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Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing

Guido Morselli, trans. from the Italian by Frederika Randall. NYRB Classics, $16.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-68137-476-5

The late Morselli (The Communist) serves up an eerie novel about a man who has survived the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of the human race, first published in 1973. The narrator is a neurotic, hyperintellectual former newspaper columnist who has left the decadent city of Chrysopolis for the solace of the mountains. One night, after a failed suicide attempt, the narrator returns to find that all of humanity has vanished and only their material accumulations remain—cars sit abandoned on roads, linotype machines are “still going through their crazy motions” at his newspaper office, and public notices hang in windows. The narrator tries to telephones old friends and colleagues, and visits military bases, airports, and hotels, but finds no one. Much of the book is the narrator’s lonely thoughts: “I am, therefore I think.” While Morselli (1912–1973) calls attention to the limits of allegorical writing, as the narrator muses how others would see his predicament as a “medium for social satire,” the philosophical digressions occasionally feel pedantic. The novel is most engaging when the theorizing fades away and the narrator confronts his surroundings as nature slowly engulfs the material world. This is a powerful, erudite meditation on existence and the terror of loneliness. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/02/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Life Lessons on the Sierra Trail: 40 Years’ Experiences in the John Muir Wilderness

Allen Clyde. Craven Street, $17.95 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-0-941936-04-0

Physician Clyde presents what he calls “a modern-day parable based on true events” in this middling fictionalization of his own life story. After Pablo, an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant who recently moved to Fresno, Calif., falls in with a bad crowd, his mother mentions to Dr. Clyde, her podiatrist, that she’s trying to keep him out of trouble. Clyde reveals that he has spent 40 years as a volunteer guide in the John Muir Wilderness and arranges for Pablo to be hired there for the summer. Clyde and Pablo, along with and Clyde’s wife, spend the summer delivering supplies to Forest Service workers via packhorse in the Muir Wilderness, giving Clyde ample opportunity to embark on monologues on the beauty and solace that can be found in nature, and lovingly detail how nearly every spot in the wilderness got its name. They do run into a few hairy situations—including almost riding off a cliff—and at the end of the summer Pablo is inspired to apply to medical school. Unfortunately, readers don’t get to know the characters much beyond Clyde’s thoughts on the landscape. Even for fans of naturalist fiction, this will be tedious. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything

Kristin Bair. Alcove, $16.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-643-85500-4

Bair’s charming latest (after Thirsty) centers on an endearing, anxious woman who takes up spying on her neighborhood. Agatha Arch is a successful author whose fear of everything (including flies, vampires, and beans) has kept her relatively isolated, so after Agatha walks in on her husband, Dax, and the dog walker, Willow, getting busy in their shed, she has no friends to help her as her world falls apart. Instead, she destroys the shed with a hatchet. Dax moves in with Willow, leaving Agatha to shuttle her young sons between two homes. On nights when her sons are away, Agatha passes the time by spying on Dax and Willow, and trolling the moms of her neighborhood’s Facebook group. She begins sneaking around the neighborhood in her “spy pants” and flies a drone to scope out her husband’s new home. Despite initially avoiding the advances of well-meaning but overly zealous neighbor Melody, Agatha befriends her, and together they help a young woman who panhandles on the town’s main strip. A paradoxically intrepid and terrified individual, Agatha will draw readers in with her wry takes: “these are the first death threats ever to be issued as a result of a Moms group posting. It is frightening but thrilling.” Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Elinor Oliphant Is Fine will love this clever romp. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Darker Than Night

Lisa London. Deep River, $16.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-0-9911635-5-7

