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Sweet Sorrow

David Nicholls. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-358-24836-1

A teenager experiences heady first love amid an amateur Shakespeare production in this amusing coming-of-age novel from Nicholls (One Day). Sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis, certain he failed his school exams, spends the summer of 1997 working under the table at a small-town gas station, “too far away from London to be a suburb” and “too developed to count as countryside.” There, he avoids caring for his unemployed father while stealing small sums of cash to cover household expenses. When he meets Fran Fisher, a girl his age from a much nicer private school, he gets swept into participating in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Fran and Charlie have delightful banter as their attraction blooms, and he builds rapport with the other actors while hiding his participation from his boorish school friends. After his boss uncovers his gas station thefts, the fallout has consequences, not the least being the ruin of a carefully planned weekend of sexual exploration with Fran. While the story lopes along fairly predictably, Nicholls excels at capturing Charlie’s insecurity, the messy exuberance of first love, and the coarseness of teenage male friendships. This doesn’t quite reach the heights of Nicholls’s previous work, but it is a good deal of fun. Agent: Deborah Schneider, Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents. (May)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dune Song

Anissa M. Bouziane. Interlink, $16 (368p) ISBN 978-1-62371-941-8

Bouziane’s intense, captivating debut tells the story of Jeehan Nathaar, who, months after 9/11, decides to New York City and return to Morocco. Added to the trauma of seeing the collapse of the World Trade Center, Jeehan feels it’s her duty to be the “spokesperson and defense attorney for all Muslims” to coworkers who press her to explain “why Muslims hate Americans so much.” Feeling isolated and disillusioned, Jeehan is persuaded by her on-again, off-again lover, Moroccan journalist Ali el Qutab, to work with him on a story about human trafficking in the southern desert of Morocco. However, he fails to meet her at the Casablanca Airport. Travelling alone, she falls ill and rests at an inn. While being nursed back to health by a motherly innkeeper’s wife, Jeehan meets women at the inn who were traficking victims. Once Jeehan recovers, she finds new purpose by embarking solo on the project Ali had proposed. Bouziane’s writing is tactile and evocative, and her pacing is simultaneously languid yet brisk as the narrative jumps back and forth from Morocco to flashbacks in New York, effectively capturing Jeehan’s inner turmoil. This is an excellent and uplifting subversion of American bildungsroman narratives. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes

Kathleen West. Berkley, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-09840-0

West’s humorous debut channels the competitive parenting and overblown school drama of Big Little Lies. Isobel Johnson, an English teacher at a top public school in Liston Heights, Minn., is bent on encouraging her students to think critically, but the school’s administration and some of her students’ parents accuse her of spreading radical ideas. First, a discussion on The Great Gatsby, in which she invited her juniors to compare their school’s community to East Egg, allegedly results in some of the students being made to “feel bad about where they’re from,” so says her department chair. In chapters shifting between Isobel and a particularly over-the-top parent named Julia Abbott, fallout from another one of Isobel’s lesson—about queer theory—leads to her suspension and a virulent social media campaign led by Julia. While many different characters flash by in short chapters, distracting from Isobel and Julia and staving off opportunities for emotional complexity, West successfully unpacks the problems of shaming and cancel culture with tight plotting and clean prose. West demonstrates a worthy talent for tragicomedy. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Raphael, Painter in Rome

Stephanie Storey. Arcade, $24.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-950691-27-2

Storey’s unconvincing follow-up to Oil and Marble, which focused on Leonardo and Michelangelo, attempts a first-person narrative in the voice of Raphael Santi. In 1494, an 11-year-old Raphael promises his dying father that he will become “the greatest painter in history.” He’s a working artist by the time he’s 21, and his stay in Florence confirms that Michelangelo is his greatest rival. Raphael moves to Rome in 1508, hoping to be commissioned to paint the Sistine ceiling. Michelangelo already has the job, but Pope Julius II commissions Raphael to decorate the walls of the papal apartments. Though fame, fortune, and love follow, the wars that embroil the Italian peninsula through much of Raphael’s lifetime, as well as his obsession with besting his brilliant rival Michelangelo, keep him in crisis. Storey’s extensive research is on display in her evocation of Raphael’s art and era, but her exaggerated portrait of the artist as an OCD sufferer given to constant ritualistic counting and anachronistic addresses to the reader strains credulity. Fans of historical fiction will savor the setting, but Storey’s Raphael doesn’t do himself or his story any favors. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Man of My Time

