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The Tsarina’s Daughter

Ellen Alpsten. St. Martin’s Griffin, $17.99 trade paper (512p) ISBN 978-1-250-21441-6

Alpsten impresses with the second volume of her trilogy (following Tsarina), focusing on Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova, daughter of Tsar Peter the Great and Catherine I, who ruled Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762. An opening tease signals a grim tale of ruthless determination. In 1741, Elizabeth, 31, the only one of Peter’s 15 children still alive, must decide whether to claim the throne. Her quandary: she believes that doing so is her country’s only hope of avoiding foreign domination, but it would also displace her one-year-old cousin Ivan. Before she decides, Alpsten traces an arc from Elizabeth’s teen years to her assumption of power. That backstory presents the harsh choices her predecessors made; for example, her father personally executed his son Tsarevich Alexey, Elizabeth’s half brother, after Alexey became the leader of a movement opposed to the Tsar’s reforms aimed at modernizing the country. Elizabeth also experienced the loss of numerous loved ones, including both her parents, and a tumultuous romantic life, given that her preferences for a spouse were secondary to political considerations. While readers will know how the opening drama is resolved, Alpsten’s gifts at laying on evocative period detail and engendering empathy for her characters will keep the pages turning. This leaves the series nicely poised for the finale. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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All of You Every Single One

Beatrice Hitchman. Overlook, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4197-5693-1

Hitchman (Petite Mort) tells a preoccupying if underwhelming story of queer love in Vienna over the course of both world wars. Julia Lindqvist, 26, is unhappily married in 1910 when, during a vacation in France, she meets a young tailor, Eve Perret, who passes as a man. The women begin a loving, lifelong partnership in Vienna, where they try to find a way to live as a couple. Under the protective wing of Frau Berndt, they create a new family of neighbors and friends, but Julia yearns for a child. The narrative shifts perspectives between Julia, Eve, and other key people in their lives. Ada Bauer is abused by her foster brother, Emil, with whom glamorous hustler Rolf Gruber falls in love. Ada receives treatment from Sigmund Freud, but the other characters don’t believe her claims about Emil; later, Ada and Rolf hatch a plot to help Julia realize her dreams. Hitchman makes good use of interwar bohemian Vienna, presenting it as a time capsule of relative permissiveness before the rise of the Nazis, though the happy ending after WWII feels far-fetched, and the cameos of such historical figures as Freud don’t add much to the narrative. Though there are some bright moments, little distinguishes this in a crowded field. Agent: Olivia Davies, United Agents. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Last Resort

Andrew Lipstein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-60270-3

Lipstein debuts with a fluidly written but tepid send-up of publishing’s thorny issues of authorship and attribution. Caleb Horowitz leaves an advertising job in New York to pursue writing in Florida. After the manuscript of his first novel is roundly rejected, he crashes with an old college friend, Avi Dietsch, in Los Angeles, and Avi relates a steamy tale about a foursome he had in Greece. Caleb uses this anecdote, without permission, as the basis for a new novel. Five months later, Caleb falls in love with Sandra, a woman he met on Tinder, and sells the book for $830,000, but the fantasy evaporates when Avi, who now works in publishing and is dating Sandra’s best friend, recognizes the manuscript because Caleb didn’t rename the characters. In a hush-hush legal deal, Caleb cedes authorship to Avi in exchange for retaining the advance in full. Caleb is mollified by his newfound wealth and steady girlfriend until the book is a runaway success and Avi gets the acclaim. His regret leads him into a series of schadenfreude-laden missteps that, while occasionally entertaining, do little to illuminate why Caleb is stuck repeating old wrongs. The underdeveloped characters add to the muddiness at the heart of this story. This lands decidedly off target, somewhere between fairy tale and satire. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Reptile Memoirs

Silje Ulstein, trans. from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough. Grove, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8021-5886-4

