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The Wagers

Sean Michaels. Tin House, $15.95 trade paper (398p) ISBN 978-1-947793-63-7

Luck (and the lack of it) is the subject of this quirky work from Michaels (Us Conductors). At 36, Theo Potiris is a struggling stand-up comedian, despite one appearance on Conan. He works in his parents’ grocery store and plays the local comedy clubs on open-mic nights. Then, one day, he takes his 13-year-old niece, Hanna, to the track, where she wins $4 million on her first pick. This rocks Theo’s world to the point where he quits his job in favor of employment with the Rabbit Foot, a consortium of scientists who are attempting to quantify luck and monetize it. Then, he meets a woman named Simone who recruits him for the No Name Gang, which attempts to steal luck from those who hoard it. As part of this gang, Theo helps hijack luck from novelist Daniel Merrett Leys, author of The Labrador Sea, and billionaire businessman Z. Largo, with ever increasing risk of arrest or betrayal. What starts out as a fairly realistic drama eventually morphs into a surreal caper, with luck as an actual commodity to be prized—though to what end is never made entirely clear by the author. Some readers will be overwhelmed by the whimsy of the story, while others will enjoy Michaels’s unflagging imagination. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Cesare

Jerome Charyn. Bellevue, $26.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-942658-50-4

Charyn’s spectacular latest (after The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King) captures the madness of Nazi Germany in a fiercely inventive merging of fiction and fact. Erik Holdermann’s parents both die before his ninth birthday in 1928, after which he is raised in a Berlin orphanage. When philanthropist Wilfrid von Hecht and his daughter, Lisa, make a visit to the institution, Erik is smitten by Lisa, a “mischling,” or partially Jewish, teenager a few years his senior. Their lives diverge when Lisa marries an SS colonel and, at 17, Erik rescues a seedy-looking man being attacked by thugs. The man is Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, director of the Abwehr espionage unit. Canaris has Erik trained in killing and disguise, nicknaming him “Cesare” after the somnambulist assassin in the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Though Erik’s covert work becomes the stuff of whispered legend, few know that he’s helping Canaris—whose loyalty to Hitler has frayed in the face of the Führer’s increasingly erratic leadership—to sabotage Nazi attempts to exterminate Berlin’s Jews. After Erik re-encounters Lisa at a dinner party, the two begin a fevered affair. When she’s sent to Theresienstadt, where a “Jewish Paradise” designed by Nazi propagandists hides an Auschwitz way station, Erik risks his life trying to save her. Charyn’s nuanced depiction of the bond between the eccentric Canaris and his protégé balances the novel’s many macabre moments, and the searing ending is a masterpiece of unsentimentalized tenderness. This extraordinary tour de force showcases the prolific author at the top of his game. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Hurricane Season

Fernanda Melchor, trans. from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. New Directions, $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2803-9

Melchor’s English-language debut is a furious vortex of voices that swirl around a murder in a provincial Mexican town. The story opens with a group of boys discovering the body of the Witch in a canal. The Witch is a local legend: she provides the women of the town with cures and spells, while for the men she hosts wild, orgiastic parties at her house. Each chapter is a single, cascading paragraph and follows a different townsperson. First is Yesenia, a young woman who despises her addict cousin, Luismi, and one day sees him carrying the Witch from her home with another boy, Brando. Next is Munra, Luismi’s stepfather, who was also present at the Witch’s house; then Norma, a girl who flees her abusive stepfather and ends up briefly settling with Luismi; and lastly Brando, who finally reveals the details of the Witch’s death. The murder mystery (complete with a mythical locked room in the Witch’s house) is simply a springboard for Melchor to burrow into her characters’ heads: their resentments, secrets, and hidden and not-so-hidden desires. Forceful, frenzied, violent, and uncompromising, Melchor’s depiction of a town ogling its own destruction is a powder keg that ignites on the first page and sustains its intense, explosive heat until its final sentence. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Death in Her Hands

Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-1-9848-7935-6

Moshfegh’s disorienting latest (after My Year of Rest and Relaxation) sends up the detective genre with mixed results. Vesta Gul is an elderly woman who has moved to an isolated cabin on a lake after her husband’s death—with only her dog, Charlie, to keep her company. Vesta finds a note in the woods that reads “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there’s no body to be found. While Vesta does do some detective work (such as using askjeeves.com to search “How does one solve a mystery?”), mainly her mind imagines Magda’s life, to the point where the people Magda knew bleed into Vesta’s own life. Moshfegh clearly revels in fooling with mystery conventions, but the narrative becomes so unreliable that it almost seems random, and readers may wish for more to grasp onto, or for some sort of consequence. There’s an intriguing idea at the center of this about how the mind can spin stories in order to stay alive, but the novel lacks the devious, provocative fun of Moshfegh’s other work, and is messy enough to make readers wonder what exactly to make of it. Agent: Bill Clegg, The Clegg Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 11/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Independence Square

A.D. Miller. Pegasus, $25.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-64313-325-6

In this rousing yet uneven fictionalized retelling of events surrounding Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, Miller (Snowdrops), culture editor for the Economist, draws on his experience working in the region to tease out the political, civilian, and diplomatic tensions behind the mass protests. Chapters set in 2004 follow the protests, political plays, and governmental scrambling leading up to Ukraine Supreme Court’s ruling that the country’s 2004 presidential election was invalid and the court’s call for a new vote. British diplomat Simon Davey was ousted after an attempt to calm relations between protesters and government-backed political groups failed as a result of him being accused of having an affair with his Russian contact. In 2017, threads start to unravel for Davey after he sees Oleysa Zarchenko, a Ukrainian protestor and his former contact, on the London subway. He follows her and questions her about her role in the protests and the Ukrainian government’s response to the protests. As his perception changes, he begins to see how the power levers were being pulled 12 years ago, and reveals himself to be a somewhat obtuse, selfish, and idealistic bureaucrat who must come to terms with his culpability in governmental manipulation. Readers who can look past the underdeveloped characters will enjoy Miller’s vivid portrayal of political intrigue. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Include Me Out

María Sonia Cristoff, trans. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. Transit, $16.95 (180p) ISBN 978-1-945492-30-3

Argentinian writer Cristoff’s second book to be translated into English (after False Calm) is a dark, funny novel—part psychological thriller, part social satire, part crime caper—about a simultaneous interpreter who takes a vow of silence and a job at a provincial museum west of Buenos Aires. Mara is in her late 30s when her career as an interpreter at international conferences ends abruptly following an incident at a summit: she stops translating a philanthropist’s speech and instead recites from her own manual on how to use spoken and unspoken communications to manipulate and maneuver, implicating the philanthropist, his audience, and even the interpreters. Afterwards, determined to speak as little as possible for a year, Mara finds work as a security guard at the Udaondo Museum in Luján, founded in the 1920s to preserve local heritage. Her duties include guarding the Means of Transportation Room, which features two taxidermied horses, Mancha and Gato. An unwelcome promotion to assistant helping the taxidermist hired to repair Mancha and Gato provides Mara with the opportunity to use her planning and preparation skills for an act of sabotage that leaves the newly repaired horses in ruins. Cristoff cites jokes and historical documents, contrasts provincialism and cosmopolitanism, while devoting her most acute observations to the meaninglessness of words and the meanings of silence. This is a striking, clever novel. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Fish Soup

Margarita García Robayo, trans. from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe. Charco, $15.95 trade paper (212p) ISBN 978-1-9998593-0-5

Consisting of two novellas and seven stories, García Robayo’s collection, her first to be translated into English, is a gorgeous, blackly humorous look into the lives of Colombians struggling to find their place in society, both at home and abroad. In the title story, a widower barkeep hallucinates images of his late wife sleeping with local sailors, while “Better Than Me” places a professor in Italy as he tries to reconcile with his reluctant adult daughter. Narrated by a nameless female character, the novella “Waiting for a Hurricane” is a study in longing, following the protagonist from preteen to early adulthood while she pursues, with increasing desperation, an escape from her seaside hometown. “Sexual Education,” the other novella, is a sharp examination of Catholic school guilt in which a teen studies abstinence in high school and is consistently tempted by sex. Every tale is provocative, and García Robayo writes with an authority that is sure to resonate. Her style weaves conversational frankness with emotional depth, and the resulting stories are hard to shake. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Thread So Fine

