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Tiny

Kim Hooper. Turner, $17.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-68442-242-5

Hooper (People Who Knew Me) delivers a complex story of love, loss, and redemption in this tearjerker centered on a freak accident. Nate and Annie Forester’s marriage begins to fall apart after their three-year-old daughter, Penelope, is struck dead by a truck driver. While Annie struggles through her grief, Nate is determined to continue as usual after the incident (“It’s better than losing his shit and sobbing like a little girl”). Nate’s lack of external grief causes a rift in their relationship (“How is he so normal?”)—so when Annie stumbles upon an article about the “Tiny House Movement,” in which a person lives in a miniature home with only the absolute necessities of life, she takes the opportunity to get away from Nate, simplify her life, and deal with her depression alone. She leaves only a note saying she is fine and needs some space. As months pass and Annie doesn’t return, Nate starts to succumb to depression and anger. It takes the unlikely intervention of Josh, the driver who accidently killed Penelope, to reunite Annie and Nate and do his best to make amends. Have a box of tissues handy for the ending, in which new beginnings spring out of haunting pasts. This is a delicate, beautiful tale of sadness, recovery, and the role of hope in human resilience. (July)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Fractured

Tamar Ossowski. Skyhorse, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-51074-382-3

Ossowski (Left) considers how a person’s destiny is shaped by their decisions in this muddled time-jumping thriller. Salmon, who goes by Sam, is caught in two versions of reality: one in which she follows her mother’s plan for her to go to college and become a lawyer, and another in which she follows her heart to be with the man she loves. The story opens with Sam squatting near a lake, near a man she doesn’t recognize but who feels very familiar. After running away, her world goes dark, and suddenly she is back in her normal life with roommate Susan, planning their imminent move to New York City. As Sam packs up her things, she begins to recollect more memories, and she comes to the realization that Sol—the man from what she thought was a dream—does exist, and that she also recalls many intimate details about him. As Sam tries to make sense of both realities, she realizes she must choose a path. Unfortunately, the plot is weak from the start, never explaining the mechanism or point behind the fracturing of Sam’s reality. Sam’s voice is also stunted by her flat, emotionless response to what is happening to her, leaving the reader at a distance. A redemptive ending and many twists fail to save this frustratingly opaque story. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Man’s 4th Best Hospital

Samuel Shem. Berkley, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-984805-36-2

After 41 years, Shem turns in a satisfying sequel to his cult novel, The House of God, a M*A*S*H-like look at the lives of a group of interns at a big city hospital. Now, these same interns are veteran doctors who are brought back together by their former mentor, the Fat Man, to teach a new generation of interns, this time at Man’s 4th Best Hospital, a venerable medical institution hemorrhaging prestige and money. Narrated by Shem’s stand-in, Roy Basch, he and his fellow older docs also see action staffing a walk-in clinic for the poor. Shem dramatizes in gonzo fashion how the big enemy isn’t death or disease, but BUDDIES, the hospital conglomerate that triages profits before patients; HEAL, the difficult-to-navigate computer program used to keep track of patients and costs; and doctors who double- and triple-book surgeries to line their own pockets. In the end, Roy, Fats, and the other characters must face up to their own mortality as well as their patients’. As an author and psychiatrist, Shem never met an acronym he didn’t want to exploit for comic effect. And he tends to make the same points over and over again—employing the humorous sensibility of an old Hope and Crosby routine. Nevertheless, this is a hilarious, horrifying, but always humanistic, take on a healthcare system that is in critical condition. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Jakarta

Rodrigo Márquez Tizano, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-56689-563-7

