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Barker House

David Moloney. Bloomsbury, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63-557416-6

Moloney’s taut, haunting, and surprisingly hopeful debut takes an unblinking look at America’s criminal justice system. Built as a series of linked stories that pivot between the perspectives of nine officers who work at a bleak New Hampshire jail—including veterans such as Leon, who works in the kitchen; Big Mike, who moonlights as a strip club bouncer; and rookie Brenner, the only female recruit—the narrative tracks the events of a year as characters endure family tragedy, romantic entanglements begin and fade, marriages crumble, and officers die. But no matter what’s going on outside the jail’s walls, it’s the workplace frustrations and power struggles within that dominate everyone’s attention and inescapably shape them. The author, himself a veteran corrections officer, anchors the stories with quotidian details of prison life and a viscerally drawn setting that leaps off the page. One officer likens his unit to a slaughterhouse, filled with “old, shed animal matter” and stains that “look like scars from hacking tools.” This strong work is an indelible look at how people respond to extremes and fight to hold on to their humanity in dire conditions. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Concert of the Night

Jonathan Buckley. New York Review Books, $15.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-68137-395-9

This underwhelming American debut from British author Buckley follows a grieving man’s yearlong journal. Late-middle-aged David, divorced and running the Sanderson-Perceval Museum of local history and scientific oddities, pedals back and forth across his life through a series of vignettes and ruminations centered on his former partner, actor Imogen. Now that she’s gone, David revisits her work in several arthouse films as he tries to navigate his life alone, dealing with his ex-wife, his sister, and a transient young man named William whom Imogen encourages him to befriend. While David’s takes on history and literature are insightful and often pleasurable to read, and his evolving, fatherlike relationship to William is moving, the narrator is a confounding character. He seemingly prefers to do nothing, to be alone with his work, and he grumpily disapproves of everyone—from his ex-wife’s new lover to Imogen’s on-screen costars, whom he criticizes for overacting or lack of skill. The women in his life—who all seem to adore him despite himself—appear one-dimensional. Imogen, particularly, is distractingly precocious, and her dreamgirl qualities come across as ridiculous without adding anything to readers’ understanding of David’s psyche or his relationships with women. This novel is far too interested in its narrator’s own supposed brilliance than in the concepts it pertains to be about. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Apeirogon

Colum McCann. Random House, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6960-6

National Book Award–winner McCann (Let the Great World Spin) bases this masterful novel on the lives of two real men working together toward Middle Eastern peace. Rami Elhanan, 67 on the single day of 2016 on which the main narrative takes place, is a graphic designer and Israeli military veteran. In September 1997, his 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed in a Jerusalem suicide bombing. His need for revenge fades when he joins the Parents’ Circle, whose members, of many nationalities and religions, have all lost a child in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Nineteen years younger than Elhanan, Palestinian Bassam Aramin is jailed in 1985, at 17, for resisting the Israeli occupiers in Hebron, where he’s raised. During his imprisonment, writings by Gandhi, among others, and friendship with one of the Israeli guards convince him of the power of nonviolence. Released after seven years, he helps found Combatants for Peace, which brings Palestinian and Israeli fighters—among them Elhanan’s son, who introduces the two men—together for dialogue. The fatal 2005 shooting of Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, by an Israeli border guard doesn’t shake his belief that Israelis and Palestinians share “an equity of pain”; he and Elhanan begin meeting daily, using their daughters’ stories to become international advocates for peace. The book’s title is a reference to a polygon with a countable but infinite number of sides, and McCann evokes the experience of its protagonists and their region through 1,001 brief numbered segments that incorporate sequences in the men’s own voices and interconnect topics including bullet manufacturing, Jorge Luis Borges, and birds. Balancing its dazzling intellectual breadth with moments of searing intimacy, this is a transformative vision of a historic conflict and a triumph of the novelist’s art. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Pride of Eden

Taylor Brown. St. Martin’s, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-20381-6

