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Man with a Seagull on His Head

Harriet Page. Biblioasis (Consortium, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $14.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-77196-239-1

Page’s graceful debut follows an unwitting artist’s rise to fame and provides deep introspections about loneliness and death. A seagull falls from the sky and hits Ray Eccles on the beach in Shoeburyness, England. A discombobulated Ray fixates on Jennifer Mulholland, the only witness of his accident, and subsequently covers the walls of his house with crudely drawn renditions of her face (always as he saw it right after the accident) using whatever materials he can find: food, blood, semen. His frantic work draws the attention of outsider art collectors George and Grace Zoob. They move Ray into their London apartment and attempt to involve him in their open marriage, though Ray does not reciprocate their attraction. Years later, Ray has gained significant success from obsessively producing the same image. Jennifer, now married into a sprawling Italian family, learns that she has been an unwitting muse. She travels to London to meet Ray, arriving just as Grace assaults Ray over his indifference to her. Ray flees with no memory of his time as an artist and spends years on the street with a befriended pigeon. The story concludes far in the future with a touching final moment. The novel’s charming, light tone nicely balances its powerful meditations on art and failed expectations, resulting in a moving story. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Moon of the Crusted Snow

Waubgeshig Rice. ECW (PGW, U.S. dist.; Jaguar, Canadian dist.), $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-77041-400-6

Fall is just about to turn into winter when cell service goes out in a Anishinaabe community in Rice’s chilling post-apocalyptic novel (following Legacy). The novel centers on Evan Whitesky, a young father to two children living on a reservation in northern Canada who is attempting to relearn and maintain the traditional ways in a world where society has collapsed and electricity, cell phones, land lines, and satellites have all disappeared. In the absence of all the things that make the long, harsh winters of northern Canada easier, the community has to band together to ensure its survival, doling out canned provisions and trying to ensure running water and heat for everyone for as long as possible. When a man arrives seeking refuge from the chaos in the south, Evan and his community allow him to stay in spite of their misgivings. As the winter progresses and hunger sets in, hostility rises and small-town power struggles become a life-or-death affair. This slow-burning thriller is also a powerful story of survival and will leave readers breathless. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Hits and Misses

Simon Rich. Little, Brown, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-316-46889-3

The latest collection from Rich (Spoiled Brats) lives up to its name, gathering 18 tales of varying quality that too often fail to linger beyond their brief page counts. A David vs. Goliath theme appears in several plot lines: in “The Baby,” a struggling writer and father-to-be is in a race against time to complete his historical novel when he discovers his unborn son is hard at work on a similar book of his own; “Riding Solo: The Oatsy Story” tells the story of Paul Revere’s famous ride from the perspective of his horse, who is left behind after Revere gains celebrity; and “Upward Mobility” pits a personal assistant against his cruel boss for the last available ticket into Heaven. “Adolf Hitler: The GQ Profile” is a smart and darkly humorous skewering of celebrity worship. “Hands,” one of the longest and best stories of the bunch, pokes fun at religion to chronicle a competitive monk who decides to elevate his martyrdom over his brethren by cutting off his hands. When Rich slows down, his stories can hold emotional resonance, but one-joke, pithy entries such as “Tom Hanks Stories” and “Physician’s Lounge, April 1st” are forgettable. The collection has a punchline-over-prose feeling that’s hard to shake. (July)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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As Wide as the Sky

Jessica Pack. Kensington, $15.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1816-7

Pack (a pseudonym for Josi S. Kilpack, author of A Heart Revealed) follows the aftereffects of a mass shooting in this tender novel. Amanda Mallorie’s son, Robert, has just been executed. Four years ago, Robert, then 22, walked into a mall and shot nine people to death. But before that, he was simply Amanda’s Robbie. Amanda is torn between the grief of her loss and the fear that he deserved his sentence: there is no doubt about Robbie’s guilt, but there is also no doubt about her love for him. In an attempt to move forward with her life, Amanda relocates to Cincinnati from South Dakota to be closer to her daughter, Melissa, whom she had been neglecting in favor of trying to be there for her son in his last days. As she is packing up Robbie’s old things, she finds a ring she’s never seen before. Hoping for closure, she embarks on a journey to find the person whom the ring belonged to, hoping for one more good memory of Robbie and one person who knows him as someone other than the killer Robert Mallorie. Her journey through grief and towards healing is affecting, and this sentimental and hopeful story works as a moving reminder to look for the good in everyone. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Still Life with Monkey

Katharine Weber. Paul Dry, $16.95 trade paper (287p) ISBN 978-1-58988-129-7

Weber’s brilliant novel (following The Memory of All That) follows married couple Duncan and Laura Wheeler as their lives are altered after a car accident—with Duncan at the wheel—leaves him a paraplegic and results in the death of his architect protégé. Laura, an art conservator, painstakingly analyzes cracked ceramic antiques and makes damaged classic paintings whole, and now has to contend with a husband who has lost his verve and motivation. Duncan’s identical twin, Gordon, has lived with various limitations all his life—he is mentally slow and has speech impediments—and Duncan has been his caretaker from afar, always making sure he eats, gets washed, and keeps his job at a bookstore. Now Gordon is the one who cares for Duncan, checking in on him to make sure he’s doing all right. When Laura learns about trained, dexterous capuchin monkeys who assist paralyzed people, she arranges for one to be brought to their home. As the comical creature touchingly becomes part of the family against the backdrop of Laura’s determined optimism and Duncan’s depression and humiliation over being forever dependent, the author explores questions about quality of life, the drive to be productive, and sacrifices born from a depth of love. Weber’s unsentimental and poignant examination of what does and does not make life worth living is a heartbreaking triumph. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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My Pet Serial Killer