London’s touching debut novel (after a series of accounting guides) explores the effects of WWII on a young German woman’s life. Starting in 1937, the story follows the courageous Catholic Hedy Weiß from ages 11 to 20 from her home in Birresborn to volunteer posts throughout Germany during the war. Hedy’s initial pride in Hitler’s rise to power gradually progresses to disgust and disillusionment with the Nazi regime and the war, though she continues to serve her country, first by volunteering as a nursing assistant, then as a farmer’s helper and as an airplane factory worker. As the years pass, she returns to helping wounded soldiers until she meets a handsome American officer in Trier at the beginning of Allied occupation. Hedy’s concerns and challenges are rendered in unadorned prose, and her troubled existence of hard labor, sheltering from falling bombs, near-starvation, and inconvenient love is palpable. The brisk storytelling and excellent characterizations perfectly frame Hedy’s perspective, shedding light on her eventual hatred of the Nazis and the scruples of other civilians and draftees who must endure the war’s destruction. London’s accomplished narrative speaks volumes on the horrors of war. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Lady Brewer of London

Karen Brooks. Morrow, $17.99 trade paper (832p) ISBN 978-0-06-300824-3

The daughter of a merchant flouts 15th-century English convention to start a brewery in Brooks’s illuminating epic (after The Chocolate Maker’s Wife). At 19, Anneke Sheldrake is devastated when her father’s ship goes missing at sea. His employer, Lord Rainford, agrees to give Anneke six months to come up with the lease money for her home in the village of Elmham Lenn. Anneke uses recipes handed down from her deceased mother, whose family brewed ale, to start a business, but after a fire at the brewery, Anneke flees to London in 1406, where she sets up another brewery, and the next year is reunited with Lord Rainford’s son, Leander Rainford, and tries to avoid the scrutiny of an officer of the crown who unfairly declares her ale substandard, forcing her to dump barrels into the Thames. When Leander helps Anneke get an audience with King Henry to taste her ale, Anneke is hopeful for the continued success of her business. Brooks’s attention to historical detail instills the novel with authenticity by including many historical figures and events, while Anneke’s lively voice keeps a strong grip on the reader as she works to overcome societal prohibitions against women in business and find happiness and contentment. Brooks’s immersive page-turner does not disappoint. Agent: James Frenkel, James Frenkel Assoc. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Forgotten Sister

Nicola Cornick. Graydon House, $17.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-5258-0995-8

British writer Cornick (The Woman in the Lake) incorporates elements of romance and paranormal genres into a fascinating if rote historical that centers on the 16th-century death of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. In a prologue set in 1752, Cornick describes priests attempting to exorcise Amy’s ghost from Cumnor Hall, which results in the ghost escaping. Flash forward to the 2010 wedding of 18-year-old musician Dudley and his groupie-wife, Amelia, as seen through the eyes of Dudley’s best friend, Lizzie Kingdom, who possesses psychometric powers. Through alternating points of view, Cornick reconstructs the lonely married life of Amy Robsart, which eventually leads to her death in a fall from a flight of stairs, and the present-day death of Amelia, who dies the same way after 10 years of marriage. After being released from questioning by the police who suspected she might have some insight into Dudley’s possible role in Amelia’s death, Lizzie embarks on her own investigation into how Amelia died, guided by visions leading her through history and time to reveal frightening things about herself and the Robsart family. While the characters lack depth, the author does a good job with pacing and plot detail. Cornick’s rich mystery will serve readers well on a rainy day. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tsarina

Ellen Alpsten. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-250-21443-0

Alpsten’s overlong but ultimately rewarding debut chronicles the life of the first woman to rule Imperial Russia. In 1725, Peter the Great dies without a male heir old enough to rule, and his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, schemes for a place in the succession. Alpsten flashes back to Catherine’s past, beginning with her birth as a peasant in 1684 and the poverty and abuse she suffers until her beauty catches the eye of Alexander Menshikov, the czar’s closest friend, when Russia’s wars with Sweden brings its army to her home near the Baltic Sea. Peter is drawn to her sexuality and fearlessness and takes her as a mistress. None of her 12 pregnancies with him result in a male heir, but her shrewdness helps cement her relationship with the czar, who marries her in 1712 and crowns her czarina in 1724. Catherine bonds with Menshikov and others as a way to cope with Peter’s philandering and cruelty, even as his vision transforms a once-hidebound nation with a series of modernizing reforms. Though the prose can be clumsy and the time spent on Catherine’s early years feels superfluous, Alpsten shines once she puts Catherine in Peter’s orbit. Lovers of Russian history, strong women protagonists, and sweeping historicals will savor this vivid portrait. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Days of Ellis Island

