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Cygnet

Season Butler. Harper, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-287091-9

Butler’s poignant, strange debut imagines a separatist community on an island in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire. On tiny Swan Island, a 17-year-old known only as “The Kid” has found a tenuous place for herself in a retirement community, whose members call themselves Swans and whom Kid calls the Wrinklies. She was brought here months earlier by her drug-addicted parents, who left her, supposedly for a week or two, with her grandmother Lolly. Lolly has since died, and Kid, disliked by some of the residents and treated as a pet by others, ekes out a living by editing the diaries, videos, and photos of wealthy Mrs. Tyburn so that they reflect the past she would like to have had, one where she had “real breasts, grateful children, a husband whose eyes never wandered.” As Kid, who narrates the novel, approaches her 18th birthday, and erosion caused by storms threatens to topple the house where she lives into the ocean, she must decide whether to stay or go. While Kid often seems younger than her years, and the decidedly slim plot cleaves to the conventions of the coming-of-age novel, Butler has created an appealingly rich world with quirky, flawed characters and a dramatic landscape determined by the constant action of wind and water. Butler delivers a potent and finely calibrated novel. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Philosophy of Ruin

Nicholas Mancusi. Hanover Square, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-335-93066-8

In Mancusi’s solid debut, young philosophy professor Oscar Boatwright has spent his entire life thinking about the meaning of life and dedicates his profession to teaching others how to grapple with questions outside of their comfort zone. Yet when his mother dies unexpectedly and his father tells him about the self-help guru to whom she owed thousands of dollars, Oscar finds that maybe even philosophy can’t give him the answers he craves. The day after a drunken one-night stand he barely remembers, he sees the woman, Dawn, sitting in his classroom and realizes she’s a student in his class. Oscar and Dawn begin an affair, complicated less by their age difference than by a business proposal that Dawn offers, for Oscar to become a drug dealer. The rest of the novel follows Oscar as he travels across the country to the Mexican border on Dawn’s errand, running into more dangerous problems than either of them had foreseen. While Dawn is flat enough of a character to drag down the scenes she’s in, Oscar’s struggles with his family’s pain and his own desperation are tenderly written, and his frenetic spiral into illicit affairs is both moving and humorous. Mancusi’s novel successfully depicts the long, mutating shadow of grief and depression. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Electric Hotel

Dominic Smith. FSG/Crichton, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-14685-6

Smith (The Last Painting of Sara De Vos) takes readers back to the dawn of the motion picture era in his splendid latest. Claude Ballard is an old man in 1962, living at Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel, when he’s contacted by Martin Embry, a PhD candidate in film history. When the elderly director reveals that he owns a print of his first feature film, long considered lost, the young scholar’s enthusiasm about its discovery prompts Claude to reminisce about the film’s genesis and aftermath. From his early days photographically documenting ailments at a Paris hospital, to his rapid rise to prominence by demonstrating the capabilities of the Lumière brothers’ moving picture innovations, to his ill-fated (both professionally and personally) production of The Electric Hotel, to his surprising heroic turn in WWI, Claude’s own story—and those of the leading lady, stuntman, and impresario who collaborated with him—unfolds as cinematically as the scenes he creates on film. Fascinating information about the making of silent films (including a villainous cameo by Thomas Edison) is balanced by poignant, emotional portrayals of individuals attempting to define their lives offscreen even as they made history on it. Smith winningly delves into Hollywood’s past. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Patsy

Nicole Dennis-Benn. Liveright, $26.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-63149-563-2

A Jamaican woman abandons her daughter for a chance to reunite with her childhood friend turned lover in this wrenching second novel from Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun). Adoring letters from Cicely, who left several years earlier, inspire Patsy to emigrate from Jamaica to America, but when she arrives in New York in 1998, her dreams of a romantic reunion are dashed by the discovery that Cicely has married an abusive husband. Forced to set out on her own, Patsy finds work as a bathroom attendant and a nanny. Meanwhile, Tru, her six-year-old daughter, is still in Jamaica under the care of her father, who helps to ease the girl’s devastation by teaching her to play soccer, a game she excels at. Though Patsy has decided that “the absence of a mother is more dignified than the presence of a distant one,” as she settles into a sustainable life over the next decade, Tru struggles with depression and self-harm. Patsy’s ambivalence about motherhood transforms this otherwise familiar immigrant narrative into an immersive study in unintended consequences, where even the push Patsy’s new girlfriend gives her to try and make amends, by sending a gift to Tru, leads to disaster. Out of that debacle, though, a chance for rapprochement appears, one that sets the stage for Tru to turn her athletic talent into the kind of life her mother is still grasping at. This is a marvelous novel. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Price of Compassion

A.B. Michaels. Red Trumpet Press, $15.99 trade paper (500p) ISBN 978-0-9975201-0-1

A life-altering decision made by a surgeon while treating victims of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and subsequent devastating fire haunts him in this moving novel. A talented athlete with a curious intellect, Tom Justice is from North Platte, Nebr., where he studied his grandmother’s natural healing remedies. His academic brilliance lands him at prestigious Johns Hopkins University, where he becomes a gifted surgeon. Tom helps out a medical school friend at San Francisco’s Chinatown Free Clinic, intending to return to a highly coveted Hopkins position; however, he remains at the clinic and becomes a bulwark against discrimination in health care and a portrait of courage in the face of racism. While working on victims after the earthquake, Tom is asked to assist with the critically injured using a controversial medical protocol; afterward, he is shattered emotionally and physically, and unable to operate. He leaves the city and Katherine Firestone, the woman he loves, to seek treatment, but is arrested for a murder committed after the earthquake and returned to San Francisco. The murder trial provides a vivid, alternating timeline of Tom’s life, as well as a moral dilemma to consider. This excellent story, with well-researched historical detail, is a profile of resilience in the face of vast tragedy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Gone Dead