Brown (Gods of Howl Mountain) sets his haunting, empathetic latest in a wildlife sanctuary on the Georgia coast. Ex-jockey and Vietnam War vet Anse Caulfield and his lover, Tyler, a veterinarian, run Little Eden, a haven for exotic animals rescued from exploitative roadside zoos, circuses, and private owners. It’s a dangerous enterprise, since Anse must rescue his animals under the cover of night and constant threat of discovery by the unsavory people he rescues his animals from. He’s aided by his friend Lope, a firefighter, falconer, and drone operator, who, in the devastating opening pages, saves Anse from Henrietta, a lioness who escaped her enclosure and is subsequently killed. Newcomer Malaya is an Iraq vet fresh off a job thwarting poachers in South Africa that went south. When a reclusive wolf breeder threatens their little slice of heaven, they must embark on their most dangerous mission yet. With a lush sense of atmosphere, Brown paints an evocative portrait of Anse, a man who has devoted his life to broken and abused animals, out of love and as atonement for past sins, as well as of Malaya, who struggles with PTSD and finds new purpose in their work. Couched in a thrilling narrative, Brown’s heartbreaking yet hopeful message of humanity’s moral responsibility for the natural world and its magnificent creatures will linger with readers. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Last Couple Standing

Matthew Norman. Ballantine, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-984-82106-5

In Norman’s funny and heartwarming novel (following We’re All Damaged), a Baltimore couple tries to head off the demise of their marriage with an unusual arrangement. Therapist Jessica Butler and her high school English teacher husband, Mitch, have been married for 15 years and have two kids. Recently, their closest friends have all split. Jessica and Mitch are determined it’s not going to happen to them, but things have been a bit stale, and they decide that a few “dalliances” outside the marriage might liven things up, with caveats such as no hooking up with social media friends and no more than one jaunt with the same person. Jessica wastes no time setting up a date with hot bartender Ryan, even as Mitch struggles to make a connection. As they both try to make the experiment work, with mixed results, it inevitably clashes with their jobs, kids, and most importantly, reality. Readers will have to suspend disbelief a bit to make this premise work, and a few scenarios, especially the climactic scene, veer close to farce. Still, Norman skillfully uses his gift for gentle humor to prod at the foibles and joys of marriage, parenthood, and love in this endearing charmer. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Gates of Eden

Nadene LeCheminant. Cottage Street Books, $12.99 trade paper (318p) ISBN 978-0-9600215-0-5

LeCheminant’s intriguing debut follows converts to Mormonism trekking across the U.S. in the mid-1800s. In 1855, missionaries in England have gathered new “Saints” from the destitute of Liverpool. Sixteen-year-old Josephine Bell and her mother, Elizabeth, lost everything when Josephine’s father died in debt, and the two converts board a ship to America, survive typhus and dysentery on board, and land in New York. After a suffocating train ride to Iowa City, their next task is to travel 1,300 miles to Utah with nothing but a handcart meant to hold all of their worldly possessions—Josephine becomes known as a “handcart maiden”—but they find the promised land is not quite as promised: Josephine is forced to marry a man who already has one wife, and who’s “old ’nough to be [her] grandpa.” But Brigham Young and his apostles are determined that polygamy is sacred, and they’re willing to fight federal troops in order to protect the religion and its tenets. LeCheminant’s story is ambitious, though sometimes weighed down by a plodding pace. This often fascinating novel will be appreciated by historical fans, particularly those seeking a look into the early days of Mormonism. (Self-published.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Antidote for Everything

Kimmery Martin. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-984802-83-5

Martin’s solid sophomore effort (following 2018’s Queen of Hearts) concerns Charleston urologist Georgia Brown, whose best friend and fellow doctor Jonah becomes the center of a controversy. Usually unlucky in love, Georgia has a meet-cute on an airplane when she saves Mark, a handsome businessman, from an excess of Benadryl and nausea patches. Mark and Georgia click immediately, though Georgia’s thoughts often turn to Jonah; his patients have been leaving the clinic and searching out care elsewhere, and though he’s an excellent doctor, the rumor mill claims that there have been issues with his care. Georgia and Jonah soon learn that the church-funded hospital has been pushing out trans and gay patients but spinning it to make it seem as if they’re leaving because Jonah is a bad doctor. Since Georgia has many of the same patients, she’s also a target of the framing and is kicked out of the hospital. The situation escalates as Jonah is fired and the story makes it into the press. Jonah, who’s prone to depression, overdoses on Tylenol, shutting down his organs and putting him in a coma. Mark is there for Georgia through it all, though he discovers something about her that endangers their relationship. The two plotlines—Georgia and Mark’s relationship, and Jonah’s possible transgressions—don’t fully gel into a cohesive whole, but Martin’s medical know-how (she’s an emergency medicine doctor) elevates the setting and provides authenticity. This will mostly appeal to readers who appreciate complex medical dramas. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lakewood

