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The Giver of Stars

Jojo Moyes. Viking/Dorman, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-56248-8

An adventure story grounded in female competence and mutual support, and an obvious affection for the popular literature of the early 20th century, give this Depression-era novel plenty of appeal. Alice Wright escapes her stifling English family by marrying an American, but this choice leads to further misery in the rural Kentucky household of her unaffectionate husband and his domineering father, the owner of the local coal mine. She finds respite in riding with the women of the new WPA-sponsored horseback library. She’s sustained by her friendships with the other women, especially the brash, self-sufficient Margery O’Hare, and the appreciation of the isolated families she serves. But powerful men in Baileyville oppose the library, as it employs a black woman, influences women and children’s minds with fiction, encourages previously illiterate families to defend their rights against encroaching mining companies, and teaches women about intimacy through a secret copy of Married Love. Moyes (Still Me) stereotypes her antagonists a bit, but provides tremendous warmth among the librarians and centers their perspectives thoroughly. There’s plenty of drama, but the reader’s lasting impression is one of love. Agent: Sheila Crowley, Curtis Brown (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ruby & Roland

Faith Sullivan. Milkweed, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-571-31132-0

Set in the early 1900s, this moving tale from Sullivan (Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse) centers on the romance between a farmhand and a farmer. Ruby Drake is orphaned at age 12 after her parents freeze to death. Her last living relative, a great aunt, refuses to take Ruby in, and Ruby drifts from town to town as a hired hand, eventually making a home in Harvester, Minn., where she works on the farm of Henry and Emma Schoonover. There, Ruby grows into her own as she’s guided by hard work, the stories and characters in her late mother’s books, and Emma’s nurturing friendship. She also falls irrevocably in love with Roland Allen, the handsome, hardworking, married farmer next door. The two begin an affair, and after Roland’s wife, Dora, injures herself in a failed suicide attempt, Ruby unexpectedly becomes Dora’s caregiver and confidante. Torn between her love for Roland and her growing camaraderie with Dora, Ruby must decide whether to eke out her destiny away from the man, land, and community she loves or continue to exist within an impossible compromise. Fans of Jane Eyre will adore the intelligent, brazen Ruby whose combination of pragmatism and besottedness is winningly sympathetic. Replete with agrarian nostalgia and crisp prose, Sullivan’s quiet tale is a wonderful, arresting meditation on sacrifice. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Translator’s Bride

João Reis, trans. from the Portuguese by the author. Open Letter, $14.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-940953-95-3

Presented as a series of snaking, frenetic sentences, Reis’s brief, funny novel—his first translated into English—opens with a nameless 30-something translator sitting in a streetcar in an unnamed city in the 1920s, moping and complaining about his fellow passengers. He has just bid adieu to his bride, Helena, who boarded a ship for the promise of work abroad, and, pining for his absent love, he fills his head with vicious assessments of everyone he encounters, from his generally kind landlady to a publisher owing him money. Meanwhile, a foreign word, “kartofler,” lodges itself in the translator’s head, torturing him as he moves about town and tries to finagle a way to buy a house for Helena and lure her home. Adhering to a rather loose plot, Reis follows the translator for two days, and the action stays rooted in the character’s rambling thoughts, written as paragraph-length run-on sentences, which often clash with his faux cheerful conversations. These juxtapositions result in hilarious exchanges as the translator gradually loses his patience with humanity. Reis’s novel is both surprising and hilarious. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Golden Wolf

Linnea Hartsuyker. Harper, $27.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-06-256374-3