Susan Welch. Faodail Publishing, $16.99 trade paper (363p) ISBN 978-1-73384-850-3

Irish twins navigate late-1940s Minnesota and their turbulent relationship in debut author Welch’s genuine story of family loyalty, misfortune, and potential. Born 11 months apart, plain and traditional Shannon Malone competes with, and is often bossed around by, her younger, more beautiful, and overachieving sister, Eliza. At 18, Shannon is quarantined in the hospital with tuberculosis, where she bonds with the women of her ward over being survivors. Meanwhile, Eliza, the pride of her professor father, enters college and begins dating the young David Whitaker. After Eliza is brutally raped by David’s cousin and becomes pregnant, she is destined for the Catholic Maternity Home for unwed mothers. Putting the baby up for adoption, Eliza is determined to further her academics with encouragement from Mrs. Perkins, a prominent government administrator. Once Shannon is released from the hospital, she finds new meaning in her life when she connects with Eliza’s daughter, Miriam. Welch steadily traces the two young women’s desire to forge their own lives, often hindered by shame, silence, guilt, and the stifling confines of societal expectations. Readers will be inspired by Shannon and Eliza’s persistence and heart. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Girl, Woman, Other

Bernadine Evaristo. Black Cat, $17 trade paper (464p) ISBN 978-0-8021-5698-3

Evaristo (Mr. Loverman) beguiles with her exceptional depictions of a range of experiences of black British women in this Man Booker–shortlisted novel. Each interconnected chapter focuses on one of 12 women across decades within a few degrees of connection to middle-aged lesbian Amma. In the present, Amma remembers her years of precarious living and feminist agitation through theater while preparing for the opening night of her of her play about African Amazonian warriors at the National Theatre. Amma’s firebrand daughter, Yazz, hopes for a boyfriend at university but instead forms a diverse friend group that challenges her ideas about race and privilege. Amma’s best friend, Dominique, moves to America with an increasingly controlling girlfriend. Amma’s oldest friend, Shirley, is a discouraged schoolteacher, still hurt that her former student Carole did not appreciate her help launching her toward her lucrative, if frustrating, bank career. Shirley’s prickly colleague Penelope, a twice-divorced middle-class woman, hires Carole’s mother, Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant, as a cleaner. Morgan, a non-binary social media personality, enjoys laboring on the family’s north England farm, while their nonagenarian great-grandmother, Hattie, internally grumbles about her descendants’ indifference and the shock of family secrets. Hattie’s deceased mother, Grace, proudly Abyssinian, struggles with the death of her young children in a chapter set in the 1920s. The after-party following Amma’s play sparks awkward and revealing encounters between many of the women. Evaristo’s fresh, clipped style adds urgency riddled with sparks of humor. This is a stunning powerhouse of vibrant characters and heartbreaks. Agent: Emma Paterson; Aitken Alexander (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Heart of Junk

Luke Geddes. Simon & Schuster, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0666-9

Geddes’s rambunctious, oddly touching debut homes in on the denizens of a massive Kansas antique mall. The small-scale purveyors of what the less sensitive would call junk are pinning their hopes on the arrival of the production crew for the TV show Pickin’ Fortunes. Unfortunately, the hosts of the show are leery to come to a town where a little girl, beauty pageant star Lindy Bobo, has disappeared, possibly kidnapped. So mall owner Keith, on the brink of bankruptcy, enlists the rest of the troupe to find her, unaware that one of his sellers knows more than he’s saying about Lindy’s whereabouts. Geddes assembles an irresistible cast of self-deluded characters. This includes uptight Margaret, a stickler for the rules and desperate to repress her attraction to a fellow seller; hapless Ronald, too friendly for his own good; high-strung Delores, “dizzied by all the voices” of the Barbies who keep her company; and Seymour, a big-city vinyl album aficionado hauled to the sticks by his partner Lee. Geddes walks an edgy tightrope with some of the material, particularly the Lindy story, but his antic comic touch saves the novel from sinking into darkness, and he offers even his most misguided characters the opportunity to bumble towards redemption. This one’s a quirky treat for fans of flyover state humor. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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