Michael J. Seidlinger. Cinestate, $16 trade paper (375p) ISBN 978-1-946487-02-5

Natural Born Killers meets Fifty Shades of Grey in Seidlinger’s penetrating tale of a sociopathic puppet-mistress and the ruthless murderer whom she controls. Claire Wilkinson is a 26-year-old graduate student immersed in her forensics studies; Victor Hent is a suave operator whom the media dubs the “gentleman killer.” Working in tandem, the pair seduce dozens of women from the local bar scene and bring them home to a soundproofed room in Claire’s apartment where Victor tortures and kills them. The two make a perfectly erotically entwined couple until Victor chafes at Claire’s dominance and she decides to teach him a lesson. The novel’s second half is a road trip through hell in which Claire and a handful of her new acolytes cross the country, brutally murdering her pre-Victor serial-killer exes. The book is narrated from Claire’s viewpoint and although circumstances of some of the killings she describes stretch credulity, her clinical dispassion towards her victims and her canny assessment of the desperation of pick-up scenes where victims are easily found is eerie and unsettling. Seidlinger (Falter Kingdom) includes chapters written as mock appraisals of slasher-film dynamics that implicate the reader as a voyeuristic witness. This thoroughly unsettling novel is a cut above other serial-killer stories. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed

Maria Mitsora, trans. from the Greek by Jacob Moe. Yale Univ., $16 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-300-21576-2

The 16 stories in Mitsora’s brief but spellbinding collection are suspended somewhere between ancient myth and contemporary reality, often focusing on unspoken moments and random encounters. In “The Uninhabited Body,” two riders on a bus enter into an immediate, tacit agreement to love each other for the few minutes until they both disembark and return to their lives. “Downtown Athens” also follows a random pair of people suddenly attracted to each other; they explore the city together while discussing their shared connections to religion and mythology. “The Cat That Can’t Dance” explores the psyche of a man obsessed with a woman in his neighborhood: he first pines after her from the house of the aunt he murdered, and then begins a sort of relationship with her in the garden where his aunt is buried—though the relationship unfolds very differently than he expects. Mitsora’s writing is powerful in its strangeness. The stories could easily be described as the subtitle of one of them, open to various artistic interpretations: “Could be a drowned woman’s suicide note/ Could be the scribblings of an opium eater.” Though a reader may be unsure where the stories are heading, they are beautiful, small revelations worth surrendering to. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Naked Men

Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, trans. from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg. Europa (PGW, dist.), $18 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-60945-476-0

The women of Giménez-Bartlett’s incendiary Planeta Prize–winning novel deploy their wealth to upend sexual dynamics amid the dislocations of Spain’s collapsing economy. When Irene’s husband leaves her for a younger woman, she retreats from her friends and brushes off concerns about her failing family business. She reconnects with free-spirited Genoveva, who coaxes her to join in exploits with male escorts. When prissy Irene finally agrees, she discovers the men repulse her but she enjoys the power of ordering them to undress. Genoveva introduces her to chauvinistic Iván and his friend Javier, a mousy, recently laid-off literature tutor cajoled first into stripping and then sex work by Iván. Irene’s rejection of physical contact initially offends Javier, but he slowly erodes her resistance. Even after sex with Javier unlocks unimaginable pleasure, she remains mercurial and rebuffs his suggestions that they pursue a more conventional relationship. Giménez-Bartlett’s stinging commentary on masculine fragility (notably in Iván’s perpetual frustration and Javier’s reluctance) pairs well with her exploration of feminine restraints through Genoveva’s surprising propriety and Irene’s shackling attachment to her deceased father. This provocative dive into gender, power, and class uses diverse viewpoints to craft a powerful story and an unpredictable, memorable ending. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Mr. Nice Guy

Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer. St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-18988-2

Spouses Feifer and Miller’s witty romp through the allegedly glamorous world of magazines follows an aspiring writer and the jaded sex columnist who unintentionally launches his career and boosts it into the stratosphere. Naïve Southerner Lucas Callahan worships Empire magazine and is thrilled when he lands a gig as a fact-checker there. When he embarks on his first one-night stand with an attractive brunette he meets in a dive bar, he doesn’t know she’s Carmen Kelly, the sex columnist for Empire. Carmen is increasingly jaded, and after a night of so-so sex, she excoriates Lucas in her well-read column. Hurt, Lucas pens an eloquent rebuttal—and soon finds himself cast as “Mr. Nice Guy” in a relationships and sex column in Empire. Neither expects to fall in love—but when they do, they’ll be forced to decide between ambition and desire. The authors’ intimate knowledge of the New York City media world is on full display in this smart successor to glossy media business tell-alls such as The Devil Wears Prada—and they aptly illustrate the sometimes ruthless tactics endemic to this career path. Sharp and satisfying, this well-plotted, expertly characterized tale will have readers turning the pages quickly to get the latest dishy details. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Kennedy Debutante

Kerri Maher. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-451-49204-3

Maher’s assured debut, set against the backdrop of World War II, explores the life of JFK’s younger sister Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy. In 1938, 18-year-old Kick is new to London, where her father serves as the U.S. ambassador. Her natural charm and intelligence quickly draw a loyal group of friends as well as the attention of the future Duke of Devonshire, the charming Billy Hartington, but their incompatible religious beliefs prove to be a roadblock. Just before Germany’s blitz on London, Kick’s family is forced to flee to America, but she wholeheartedly seeks a way to marry Billy without compromising her faith or the support of her close-knit family. Maher ably captures the charmed life of the vivacious, multifaceted Kick, who is equally at home amid the glitz and glamour of the 1930s London party scene and providing comfort for wounded soldiers. This immersive, rich portrait of a complex young woman from one of the world’s most famous families will hold readers in thrall. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/21/2018 | Details & Permalink

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