This satisfying final volume in Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf Saga (after The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen), drawn from Norse sagas, follows the children of Ragnvald, Svanhild, and Norway’s aging King Harald through tragic accidents, battles, and betrayals. Though this is the third in a trilogy, Hartsuyker’s opening map, list of places and characters, and seamless inclusion of backstory make it easy enough to follow the action, even for readers unfamiliar with the first two novels. The novel begins with the mistaken killing of Kolbrand Aldufson by Rolli Ragnvaldsson because Rolli and his shipmates believed Kolbrand’s ship to be that of raiders. Rolli’s cruel companion, Hallbjorn Olafson, takes hostage Freydis Solvisdatter, Svanhild’s child, then all three flee to the Orkneys, where Hallbjorn forces himself upon Freydis. In Norway, Ragnvald’s sons, Einar and Ivar, are sent to bring Gyda Eiriksdatter to her wedding to Harald, but Einar and Gyda begin a physical relationship. Meanwhile, Harald’s son, Halfdan, plots against both Ragnvald and his father. As in the medieval sagas that provide Hartsuyker with her source material, these characters cannot escape the fates that lay in store for them. This quality tale will appeal to fans of Viking fiction and could cross over to those who enjoy epic fantasy as well. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Unexpected

Dan Mooney. Park Row, $15.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-7783-0858-4

Mooney (Me, Myself, and Them) tells a witty, endearing tale of a U.K. nursing home resident who is unhappy with his life. Since the death of Joels’ Monroe’s wife, three years ago, Joel’s roommate at the Hilltop Nursing Home has been the comatose Mr. Miller—until he stops breathing and nurses are unable to resuscitate him. After Miller’s death, Frank Adams becomes Joel’s new roommate, and Joel enjoys having someone to talk to even though he and Frank are very different men. Frank is a charming former actor who lost an opportunity to be with the man he loved for fear of coming out as openly gay, while Joel is a curmudgeonly former garage owner despondent over the fact that the nursing home feels like a prison. Joel tells Frank that he wants to commit suicide, and Frank agrees to help Joel come up with a plan for his demise. While working on Joel’s plan, Frank and Joel escape from Hilltop for nighttime adventures, enjoying pints at a pub and clubbing with Joel’s grandchildren. Through Frank’s friendship, Joel starts to believe that life might be worth living after all. Mooney’s novel is filled with humor and touching emotion, providing excellent character development of Frank and Joel and the varied experiences of their lives. This is a real crowd-pleaser. (June)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Beirut Hellfire Society

Rawi Hage. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-324-00291-8

After his eccentric undertaker father is killed by a stray artillery shell, Pavlov, a brooding and isolated young man, assumes control of the family business in Beirut in this potent novel from Hage (De Niro’s Game). Pavlov’s new responsibilities are accompanied by an invitation to join the secretive Hellfire Society, an order of outcasts and libertines that relied on Pavlov’s father and his hidden crematorium to give them proper funerals. Told over the course of 1978, the story is crafted with a filmmaker’s touch, favoring bold characters and colorful drama to depict the human cost of Lebanon’s civil war. Pavlov accepts the Society’s invitation without hesitation, and soon becomes a makeshift fixer for Beirut’s broken-beyond-repair: a would-be assassin requests his ashes be mingled with his dead son’s; a wealthy widow plans to be exhumed and relocated to the side of her dead lover; the sons of a murdered communist hope to cremate their mother who was denied a grave by religious authorities. Pavlov’s strange responsibilities quickly bring him into conflict with a disturbed militiaman and a violent drug dealer, challenging the carefully cultivated detachment he wears as armor. Hage’s novel is a brisk, surreal, and often comic plunge into surviving the absurd nihilism of war. (July)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Stationery Shop

Marjan Kamali. Gallery, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-982107-48-2

In this tender story of lifelong love, Kamali (Together Tea) moves from 2013 New England to violence in 1953 Tehran as citizens, a new Prime Minister, and the Shah of Iran clash. In 2013, Roya is 77 years old, nearing the end of her life with her American husband, when she discovers her fiancé from when she was growing up in Tehran is living in a retirement home nearby. She begins to relive her first meeting with young Bahman 60 years earlier in a small Tehran stationery shop. As is true with Roya’s father, Bahman is an avid supporter of the new Prime Minister Mossadegh, but Bahman takes it further with dangerous activism. The love that blossoms between the two 17-year-olds is intense and true, but Bahman’s mother is determined to direct her son’s interests away from Roya. It’s only with the help of Mr. Fahkri, who allows the young lovers privacy in his stationery shop, that the romance continues until a final misunderstanding; the couple is separated by expectations that they enter arranged marriages, as well as the violence that erupts in the streets when Mossadegh is overthrown. The loss of love and changing worlds is vividly captured by Kamali; time and circumstances kept these lovers apart, but nothing diminishes their connection. Readers will be swept away. (June)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Triangulum