Megan Giddings. Amistad, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-291319-7

In Giddings’s chilling debut, Lena Johnson takes a leave from college after her grandmother dies and must find a way to financially support herself and her mother, who suffers from a mysterious but debilitating illness. Serendipitously, she receives an invitation to apply to the Lakewood Project, a series of research studies about memory. If chosen, Lena will receive a hefty paycheck and, crucially, insurance that would cover all of her mother’s health-care costs. After an invasive screening process that includes uncomfortable questions about race and being injected with strange substances, Lena is invited to participate. This involves moving to Lakewood, a nearby town in Michigan, and leading a double life. After signing an NDA, she’s instructed to tell her family and friends, through monitored communication, that she works for a shipping company. In reality, she and the other participants—all of them black, Indian, or Latin—must undergo grueling evaluations and take part in experiments (such as eye drops that change eye color, and being put on a diet of cream pellets only) that can have fatal consequences, all under the watch of “observers,” all of whom are white. Though the book’s second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, Giddings is a writer with a vivid imagination and a fresh eye for horror, both of the body and of society. This eerie debut provides a deep character study spiked with a dose of horror. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Serenade for Nadia

Zülfü Livaneli, trans. from the Turkish by Brendan Freely. Other, $17.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-1-63542-016-6

A 36-year-old divorcée working at Istanbul University draws inspiration from an 87-year-old visiting professor’s recollections of WWII in this affecting novel about love, loss, and personal identity from Livaneli (Bliss). When octogenarian Max Wagner returns to Istanbul after a 59-year absence to lecture at the university where he once taught, narrator Maya Duran has the job of escorting him around the city. Maya accompanies Max on an out-of-town expedition to a beach by the Black Sea, site of the 1942 sinking of the Struma, a ship filled with Jewish refugees, including Max’s wife, Nadia. There, Max plays his composition, “Serenade for Nadia,” on the violin. Back in Istanbul, despite Maya’s brother’s warnings against dredging up the past, Maya records Max’s account of emigrating from Germany to Turkey in 1939 along with his desperate attempts to arrange for Nadia to join him. Maya also learns how her grandmothers—one Armenian, one Crimean Turk—assumed false identities to survive acts of brutal repression. Their experiences and Nadia’s inspire Maya to find the courage to declare her independence, defy her brother, and tell the world Max’s story. Livaneli smoothly switches between 2001 and 1938–1942, offering insights into Turkey’s rich cultural, political, ethnic, and religious divides. Livaneli’s worthy portrait of a man coming to terms with his tragic past and a woman coming to terms with her Turkish heritage delivers a forceful plea for openness and tolerance. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Freedom Artist

Ben Okri. Akashic, $16.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-61775-792-1

This haunting and inspiring novel from Booker winner Okri (The Famished Road) follows a man’s search for a woman who goes missing in a dystopian world. An oppressive and faceless “Hierarchy” dominates the world, in which people move through their days in a state of near-catatonia, sensing but helplessly fearing their subjugation. The citizens are largely numbed, but some, such as young woman Amalantis, dare to speak out. After Amalantis courageously asks, “Who is the prisoner?” she is abruptly arrested for posing a taboo, revolutionary question, and her lover, Karnak, embarks on a quest to find her. He roams the streets seeking answers from whoever dares to speak with him. Karnak watches the populace grow increasingly resistant to the Hierarchy’s oppression, first through ubiquitous screams in the night, and then through an epidemic of nervous breakdowns that occur randomly among the public, which can only be resolved by a transcendental awakening. Karnak’s search is juxtaposed against the spiritual trials of a man named Mirababa, who travels through mystical, otherworldly realms, where he meets beings who offer perplexing guidance on his quest to understand true freedom. In this story of political abuse and existential angst, Okri employs a powerful and rare style reminiscent of free verse and evoking a mythical timbre. This is a vibrantly immediate and penetrating novel of ideas. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Associates. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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