Dalia Sofer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-374-11006-2

This mesmerizing and unsettling novel by Whiting Award–winner Sofer (The September of Shiraz) diagrams the monstrous shaping of an Iranian interrogator by decades of cultural and political upheavals. While visiting New York on a diplomatic mission to the UN in the present day, Hamid Mozaffarian is tasked by his mother and brother with carrying the remains of his long-estranged father back to them in Iran—an undertaking that spurs him to take stock of how he became the man his family hardly knows. Mozaffarian reflects on how his youthful ambition during and following the 1979 revolution led to his transformation into a self-deluded bureaucrat who would condemn others as casually and arbitrarily as he would offer mercy. He also looks back on lost loves, and the discord between him and his wife, Noushin, who left him five years earlier (“You’re just a warden with a wedding ring,” she told him on the way out), and their daughter, whom he hasn’t seen for three years. The tension between the elegance of Sofer’s language and the nihilistic unraveling of her antihero emphasizes the irony of the title, which lays bare the conceit that a person’s actions might be excused by historical context. Readers will find Sofer’s meditation on power’s ability to corrupt as relevant and disturbing as the day’s headlines. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Alligator

Dima Alzayat. Two Dollar Radio, $15.99 trade paper (206p) ISBN 978-1-937512-89-7

Alzayat’s slim, powerful debut collection showcases the author’s deep empathy and imagination in stories about grief, assimilation, and trauma. She begins with the quietly explosive “Ghusl,” in which a young woman named Zaynab prepares the body of her younger brother, Hamoud, for burial. Though her movements are methodical as she progresses through the rites, her thoughts are erratic and all-consuming, bouncing from memories of herself and Hamoud as children to the political strife in their unnamed country that claimed first their father and then Hamoud. In “Only Those Who Struggle Succeed,” a young intern named Lina attempts to climb the corporate ladder of a film production company, only to find herself made vulnerable at every turn by her race, gender, and class. The title story takes as inspiration the true-life 1929 lynching of a Syrian man in Florida. With a mix of historical newspaper clippings, literary narrative, and imagined internet comments from white supremacists, Alzayat contextualizes the lynching with violence against the black community while tracing the imagined futures of the children of the lynched man, successfully using the trauma carried by refugees, immigrants, and their children as a through line in the history of violence in the U.S. This intelligent collection is a force to be reckoned with. (May)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The House on Fripp Island

Rebecca Kauffman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-358-27428-5

Kauffman’s keen, atmospheric follow-up to The Gunners explores class, friendship, and dark family secrets. In the mid-1990s, Lisa and Scott Daly invite Lisa’s longtime friend Poppy Ford; her husband, John; and their kids to join them for an all-expenses-paid four-day trip to South Carolina’s Fripp Island. The Dalys’ wealth is a source of tension for the Fords, who are still driving an ’81 Dodge Omni and struggle to get by. Despite this, Lisa is eager to reconnect with Poppy while their children soak up the sun. Fourteen-year-old Rae Daly is instantly smitten with 17-year-old Ryan Ford, who is about to start college, and Ryan’s younger sister, Alex, makes fast friends with Rae’s little sister, Kimmy. However, a current of unease runs through time spent at the beach and boozy rounds of golf. Lisa suspects Scott is having an affair, Lisa and Poppy discover that a registered sex offender lives on the island, Ryan is secretive, and Rae simmers in quiet desperation. Perhaps inevitably, events spiral to a shocking conclusion. Kauffman’s characters leap off the page; her portrait of Rae, a girl who longs to be seen as a woman, is especially vivid, as is her rendering of Lisa and Poppy’s fraught yet affectionate relationship. Readers will devour this suspenseful summer drama. (June)

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly spelled the title of the author's previous book.

