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The Bone Fire

György Dragomán, trans. from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Mariner, $16.99 trade paper (480p) ISBN 978-0-544-52720-1

At the start of this evocative work of magic realism from Dragomán (The White King), 13-year-old Emma, who’s been living since the death of her parents in an orphanage in an unnamed city and country that’s recently overthrown its Communist government, is claimed by a grandmother she didn’t know existed. The grandmother convinces Emma with a bit of magic that they’re related. At her grandmother’s house, Emma regularly observes and participates in minor bits of domestic magic, such as interacting with her grandfather’s ghost and engaging in homely rituals. At school, she faces mean girls as she tries to find where she fits in, eventually becoming part of the long-distance running team. Some accuse her grandfather of having been an informer for the previous regime, but others dismiss that as nonsense. Below the surface, violence is still simmering from the revolution that could strike close to Emma. One small incident follows another until some dramatic action in the final pages. The striking mix of magical elements and post-Communist setting compensates for the lack of much of a plot. Fans of Gabriel García Márquez may want to have a look. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, Gernert Company. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Imhotep

Jerry Dubs. mhotep Literary, $14.99 e-book (444p) ISBN 978-1-5190-7028-9

Dubs’s exciting debut and series launch brings to life the political intrigue of ancient Egypt through the stories of time-traveling American tourists. Artist Tim Hope is in Egypt with plans to spend his vacation sketching his surroundings and recovering from a lost love, until he witnesses two other Americans, Brian Aldwin and Diane Maclaine, disappearing into Kanakht’s tomb. Tim follows them and finds they’ve all been thrown back 5,000 years into “Ineb-Hedj,” in the days of King Djoser and Imhotep. When the three emerge from the tomb, they’re viewed as gods, but corrupt priests and suspicious royalty are not easily convinced they are deities. Tim, Brian, and Diane try to adapt to this different way of life that includes plenty of public nakedness and sexual encounters. They also face attempts on their lives, portrayed in intense action scenes, find love interests, and wonder how—and whether—they will return home. The characters are skillfully developed, and Dubs particularly impresses with his descriptions of life in ancient Egypt. This series is off to a great start. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Family Ship

Sonja Yoerg. Lake Union, $14.95 trade paper (438p) ISBN 978-1-5420-0469-5

Yoerg takes the pulse of a Navy veteran’s large family in this keen novel (after Stories We Never Told). In 1980, Maeve and Arthur Vergennes have nine children with a 10th on the way in a small Virginia town on the Chesapeake Bay. The oldest, Jude, left the family under duress five years earlier, so Verity, the next oldest at 18, is considered captain of Nepenthe, the family’s dry-docked oyster boat. The vessel came with their sprawling house on a small island property and is central to the children’s lives, where every Saturday they head off on imaginary voyages, a family tradition that helps distract the children from the trauma of Jude’s departure and, eventually, Maeve’s death following a miscarriage. In chapters that alternate from different family members’ points of view, Yoerg does justice to their perspectives as they navigate various conflicts. At the center is a sexual assault endured by Verity at 13, and her controlling father’s unwillingness to allow her to leave home for college. The author tackles a full range of events with élan: the loss of innocence, the push-pull divide between father and son, and how tragedy can cause a family to implode or come out stronger. This richly-drawn and insightful story demonstrates an exceptionally deep understanding of family relationships. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Tiara

M.J. Rose. Blue Box, $15.99 trade paper (438p) ISBN 978-1-952457-09-8

Rose’s engrossing latest (after Cartier’s Hope) chronicles a New York City architect’s quest to unravel the mystery behind a tiara she finds hidden in a wall of her late mother’s Manhattan apartment in 1948. Upon finding the tiara, Isobelle consults Jules Reed, a handsome jeweler who takes a romantic interest in her. Isobelle worries Jules is more interested in the tiara than in her, after he tells her about his involvement in a secret society of jewelers dedicated to returning stolen objects to their owners. A parallel narrative of Isobelle’s mother, Sofiya, as a 19-year-old art restorer in love during the Russian Revolution, fills in the blanks, as the reader learns the tiara was given to Sofiya by Olga, a daughter of Russian royalty tutored by Sofiya’s mother. Sofiya also chronicles her love story with Isobelle’s soldier father, Carpathian, whom she meets with Olga while touring an art-filled palace-turned-hospital, and sheds light on a wonderfully twisty plot involving a man with a Russian accept who seems to be following Isobelle. Rose unfurls an engaging structure that keeps the reader wanting to know more. Fans of Russian history and art will find much to appreciate in this winning story. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Gerta

