director (who becomes her lover) and worrying after Robin, who drops out of school and aimlessly wanders. Later, in her mid-30s, Lark is desperate for a child, but her director-lover already has a grown daughter. When an accident upends Lark’s life, their roles reverse and Robin becomes caretaker of her sister. Ohlin smartly chooses a broad scope and expertly weaves Lark and Robin’s disparate lives into a singular thread, making for an exceptional depiction of the bond between sisters. Agent: Amy Williams, the Williams Company. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Exposed

Jean-Philippe Blondel, trans. from the French by Alison Anderson. New Vessel, $16.95 trade paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-939931-67-2

Blondel’s captivating second novel (following The 6:41 from Paris) tracks an aging high school English teacher’s strange relationship with a famous young painter. Louis Claret, approaching 60, lives alone in a small, cold apartment in his provincial French city. His ex-wife, Anne, amicably divorced him years earlier and is happily remarried; his two adult daughters have moved away. Claret’s life changes when he is invited to Alexandre Laudin’s art opening. Laudin, a local celebrity whose painting has achieved national attention, was Claret’s student, but Claret barely remembers him. Laudin invites a surprised Claret to his apartment, shows him a stunning new sequence of triptychs, and makes an unusual offer: he’d like Claret to pose. Claret agrees, and each time he is painted, Blondel reveals more of his past through beautiful, italicized sequences. The experience lets him dwell on a life of roads not taken and of regret mingled with beauty. All along, Laudin reveals his true self, and eventually, Claret is given the chance to strip bare. The novel flies by with gentle humor, but it also poses complex questions about the meaning of art and sexuality, and offers an elegiac look at late middle age. Claret’s evolution is irresistible, and the story’s fundamental kindness sets it apart. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Friends We Keep

Jane Green. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-58334-6

In this riveting contemporary, Green (The Sunshine Sisters) brings three college friends back together for an unforgettable reunion. In 1986 England, Evvie Williams, a half-Jamaican former child television star from Brooklyn, arrives at West Country University to start her freshman year. Evvie becomes fast friends and roommates with Maggie Hallwell, a girl from Sussex with three brothers and a loving, wealthy family. Though Evvie’s parents are divorced and the money she earned as a child is tied up in a trust, she and Maggie ignore their differences and bond instantly over their similarities. They meet Topher Winthrop, another student from the U.S., and the three quickly become inseparable. After graduation, the friends go their separate ways. Maggie works in PR in London and eventually marries Ben Curran, the boy she had a crush on during college. Evvie becomes a supermodel, and Topher gains fame as a soap opera actor. When they attend their 30th college reunion, hoping to reconnect after years of failing to stay in touch, old secrets come to light, threatening their newly reestablished friendships. Green writes with a clear, unfettered voice, filling this page-turner with plot twists and hinting at the power of forgiveness. This novel is an excellent companion for the beach or summer travel—especially to a class reunion. Agent: Shane Salerno, The Story Factory. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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