Ulstein’s choppy debut charts the nightmarish connections among two women, an unhinged cop on the verge of retirement, and a tiger python. In 2003, nursing student Liv and her two hard-partying roommates buy the snake and name it Nero, though Liv quickly claims the snake for herself, locking it in her room and growing sexually aroused when feeding it. In 2017, Mariam refuses to buy her 11-year-old daughter, Iben, a comic book, and the girl runs away. Chief Inspector Roe Olsvik, 60, is assigned to the case of Iben’s disappearance. He suspects Mariam of foul play, and his investigation soon crosses several ethical boundaries. The trauma of abuse is central to both Liv’s and Mariam’s stories, with Liv having been assaulted by her older brother growing up, and Iben being the result of a rape that occurred before Mariam was married. Chapters narrated by Nero, who reflects on his snake siblings and at one point does a very bad thing, add an awkwardly fey perspective (“I saw her face. Something was dripping from it—salty drops from her eyes,” he recounts of Liv), and psychological intrigue abounds as the parallel narratives gradually coalesce, revealing Olsvik’s motivations for stalking Mariam. There are some surprises, as not every character turns out to be who they seem, but the twists largely feel contrived and the result of fortuitous discoveries. Still, the depiction of the characters’ pain adds depth to this literary thriller. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Call Me Cassandra

Marcial Gala, trans. from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-0-374-60201-7

In Cuban poet and novelist Gala’s lyrical and elegiac return (after The Black Cathedral), a young man grows up feeling stifled by life in Castro’s Cuba. At 10, Rauli Iriarte is effeminate and bookish, imperiled by the strict gender roles embodied by his violent brother, drunken father, and unsympathetic school board. He’s more comfortable in the company of his mother and his father’s Russian mistress, Svetlana. As it happens, Rauli is also Cassandra, the Greek prophetess of ancient myth, cursed with the knowledge that he will die as a young soldier in Angola, where he is dispatched as part of the Cuban Intervention. There, on “a continent full of ghosts, the ghosts of kings, dark ghosts of dark wizards,” he is simultaneously swept up in the Trojan War and forced to relive The Iliad’s cycle of death and carnage. Lodged irrevocably between genders, historical periods, and legends, Rauli—who’d rather be acknowledged as Cassandra—must find meaning and purpose in a life he knows to be tragically foreshortened. It’s a fascinating premise, but not a whole lot happens. Still, Gala’s prose, elegantly translated by Kushner, perfectly conveys the protagonist’s dual realities (“We are but shadows set on the canvas of this life, my Zeus,” he thinks, while on the battlefield). In the end, the author offers a singular invocation of immortality. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Honor

Thrity Umrigar. Algonquin, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61620-995-7

Umrigar (Everybody’s Son) returns to themes of India’s evolution and the transformative potential of women’s relationships in her uneven latest. Despite traveling the world as a foreign correspondent, Smita Agarwal has not returned to India, the land of her birth, since her family left for Ohio when she was a teenager. But when a colleague is badly injured while reporting on a murder trial that overlaps with Smita’s gender issues beat, Smita takes over the assignment. A young Hindu mother, Meena Mustafa, has accused her two brothers of killing her Muslim husband in a fire that also left Meena badly scarred. Meena’s story both reinforces and complicates Smita’s preconceptions about India’s gender dynamics, religious divisions, and caste hierarchies. Speaking with Meena also forces Smita to confront long-hidden facets of her own past. Both Meena’s recollections and Smita’s narrative contain moments of emotional clarity and terror. Their propulsive stories and well-developed characterizations, however, don’t quite compensate for the flat, even cartoonish, supporting characters, or for a romantic subplot involving Smita and a man she meets while reporting on the story, which reads like an afterthought. Umrigar offers readers a broad understanding of the complicated issues at play in contemporary India, but the story fails to do the subject justice. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Jawbone

Mónica Ojeda, trans. from the Spanish by Sarah Booker. Coffee House, $16.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-56689-621-4

In Ecuadorian writer Ojeda’s delectable English-language debut, two classmates bond at an all-girls’ Catholic high school over a made-up mythology. The ever-inventive Annelise designs a deity (“a rhinestone-encrusted firefly”) to entertain her group of friends, among them Fernanda. The two become inseparable and then fall dangerously in love, as Ojeda plays with the narrative device of the double—one of several tropes from the “creepypastas” of internet-horror culture. Their literature teacher, Clara Lopez Valverde, embodies her own horror story: she’s haunted by the ghost of her mother and descends into madness. A lifelong sufferer of an extreme anxiety disorder—“a panic attack is like waking up burning in water, falling upward, freezing in a fire, walking against yourself, your flesh solid and your bones liquid”—Clara will end up kidnapping one of her students for her own occult reason. There are echoes of Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson at play, but the vision is ultimately Ojeda’s own—delicious in how it seduces and disturbs the reader as the girls rely on horror both as entertainment and as a way of staving off the actual terrors of growing up. This is creepy good fun. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Beautiful Little Fools