Márquez Tizano’s debut is a feverishly depicted panorama of a city laid low by a series of surreal events and misfortunes. An unnamed narrator and his partner rarely leave the room they share as their illness-ravaged city teeters on the brink of disaster outside, its citizens enlivened only by a vast gambling network centered on a near-sacred sport. As some new horror approaches, the narrator chronicles his childhood teachers and their bizarre lessons, his life as a former hazmat worker during the peak of the “Z-bug” epidemic, and later as a refugee in a series of underground tunnels meant to prevent the spread of the virus. As he recalls these strange, apocalyptic experiences, he describes a unique cast of characters, including his prophetic, prolific friend Morgan, whose journals seem to be sending messages to the narrator, and his partner Clara, who has discovered a strange stone that may or may not be granting her visions of the past. Lacking a clear or typical trajectory, this short novel is dense with imagery and boundless imagination, creating a vividly grotesque reality for those who exist within its society: the disillusioned gamblers, the cleanup crews, the bureaucrats, and the Z-bug’s dead. Blending the wildly dystopian with the mundanity of the everyday, this time-jumping narrative is a bolt of originality from a writer to watch. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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On Swift Horses

Shannon Pufahl. Riverhead, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-53811-0

Pufahl’s powerful debut follows two brothers just back from the Korean War and the woman from Kansas who loves them both. Muriel agrees to marry Lee not long after he and his brother, Julius, step off their ship in Long Beach, but it’s Julius with whom she finds a haunting affinity. When he disappears, both Muriel and Lee live for word from him again. Muriel and Julius are gamblers; Muriel overhears horse betting tips from men who drink at the Heyday Lounge in San Diego where she works. Muriel wins enough at the Del Mar racetrack to buy her husband the lot on which he builds their dream house. Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Julius falls in love with Henry, a tender card cheat who’s run out of town. Desperate to find him, Julius returns to his brother’s house, steals money from Muriel, and goes in search of him. Muriel, in turn, searches for Julius, and finds herself instead. SoCal’s illicit gay joints, Mexico, and memories of Kansas are finely wrought, though by the time Muriel discovers that the mystery Julius represents actually resides deep inside her own self, Pufahl’s gorgeous metaphors and heartbreaking revelations may make readers feel like less is more. Peopled by singular characters and suffused with a keen sense of time and place, Pufahl’s debut casts a fascinating spell. This melancholy story will show up in the dreams of those whose heartstrings it has tugged. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Vernon Subutex 1

Virginie Despentes, trans. from the French by Frank Wynne. FSG Originals, $16 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-374-28324-7

The first book of a trilogy, Despentes’s Man Booker–shortlisted novel about a former record shop owner is a searing social satire and biting portrait of contemporary France. The titular Vernon Subutex was the owner of a record shop called Revolver in the 1980s, when he became an indelible part of the burgeoning music scene of the times, befriending rock stars, groupies, and fanatics. Now in his 40s, unemployed and broke, Vernon is left reeling after “the chain of catastrophes,” a series of deaths of his friends from the scene. Most notable is that of Alexandre Beach, a mega-famous pop singer who, despite his stratospheric fame, never left his old friends behind. And unbeknownst to him, Vernon, who owns the last recordings of Alexandre Beach, has become a target of all kinds of attention: from Alex’s exes, from a fan-slash-writer working on a definitive biography, and from a film financier with a personal vendetta. Vernon couch hops from one unstable living situation to the next, unaware of the forces after him, and in the process readers are introduced to a cast of tangential members of Vernon’s social group and generation at large. Despentes’s timely novel is both arch and political without being too obvious that it’s either. This is a rollicking, brilliant send-up of masculinity, politics, and rock ’n’ roll. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Story of a Goat

Perumal Murugan. Grove, $16 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-8021-4751-6

This superbly fabulist tale from Murugan (One Part Woman) dives into the inner life and turmoil of a Asuras, a fictional farming village in rural India, through a small but determined goat and her unlikely caretakers. A large, mysticlike man gifts a rare black goat to an old farmer one day on his way home from the field. When the old farmer brings the malnourished goat home to his wife, she quickly gets to work caring for the goat, whom she names Poonachi. It’s not an easy start for Poonachi, who must deal with the abuses of the village children, refuses to suckle, and is attacked by a tiger. But in the hands of the old woman, Poonachi eventually thrives alongside their older goats and becomes her inseparable companion. As Poonachi grows older, she learns that life is filled with struggle and suffering, but also that it holds moments of beauty and love. Anthropomorphic Poonachi lets readers into many of her thoughts and experiences, including a vibrant view of life under a government regime that banned black goats (which supposedly can’t be seen in the dark) and oversaw long periods of famine and food rationing. Murugan explores the lively inner life of an observant goat in this imaginative exploration of rural life under the caste system. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Maybe This Time