Katerina Tuckova, trans. from the Czech by Veronique Firkusny. Amazon Crossing, $14.95 trade paper (460p) ISBN 978-1-5420-4314-4

Tuckova’s English-language debut slogs through the unfortunate life of a Czech-German woman after the liberation of Brno, Moravia, at the end of WWII. Gerta Schnirch is the daughter of a diffident Czech mother, who dies during the war, and an officious ethnically German father, who takes advantage of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia to rise socially and economically. When the war is over, the teenage Gerta—who has been raped by her father, Friedrich, and borne his daughter, Barbora—is among a group of German Czechs sent on a forced march to the west of the country by the Czechoslovak government, while Friedrich has vanished. Unlike many on the march who are raped or killed or die of dysentery, Gerta finds work as a farm laborer and secretary to the area administrator. When Barbora is five, Gerta returns with her to Brno, where she is dismayed to find Barbora stigmatized for her German surname, which sets Barbora back in school and drives a wedge between mother and daughter. While the central character is a bit one-note, Tuckova offers many rich period details; the scenes of Czech nationalist fervor are particularly wrenching, but they aren’t enough to sustain the novel. Though the lesser-known story of German expulsion is a worthy subject, this doesn’t quite do it justice. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Three O’Clock in the Morning

Gianrico Carofiglio. Harpervia, $25.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-06-302844-9

Former Italian senator and prosecutor Carofiglio (A Fine Line) takes a break from his Guido Guerrieri crime series with this poignant and moving father/son story. Antonio, an Italian 18-year-old whose parents are separated, is largely estranged from his father; he suffers bouts of epilepsy and, having endured years of failed treatments, is told by a specialist in Marseilles that he may be able to be cured. First, though, the doctor must test how Antonio’s brain reacts to stress. To that end, Antonio is ordered to not sleep for two days, and he spends the 48 hours awake in the city, accompanied by his father. He asks his dad about a scar, which leads to a how-I-met-your-mother story, and a dazzling episode, set in a jazz club, has Antonio marveling at his father playing piano on stage. Then the pair talk about mathematics and magical thinking, and after they visit a porno shop his father recounts visiting a brothel. They eventually get invited to a party where Antonio has a transformative experience. The father and son’s odyssey through the gritty streets of Marseilles is laced with many memorable details, such as the single-file pack of dogs that reminds Antonio of the Abbey Road cover, and Carofiglio shines with vivid descriptions of Antonio’s epilepsy fits (“I had a bedspread that was light blue, almost sky blue. All at once that pale, relaxing colour grew threatening...and went right through me with a violence that was unreal”). Antonio’s catalog of intimate experiences, whether painful, pleasurable, or bittersweet, make for an enchanting coming-of-age tale. Agent: David Forrer, InkWell Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Kitchen Front

Jennifer Ryan. Ballantine, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-15880-7

Ryan’s wonderful latest takes her back to the British WWII homefront she chronicled in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. This time through, the spotlight is on women making due under the restrictions of food rationing. Ryan structures the novel around a cooking competition in 1942, with the prize being a cohosting position on a food-themed radio program. Four contestants from a small town 15 miles south of London become unexpected friends as they compete for the prize: frazzled war widow Audrey Landon, her social-climber sister, Gwendoline; orphaned kitchen maid Nell Brown; and secretly pregnant chef Zelda Dupont. While the men of the novel tend to be one-dimensional villains or saints, the main characters grow in surprising but believable ways as they find ways to help each other after competing. A master of plotting and working in different registers, Ryan weaves in a romance for Nell and a subplot involving Gwendoline’s abusive husband while keeping the cooking competition front and center, complete with tempting recipes. Readers with an appetite for homefront WWII novels will find this deeply satisfying. Agent: Alexandra Machinist, ICM Partners. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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100 Boyfriends