Masande Ntshanga. Two Dollar Radio, $17.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-937512-77-4

This quirky, futuristic novel skirts the boundary of science fiction with its allusions to alien abductions and its presentation as a document that predicts the end of the world in 2050. The episodic narrative, delivered secretly to a university astronomy department, is organized as two interlocking manuscripts. In the first, set in 1999 (and featuring memories dating to 2002 obtained through regression therapy conducted in 2035), the unnamed narrator, a 14-year-old girl living with her father in the Ciskei state in postapartheid South Africa, ponders the mysterious disappearances of her mother and several fellow schoolgirls and how they may relate to “the machine,” a presumed alien presence that manifests as a triangular shape in her vision during seizures. In the second section, set in 2035, the same narrator is working in a government office on a secret project to influence human behavior when she is recruited by The Returners, a radical group hoping to return the land to a pre-corporatization paradise. Ntshanga (The Reactive) writes convincingly from the viewpoint of his narrator as she advances into adulthood. Her struggles to make sense of the strangeness and unpredictability of her world and experiences make this a stirring coming-of-age story. (May)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Robert Johnson’s Freewheeling Jazz Funeral

Whit Frazier. Whit Frazier, $10.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-5399-6776-7

In this dextrous, brainy novel, Frazier (Harlem Mosaics) tells a diffuse story of artists and the arts. Rudy Paschal works for a publisher of braille books, but he’s also a New York playwright who seeks to create a scriptless, stageless production about blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson, with a vision of amateur performers improvising in the streets: “something a little more freewheeling. Like a jazz funeral.” Rudy’s first muse is Janet Plummet, an academic; deeper inspiration is then provided by Maya Vicca, a poet whose book Rudy has discovered. The story shifts gears into vignettes about other characters, including a foray into the mind of Robert Johnson in the early 1900s. Maya’s cousin Lucien Swann is a political science graduate who has strayed into the business of selling weed, and Solomon Pinchback—Rudy’s ex-coworker who grows close to Maya—is a blind physicist who has “this clever smile that looks like a wink.” The stories digress and are drawn back together in a satisfying way when it becomes clear that Rudy has continued to work on his play, which ripens with facets of the additional vignettes that explore music and musicians, performance, writing, science, philosophy, theology, and even mystical elements. The author shows a fiery creative spark and a stimulating intellect in sustaining his far-ranging structure. This intense philosophical treatise is for enthusiastic thinkers who have a visceral feel for artful ideas. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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If Only I Could Tell You

Hannah Beckerman. Morrow, $15.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-289054-2

Beckerman (The Dead Wife’s Handbook) does an excellent job of illustrating the corrosive power of secrets in this achingly real tale of two sisters and the mother who hopes to mend their tattered relationship. Lily’s life looks perfect—a high-powered marketing job, a beautiful daughter and loving husband—through the eyes of her long-estranged younger sister, Jess, a single and struggling mother to a teenage daughter, and a senior location manager for a TV show in London. Their mother, Audrey, is dying of cancer and is determined that her daughters will reconcile before she passes away. Jess’s intense anger toward her sister is a mystery to both Lily and Audrey, and Beckerman teases out both intriguing details and red herrings before letting readers in on the secret. The author combines authentically imperfect characters and a well-paced, plausible plot. Jodi Picoult’s fans will find much to love in this often heartbreaking story. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/02/2019 | Details & Permalink

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