Jill Mansell. Sourcebooks Landmark, $15.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-4926-8935-5

Mansell (You and Me, Always) highlights the charm of a village in the Cotswolds and the missed opportunities of love following tragedy. Publicist Mimi Huish travels from her home in London to visit her father, Dan, and his boyfriend, Marcus, who have recently moved to the quiet village of Goosebrook. While walking from the closest train station to Goosebrook, Mimi meets Cal Mathieson and his dog, Otto, who accompany her into the village. Mimi, Dan, and Marcus visit the local pub to meet the villagers, and they become acquainted with Cal, his wife, Stacey, and other Goosebrook neighbors. When tragedy strikes and both Stacey and Dan are killed in a car accident, Mimi tries to console Marcus and Cal. After Mimi takes a new job with novelist CJ Exley and travels to Puerto Pollensa, she stays in touch with Cal, eventually finding an opportunity for them to explore if their mutual friendship could spark romance when Mimi travels back to Goosebrook. Mansell’s latest is a moving story of characters going forward after facing life’s frequent ups and downs and finding enduring relationships. Her fans will be thoroughly satisfied with this heart-wrenching novel. Agent: Jennifer Unter, The Unter Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?

Brock Clarke. Algonquin, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-61620-821-9

Clarke (The Price of a Haircut) crafts a deeply quirky narrative about a middle-aged pellet stove blogger and the wacky adventures he finds. After his mother, Nola, author of a bestselling book on theologian John Calvin, dies in an accident, Calvin Bledsoe, who spends his days writing about pellet stoves, becomes restless and isn’t quite sure what to do next.Then Calvin’s shifty yet charming aunt Beatrice surprises him with a passport and insists he accompany her on her travels, and the not-too-dynamic duo leave Maine and head to Europe. Once there, they get into inventive trouble—purchasing gerbil porn, stealing everything not nailed down, and getting kidnapped—up and down the continent, all windingly leading to the true reason that Beatrice has brought Calvin on the trip. At times the freewheeling plot veers into confusing territory, and the weird nicknames and freakishly horrible events that plague the title character go overboard. Still, Clarke keeps it all grounded with standout prose. Fans of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt and John Irving’s The World According to Garp will delight in this story of a modern-day traveler. As the title character opines, “The world is remarkable, and we are grateful to be given a chance to live in it.” Agent: Elizabeth Sheinkman, Peters Fraser + Dunlop. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tell Me Who We Were

Kate McQuade. Morrow, $25.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-06-286979-1

McQuade’s masterful debut, a collection of linked stories, centers on six adolescents: Romy, Evie, Claire, Nell, Grace, and Lillith, who, in the opening story, bond over a tragedy during their first year at an all-girls boarding school. The seven intricate stories that follow delve into who these girls become at different points in their lives, or showcase an aspect of their identity through the eyes of someone close to them. In “A Myth of Satellites,” a new father looks back with regret on his teen-aged summer crush on Romy. “Wedge of Swans” reveals 29-year-old Evie’s ambivalence about having a child after having a miscarriage. The bizarre emotional and physical journey the newly separated Claire takes with her French-speaking, one-year-old baby is outlined in “Helen in Texarkana.” In the fantastical final story, “In The Hollow,” Lillith’s widower husband is convinced his wife has returned to him as a tree in their backyard. The author plumbs the depths of each character’s soul—how in the trajectory of growing older these women can or cannot connect with others as they deal with loss, infertility, or heartbreak. This exceptional debut reveals the extraordinary and mysterious underpinnings of ordinary lives whose presence long linger after the reader turns the final page. (July)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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