Brontez Purnell. MCD, $15 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-374-53898-9

This stunning collection of vignettes from artist, punk rocker, and Whiting Award winner Purnell (Since I Laid My Burden Down) forms a delightfully crass, kaleidoscopic worldview. Each story introduces new heartbreaks and reminders that moments of intimacy often end in loneliness. In “Boyfriend #666/The Satanist” the narrator describes disappointing sex with a man referred to as “Trench Coat Mafia dick.” In “Boyfriend #4/4/The Drummer” the narrator tenderly asks, “What else is a boyfriend for but to share in mutual epiphany?” Whether falling apart during a punk band’s tour of Europe (“Do They Exist If No One’s Watching?”), searching for sex in rural Alabama (“Hooker Boys (Part Two)”), or sifting through a wealthy man’s drug stash in Hell’s Kitchen (“Boyfriend #100/The Agent”), the characters are joined in their vulnerability and constant longing. The raw, confessional voice in “Meandering (Part Two)” demonstrates the collection’s best quality, as the narrator remarks on the secretive delight of sex with strangers. Purnell brilliantly immerses the reader in Black, queer desire with humor, self-awareness, and just the right amount of vulgarity. Agent: Julia Masnik, Watkins/Loomis Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Bright Ray of Darkness

Ethan Hawke. Knopf, $28.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-385352-38-3

Hawke (Ash Wednesday) dramatizes the struggles of a Hollywood actor whose marriage has just ended because of his infidelity in this uneven roman à clef. Thirty-two-year-old William Harding is best known for having cheated on his wife, superstar singer Mary Marquis. As Harding adjusts to the end of their marriage and to sharing custody of their two young children, he simultaneously prepares to make his Broadway debut—he’s been cast as Hotspur in a new production of Henry IV (a role Hawke himself played in 2003). Harding struggles with mastering the role as part of a company including Virgil Smith, a legendary thespian regarded as Laurence Olivier’s heir, who’s playing Falstaff. Even as Harding tries to come to terms with Mary’s having moved on to another man, he holds out irrational hope that she’ll attend one of his performances. Harding’s relationship with his kids is underdeveloped, but Hawke’s behind-the-scenes look at staging a Shakespeare play provides the highlights, particularly his descriptions of the cartoonishly imposing Virgil (“Virgil was crawling to his position like a homeless madman, muttering to himself, with his dresser following, trying to give the fat man his belt and sword”). Hawke deserves credit for plumbing the dark depths of his doppelgänger. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mission House

Carys Davies. Scribner, $24 (272p) ISBN 978-1-982144-83-8

Davies follows up West with a stunning, understated novel set in a former British hill station in contemporary Tamil Nadu, India. Hilary Byrd, a 51-year-old British former librarian who lost his job following a mental breakdown and rues the “tapping of keyboards and the singing of babies and the hysterical shouting of the drunk and the angry” that came to define the library where he worked, has come to India for a change of scenery. He ends up in the hill town, and upon meeting the Padre, a Christian Indian and the local clergyman, he’s invited to stay in Canadian missionary’s temporarily vacant bungalow. Byrd, alternately hopeful and despairing, is ferried around by Jamshed, an old rickshaw driver who listens patiently to Byrd’s monologues about his own life’s wrong turns and his enchantment with the town’s “combination of the strange and familiar.” Byrd falls in love with the Padre’s young housekeeper, Priscilla, while Priscilla is captivated by Jamshed’s nephew and his passion for American country music. However, while Byrd putters around obliviously, resentment toward Christians in India grows alongside Hindu nationalism, and the affable Padre and Priscilla find themselves threatened, a situation that involves Byrd in an unsettling denouement. Told from alternating perspectives, this captivating, nuanced tale balances a pervading sense of melancholy with pockets of wry humor. Davies’s masterly elegy is not to be missed. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/04/2020 | Details & Permalink

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