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Cloud Cuckoo Land

Anthony Doerr. Scribner, $30 (656p) ISBN 978-1-982168-43-8

Pulitzer winner Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See) returns with a deeply affecting epic of a long-lost book from ancient Greece. In the mid-22nd century, Konstance, 14, copies an English translation of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes with her food printer’s Nourish powder while aboard the Argos, an ark-like spaceship destined for a habitable planet. She found the book in the Argos’s library, and was already familiar with Diogenes’s story of a shepherd named Aethon and his search for a book that told of all the world’s unknown lands, because her father told it to her while they tended the Argos’s farm. Her father’s connection to the Diogenes book is gradually revealed, but first Doerr takes the reader farther back in time. In chapters set in and around Constantinople leading up to the 1453 siege, two 13-year-old children, Anna and Omeir, converge while fleeing the city, and Omeir helps Anna protect a codex of Cloud Cuckoo Land she discovered in a monastery. Then, in 2020 Lakeport, Idaho, translator Zeno Ninis collaborates with a group of young children on a stage production of Cloud Cuckoo Land at the library, where a teenage ecoterrorist has planted a bomb meant to target the neighboring real estate office. Doerr seamlessly shuffles each of these narratives in vignettes that keep the action in full flow and the reader turning the pages. The descriptions of Constantinople, Idaho, and the Argos are each distinct and fully realized, and the protagonists of each are united by a determination to survive and a hunger for stories, which in Doerr’s universe provide the greatest nourishment. This is a marvel. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Business

J.P. Meyboom. Dundurn, $18.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-4597-4705-0

Set primarily in Toronto, Meyboom’s weak debut mixes humor with crime tropes, yet too often loses its way trying to lampoon consumerism. At its center is Paul Wint, a greeting card writer recruited by Albert Hornsmith as heir apparent of “the Business,” a moneymaking scheme that strings wealthy entrepreneurial clients along with promises of book deals, real estate, and media coverage. As Paul learns the ropes, he falls for rock singer Marla , who’s tangled up with a dangerous drug dealer. When one of the Business’s clients catches wind of the scam and send a pair of Russian thugs to rough up Paul and threaten his and Hornsmith’s lives, Paul reconsiders his role. Then, Hornsmith dies in a freak accident, leaving Paul as the sole target for the client’s ire. Meyboom effectively establishes the story, carving out funny characters and scenes of peril, yet a whiplash narrative shift tosses these elements aside as Paul spends the back half of the novel delivering Marla’s drug-dealing acquaintance’s 1968 Firebird from Toronto to California. Characters previously introduced vanish, never to return, and while the road trip is amusing, it relies on unbelievable coincidences (and ghosts). The novel feels like two stories stitched together, and neither fully satisfy. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets

Dan Fante. Black Sparrow, $15.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-57423-249-3

This shaggy, gritty collection from Fante (1944–2015) follows the travails of his alter-ego cab driver, Bruno Dante, who has appeared in such works as Chump Change. Fante add juice and color to the episodes by drawing, as Willy Vlautin notes in an introduction, from his own experiences driving a cab in Los Angeles. Bruno’s cab is a “rattling Chevy”; politicians are “rectumless bureaucrats”; his wild friend Libby is “an alumnus of the Keith Richards school of beauty.” There are echoes of Burroughs and Kerouac in the sordid exploits, which include dealing with a voracious python, the title character of the story “Princess”; losing a cushy daily fare because of interference by a hotel doorman Bruno calls “Wifebeater Bob”; and waking up in a movie theater next to a trans woman after a Mad Dog 20/20–fueled blackout. Hard drinking figures prominently, both as the cause of Bruno’s messy personal life and as the fuel for his creative energy as a writer. Fante was also a playwright, and the longest piece, as well as the least successful, is a one-act two-hander between Fante and a slick aspiring actor he calls “Thebobby.” Fante’s raunchy, dynamic voice occasionally soars in this mixed bag of outrageous episodes. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Give My Love to the Savages

Chris Stuck. Amistad, $25.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-302997-2