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The King of Warsaw

Szczepan Twardoch, trans. from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye. Amazon Crossing, $24.95 (426p) ISBN 978-1-5420-4446-2

Twardoch’s brutal, messy, and compulsively readable English-language debut portrays boxing, the underworld, and the rise of fascism in 1937 Poland. Jakub Szapiro is a Warsaw “street hero,” a Jewish boxer, and a feared lieutenant for Buddy Kaplica, a crime boss who runs much of the city and has deep ties to the Socialist Party. After killing a Jewish tradesman over an unpaid debt, Jakub takes the murdered man’s teenage son under his wing, initiating the skinny, religiously observant youth into his louche world of brothels and shakedowns. As strengthening fascist elements seek the expulsion of Poland’s Jews, Buddy’s grip on Warsaw loosens and Jakub debates whether to leave the “cursed country” and resettle in Palestine. The events are told through the reminiscences of an old man in Tel Aviv 50 years later, whose account is suffused with questions about national, religious, and political identity and how people shape their personas in response to pervasive violence. While the novel’s pulpy atmosphere and phantasmagoric set pieces are excessive (a flying sperm whale surveys Warsaw with its “burning gaze”), the conclusion offers surprising insight into the narrator’s failure to come to terms with the past. Twardoch’s willingness to stare into the abyss elevates this racing work to sublime heights. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Resolutions

Brady Hammes. Ballantine, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-984818-03-4

In Hammes’s entertaining debut, three siblings return to their hometown of Chicago for a Christmas full of reckoning and misadventure. Samantha Brennan is a talented American dancer with a Moscow company whose work is compromised by her heroin addiction. Her brother Jonah is in Gabon doing his thesis on elephant communication until he runs afoul of some deadly ivory poachers, and her other brother Gavin is an actor in L.A. whose latest television series has just been canceled. Once home with their parents, Gavin and Jonah try to convince Sam to clean up her act, though Jonah has failed to sever his link to the poachers, who coerced him into smuggling ivory into the U.S. Eventually, all three siblings wind up in Gabon, where their bonds are mightily tested. Hammes brings his three fractious main characters to riotous life and turns their reunion into a life-changing journey that proves Jonah’s insightful assertion that a sibling is “like a part of yourself you can never really know.” This reads like a clever mash-up of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven, and Paddy Chayefsky’s Altered States, and delivers thrills while finding empathy for the cast’s troubled souls. (May)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Great Road Bum

Hector Tobar. MCD, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-374-18342-4

Tobar’s stunning follow-up to Deep Down Dark draws from the unbelievable true story of Joe Sanderson, a peripatetic would-be-writer who left a comfortable existence in Urbana, Ill., in order to travel the world in search of material for a great American novel. Instead, he found romance, danger, and the dark heart of the mid-20th century. After falling in love with life on the road in 1960 as a high school senior traveling alone in Mexico City, Joe hitchhikes his way across Jamaica, narrowly escaping a government crackdown on the Rastas he’d fallen in with. Then it’s on to South America, where Joe embraces the life of a vagabond before setting out again and experiencing historical events across the globe. In Saigon, he surveys the aftermath of the Tet Offensive; and in Biafra, he crisscrosses war zones in emulation of his heroes Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. All the while, Joe begins writing and occasionally finishes unpublishable novels with titles like The Prince of Castaways, Caledonia, and The Silver Triangle. Working from a massive archive of Sanderson’s letters, journals, and doomed forays into fiction, Tobar discovers the real story in Joe’s life, following him into his fateful decision to join the paramilitary rebels in El Salvador. Throughout, Joe appears in footnotes to dispute the veracity of the account of Tobar, the “Guatemalan dude” who fictionalized his remarkable life. No matter; Tobar brilliantly succeeds in capturing Joe’s guileless yearning for adventure through high-velocity prose that is both relentless and wry. Tobar’s wild ride achieves a version of Kerouac for a new age. (June)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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