Jillian Cantor. HarperPerennial, $16.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-305126-3

Cantor (Half Life) succeeds brilliantly with this audacious revisionist murder mystery featuring characters from The Great Gatsby. In Fitzgerald’s version, it was George Wilson who killed Jay Gatsby. Here, Cantor imagines a woman shooting Gatsby in “heat...anger...and...madness.” Three women figure prominently in the narrative. There’s “careless, carefree” Daisy Buchanan from Louisville, Ky., who “wanted to be someone who mattered”; her ambitious, sporty childhood best friend, Jordan Baker, who is embroiled in a women’s golf circuit scandal; and Catherine McCoy, who leaves the family farm for New York City, where she works for the National Women’s League, attends suffrage meetings, and worries about the bruises on her sister. Cantor successfully captures the style and tone of the 1925 novel with vivid details, such as Daisy’s “lavish honeymoon in the South Seas”; a life of luxury in Santa Barbara, Calif.; a Cannes chateau; and the ultimate extravagances of East Egg. Also featuring into the story is Det. Frank Charles, who believes everyone he interrogates about Gatsby’s death is an “incurable liar.” Loneliness, homesickness, and the “forever endless winding river” of grief pursue Daisy as justice is served. Proving once again that it is “hard to forget the past,” Cantor’s admirably convincing act of literary skullduggery offers many rewards. Agent: Jessica Regal, Foundry Media. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Portrait of an Unknown Lady

Maria Gainza, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead. Catapult, $24 (192p) ISBN 978-1-64622-032-8

Gainza (Optic Nerve) returns with a ruminative account of the pursuit of a master forger who has gone off the grid in a dreamy Buenos Aires. The unnamed narrator, a young woman, works for art authenticator Enriqueta Macedo, who for decades has been fraudulently authenticating paintings forged by a woman named Renée, who specialized in passing off works of Mariette Lydis, one of the country’s greatest portraitists (“They resemble women about to turn into animals, or animals not since long made human,” the narrator says of Lydis’s subjects). Gainza paints an impressionistic group portrait of artist, authenticator, and forger: Lydis’s flight from Nazi-occupied Vienna to Argentina, recounted through an auction catalog (“Painting is worth more if there’s a story behind it”); Enriqueta’s initiation as a young woman into a group called the Melancholical Forgers, Inc.; and Renée’s reign during the “golden age of art forgery.” The narrator, who after Enriqueta’s death becomes an art critic, is intrigued by Renée as a biographical subject, and embarks on a quest to track down the long-since-disappeared counterfeiter. Digressions, aphorisms, and dead ends pile up along the way in a hypnotic search defined by “Sehnsucht... the German term denoting a melancholic desire for some intangible thing.” The characters’ incertitude and the narrative’s lack of resolution only intensify the mysterious communion Gainza evokes between like-minded souls. This captivating work is one to savor. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pushcart Prize XLVI: Best of the Small Presses

Edited by Bill Henderson. Pushcart Press, $35 (576p) ISBN 978-0-9600977-4-6

The enjoyable latest entry in the annual anthology showcases works that originally appeared in literary journals that, in Henderson’s estimation, thrive despite their lack of funding (“We are locked out of the money apparatus and have emerged free”). In Kevin Wilson’s poignant story “Biology,” a man mourns the death of his eighth-grade science teacher and reflects on when he was a loner who found refuge in the eccentric teacher’s classroom. Daniel Orozco’s well-crafted “Leave No Trace” follows Rutger, who, at six, receives cryptic advice from his alcoholic father: “Be invisible. Be smoke. Be a ghost. Leave. No. Trace.” As a result of heeding the guidance, Rutger manages to be “adequate” at just about everything over the course of his life. In a touching and humorous poem by Red Hawk, “The Holy Spirit of the Moon,” a Native elder asks the Apollo 11 astronauts to deliver a message to the gods on the moon. The hilarious and quirky story “Housekeeping” by Karin-Lin Greenberg revolves around the suicide of a TV actor in a small town, where a hotel maid finds the body and becomes an instant celebrity. There are many emerging voices worthy of discovery, and their work here is a consistent delight. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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