Stuck puts an inventive spin on Black satire in his engaging debut collection. In “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” a Black man traces moments from kindergarten to adulthood when he is called the n-word, ruminating on how the word changes meaning as he gets older. In “Lake No Negro,” a young Black man is invited into a polyamorous relationship by an older white couple and realizes the woman has a race fetish. “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq.” explores the intersection of race and identity as the narrator, a Black Republican, struggles to come to terms with a skin disease that’s turning him white, and “How to Be a Dick in the Twenty-First Century” takes a Philip Roth–style dive through a man’s metamorphosis into a penis. The blistering title story considers the contradictions of being biracial in its account of a young man visiting his racist white father in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots, only to come to terms with his own privilege. Stuck brings uncompromising humor and judicious characterizations, offering piercing insights on the complexity of his characters’ experiences. The author’s perfect balance of absurdism and realism makes these stories shine. Agent: Dan Mandel, Sanford J. Greenburger Assoc. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Embassy Wife

Katie Crouch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-28034-5

Crouch (Abroad) pulls off an entertaining and insightful exposé of diplomatic life in Namibia with the story of three women whose children attend an international school in the country’s capital. Persephone, a slightly daft, often drunk, and always patriotic American “embassy wife” takes over the school’s International Day fund-raiser from Mila, a beautiful but imperious Namibian with a mysterious past. Amanda, the newbie “trailing spouse,” whose husband persuaded her to leave a high-powered job in Silicon Valley, is bored. All three are married to creeps with secrets: Persephone’s husband is counsel to the American ambassador; Mila’s is Namibia’s transportation minister; and Amanda’s is a Fulbright scholar, whose stint in the Peace Corps in Namibia 20 years earlier was cut short after his involvement in a car accident. Amanda’s socializing with Persephone leads to an effort to protect rhinos, one at a time (“Personally protecting it, I mean. By visiting it. And... you know. Patrolling the area,” Persephone explains); as they scale up the project, their husbands’ misdeeds surface. Crouch presses her female characters to their limits, reaching notes of genuine triumph without sacrificing the wry comedy, while the red dust and heat of Namibia radiate off the page. This is a blast. Agent: Rob McQuilkin, Massie & McQuilkin. (July)

Reviewed on 05/28/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Painting the Light

Sally Cabot Gunning. Morrow, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-291624-2

Gunning (Monticello: A Daughter and Her Father) delivers an atmospheric, character-driven story of a young woman’s struggle at the turn of the 20th century. Handsome charmer Ezra Pease’s small but prosperous Martha’s Vineyard sheep farm at first seemed idyllic to Ida, a place where she could pursue her interest in drawing and painting. Now, two years into their marriage, Ida realizes she’d made a hasty decision. Ezra, cold and distant, frequently leaves her to handle the farm while he’s off operating a salvage vessel with his business partner, Mose Barstow. Then Ezra and Mose’s ship goes down, with all passengers presumed dead, and Ida feels relief rather than loss. Over the next months, Ida experiences the joys and challenges of living a self-sufficient life: she learns how to ride a bicycle, wears trousers, resumes painting, and makes decisions about the flock. She also falls in love with Mose’s married brother, Henry. Gunning writes beautifully of the landscape and farm life without romanticizing, and each character is vividly rendered without a smidge of excess backstory. Subplots about women’s suffrage and a young orphaned relative seem underdeveloped, but in Ida, Gunning has created a captivating personality. This is one that lingers well after the final page is turned. Agent: Kristine Dahl, ICM Partners. (June)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Have We Met?

Camille Baker. Lake Union, $14.95 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-5420-2985-8

Baker’s heart-wrenching and addictive debut follows a 27-year-old Black woman as she learns to regain hope and trust in the wake of her best friend’s death. After Joelle dies, Cori Evans drives from Houston to their hometown of Chicago. Her car breaks down upon arrival, and while waiting for repairs, she visits her cousin Tiwanda and gets drunk. Later, she finds a dating app on her phone that she doesn’t remember installing, and it tells her that her soulmate is one of four people from her past. A series of serendipitous meetings with them ensues. There’s Justin, a fellow UT alum, but he’s married; Anthony, her high school sweetheart, is a selfish lover; Devin, a nonbinary art teacher with whom things go swimmingly until Cori demonstrates an interest in Cory, a bisexual man who makes Cori jealous by bringing around his ex. Then she finds a package left behind by Joelle, which contains clues to the mysterious app, which, when it reveals her fourth match, brings tension to her new friend group. As Cori pursues love, Baker shines in engaging portrayals of friendships old and new. Readers are in for a treat. (July)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Tiger Mom’s Tale