Chanelle Benz. Ecco, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-249069-8

Benz’s debut novel (after the collection The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead) is a rich, arresting exploration of racial injustice and the long shadows cast by family legacy. In the early aughts, 34-year-old Billie James inherits the former tenant’s shack in the Mississippi Delta where her father, a renowned black poet, returned to live after abandoning her and her mother—and where he later died under mysterious circumstances. Billie, four years old at the time of his death, has not been back to the South since. Intending to fix up the house for renters and stay only a week or two, she’s soon following evidence that indicates that her father’s death might not have been an accident, taking her into dangerous territory in search of the truth. Populated by a cast of delightfully untrustworthy characters, and told from multiple points of view, Billie’s quest to discover what really happened one night 30 years earlier is propulsive from the outset, culminating in a wrenching final scene. Just as discovering the truth of Billie’s father’s death is not enough to satisfy the novel’s characters, there are no easy answers for readers, who will be haunted by the lingering effects of injustice. A beautiful and devastating portrait of the modern South, this book will linger in the minds of readers. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Bunny

Mona Awad. Viking, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-55973-3

Awad’s outstanding novel follows the highly addictive, darkly comedic tale of sardonic Samantha Mackey, a fiction MFA student at a top-tier New England school. There, four of her fellow writers are a ghoulish clique of women who cryptically refer to each other as “Bunny.” To outsiders, the Bunnies come across as insipid with their colorful, patterned dresses and perfect hair. Samantha feels more grounded after her first year and after meeting Ava, who becomes her only friend, over the summer break. Samantha dreads the Bunnies’ return upon learning the four of them are the only other participants in her writing workshop; once in class, they dismiss her work while praising their own. The trajectory of Samantha’s life alters after she receives an unexpected invitation from the Bunnies to join them. Samantha’s desire for acceptance leads her down a dangerous path into the Bunnies’ rabbit hole, which begins with them drinking weird concoctions and reading erotic poetry together in sessions they call the “Smut Salon.” Soon, though, Samantha begins to believe in the Bunnies’ views, becomes unreliable as a narrator, and willingly participates in their increasingly twisted games. Awad (13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl) will have readers racing to find out how it all ends—and they won’t be disappointed once the story reaches its wild finale. This is an enchanting and stunningly bizarre novel. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert. Riverhead, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-59463-473-4

Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian’s search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian’s voice—irreverent, witty, robust with slang—gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian—originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane—is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness. (June)

Reviewed on 04/05/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Orphan’s Song

Lauren Kate. Putnam, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1257-2

Set in 18th-century Venice, this delightful historical from Kate (Fallen) follows Violetta and Mino, two orphans being raised at the Hospital of the Incurables, which is equal parts orphanage, hospital, and music school. Sixteen-year-old Violetta, who dreams of singing in the Incurables’s chorus, and Mino first meet on the Incurables’ rooftop. Violetta has escaped from making Confession, and Mino comes to the roof to play his violin in secret to escape the orphanage’s prohibition against males learning music. As they continue to meet on the rooftop, they become drawn to each other over their love of music. Despite their mutual affection, Violetta’s ambition and Mino’s desire to find his birth mother force them apart. After Violetta joins the chorus, Mino, who was dropped off at the orphanage when he was three, discovers that Violetta, then five years old, witnessed his mother bringing him to the orphanage and heard a peculiar song Mino’s mother had been singing. After escaping the hospital to find her, Mino struggles to survive and becomes a luthier; meanwhile, Violetta, now bound by oath to sing only at the Incurables, sneaks out to clandestinely perform in the streets of Venice at night. Soon, Violetta and Mino’s mutual love for music draws them to each other—and to the secret of Mino’s origins. Kate’s enchanting story brings the canals and backchannels of Venice to vivid life and will appeal to fans of Elizabeth Chadwick. (June)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Intimate Ties

Robert Musil, trans. from the German by Peter Wortsman. Archipelago, $16 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1939810-23-6

Best known for his unfinished epic, The Man Without Qualities, Musil’s second published work, from 1911, is two difficult, modernist novellas, both dealing with the psyches of women. In the first, and superior, novella, “The Culmination of Love,” Claudine goes on a long trip to visit her daughter at boarding school. Despite her entreaties, her husband, who is not the girl’s father, decides to remain home. During her travels, by train and carriage, Claudine reflects on her previous sexual misdeeds, which both disgust and thrill her. She meets an undersecretary, who attempts to seduce her. Naked on her hotel room floor, with the undersecretary waiting outside, she wonders what to do. “The Temptation of St. Veronica” is more difficult to follow. Veronica lives with her aunt and two young men, Johannes and Demeter. Johannes is cerebral and contemplating suicide, Demeter is all action. Both are interested in Veronica, but she is unsure of how to proceed, partially due to a disturbing childhood memory of near-bestiality with a dog. According to the excellent afterward by the translator, Musil himself considered these novellas failed experiments. At its best, the book is a complex, immersive examination of obsessive Eros, but the text too often denies the reader entry. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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