Gaëlle Josse, trans. from the French by Natasha Lehrer. World Editions, $15.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-64286-071-9

French novelist Josse’s melancholy English-language debut looks at the last few days in 1954 before Ellis Island was officially shuttered as a port of entry into the U.S. The novel is structured as diary entries by fictional Ellis Island commissioner John Mitchell, who muses on his history as a gatekeeper, declaring, “I am the captain of a phantom ship that has been abandoned to its ghosts.” Two of these ghosts are the women who most affected his life. Mitchell’s wife, Liz, was a nurse on the island until her death in 1920 of typhus, brought in with immigrants on the ship Germania. Three years later, Mitchell falls deliriously in love with Nella Casarini, who arrives on the Cincinnati with her mentally disabled brother, Paolo, and then, days later, disappears from Mitchell’s life after Paolo commits suicide. Mitchell also recalls others who passed through the port, and remembers Augustus Sherman, a fellow official and amateur photographer, and one of only a few historical figures in the story. Lehrer’s translation is both limpid and lyrical, as Mitchell sees himself being put out to pasture. (“He must leave the pack, like an old animal moving away to die, while the herd continues on without him.”) Josse’s powerful work finds the human heart within a career bureaucrat. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow

Alexander Radishchev, trans. from Russian by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman. Columbia Univ, $14.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-231-18591-2

Radishchev (1749–1802) crafts a masterly fictional travelogue, combining philosophy, poetry, and the political ideals of the Enlightenment in an unequivocal condemnation of serfdom, censorship, and corruption. The unnamed narrator travels via horse-drawn carriage between St. Petersburg and Moscow, making many stops at post stations and villages. In vignettes named after these points (“Novgorod,” “Bronnitsy,” “Zaitsovo”), he records the scenery, overheard conversations, and encounters with friends and strangers. Some of the book’s most heartrending accounts include, in “Gorodnya,” that of a serf educated along with his master’s son who is then denigrated and regularly beaten on orders from the son’s new wife, and a man trapped by his escalating debts in” Spasskaya Polest,” which lead to the premature deaths of his wife and newborn child. The travelogue also includes sketches like the story of the town of Valdai, where unmarried women sell pretzels and seduce travelers. Various, engaging, and deeply affecting, the book was a source of trouble for the nobleman Radishchev, who despite an accomplished career as a civil servant was banished to Siberia by Catherine the Great in 1790 for writing this protorevolutionary work, which was suppressed in Russia until the early 20th century. Kahn and Reyfman’s attentive new translation is a boon for English-language readers. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Irena’s War

James D. Shipman. Kensington, $15.95 trade paperback (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-2388-8

Shipman (Task Force Baum) dazzles in this historical tour-de-force based on the real-life story of WWII Polish resistance fighter Irena Sendler. In 1939, Nazi forces take over Warsaw, forcing 500,000 Jews into an overcrowded, walled-off ghetto. Social worker Irena is determined to continue to provide food to those in need, so when a Nazi officer offers her the opportunity to continue running the city’s soup kitchen, she accepts and begins forging documents that allow some of those in the ghetto to continue receiving government aid. Soon, Irena joins the resistance group Zegota and helps smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto (often through the sewers) to safety. Irena continues saving Jewish children from certain death—more than 2,500, according to an author’s note about the real Irena—until she is arrested by the Gestapo in October 1943. The author’s impeccable research, gripping prose, and pitch-perfect pacing bring an immediacy to the atrocities wreaked on Jews and other “undesirables.” Shipman’s humbling, spellbinding tale is a standout among recent works of Holocaust fiction. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/25/2020 | Details & Permalink

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