Lyn Liao Butler. Berkley, $17 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-19872-8

Butler’s riveting debut follows a half-white personal trainer who reconnects with her Taiwanese family after her biological father’s death. Thirty-something New Yorker Lexa Thomas learns from her half sister, Hsu-Ling, that their father, Jing Tao, died in an accident. Hsu-Ling tells Lexa that just before the accident, Jing Tao visited his best friend, Pong, on his death bed (Pong was dying from cancer), and that Pong made an apology and confession to Jing Tao involving his role in previous unfair treatment of Lexa by Hsu-Ling’s mother, Pin-Yen. Pong then leaves his estate to Lexa under the condition that she returns to Taiwan—and her estranged family—to claim it. While Lexa decides what to do, she and her American half sister contend with their mother’s decision to leave their father for another woman, and a series of flashbacks unpack Lexa’s fraught relationship with Pin-Yen, who, during Lexa’s previous visits to Taiwan, schemed to ensure she wouldn’t return. Butler weaves in convincing descriptions of Lexa’s navigating of the dating scene and the fetishizing of Asian women, and depicts a fascinatingly complex antagonist in Pin-Yen, who by the end must contend with the effect of her past actions. Butler breathes zesty new life into women’s fiction. Agent: Rachel Brooks, BookEnds Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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After the Sun

Jonas Eika, trans. from the Danish by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg. Riverhead, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-593-32910-8

Five surreal, globe-spanning stories shape Eika’s startling English-language debut. The collection begins and ends with stories named “Bad Mexican Dog,” each of which recounts the travails of an otherworldly beach boy and the Cancún tourists he exploits and vice versa. In “Alvin,” an unnamed IT specialist scarred by his ex-wife’s abandonment embarks upon an illusive and homoerotic friendship with an eccentric derivatives trader while on assignment in Denmark. In “Rachel, Nevada,” a man mourning the deaths of his two daughters self-mutilates in ritualistic communion with a piece of alien shrapnel found in the desert. In “Me, Rory and Aurora,” a homeless woman inserts herself in the lives of a drug-dealing couple about to have a baby. Studded with shockingly visceral images (“Suddenly his windpipe popped out of the wet flesh, distended and fluted with cartilage”), these lyrical stories are preoccupied with a sense of psychosexual loneliness that penetrates even the most absurd moments of escapism. Eika’s fusing of the magic realist mode with the alienation of modernity makes for a winning formula. Agent: Astri von Arbin Ahlander, Ahlander Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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All’s Well

Mona Awad. Simon & Schuster, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-1-982169-66-4

The pill-addled theater professor at the center of Awad’s scathing if underwhelming latest (after Bunny) is nearing the end of her rope. Miranda Fitch passes her days in a self-medicated haze, numbing the debilitating pain she’s felt since falling off the stage in a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Worse still, no one seems to believe the severity of her condition. After the cast of her student production insists on putting on Macbeth rather than All’s Well, Miranda is approached at a bar by three mysterious men who give her the ability to transfer her pain to others. In the first instance, she wrests a script from a mutinous student, who then clutches her wrist in pain where Miranda touched her. Eventually, Miranda’s elation at escaping her pain gives way to a dangerously vindictive, manic spiral. Awad’s novel is, like Miranda says about Shakespeare’s All’s Well, “neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between.” Unfortunately, it falls short on both counts: Miranda’s acerbic inner monologue reaches for humor but mostly misses, and the overwrought tone undermines the story’s tragedy (when asked why she wanted to teach at the college: “I thought: Because my dreams have been killed. Because this is the beginning of my end”). It’s an ambitious effort, but not one that pays off. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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