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Early Sobrieties

Michael Deagler. Astra House, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-1-66260-224-5

A young man surfaces from the depths of alcoholism in Deagler’s pitch-perfect debut novel. Dennis Monk, 26, is seven months sober and determined to reconnect with the community he left behind in Bucks County, Pa., where he grew up before moving to Philadelphia for college. His Irish Catholic parents are skeptical, though, and they kick him out of the house after he fails to find gainful employment. Thus ensues a winding trek across Philly, whose blocks remain awash in Dennis’s memories even as the pace of gentrification picks up. Between bed-hopping among new and old flames, he reconnects with friends he’d grown estranged from and takes on odd jobs for which he’s semiqualified (after helping a new homeowner remove unsightly shag carpeting, he falsely identifies the uncovered flooring as solid oak). Dennis’s years of drinking and working in dive bars and his blue-collar background anoint him with a wizened and wry outlook on the rapidly transforming city (one neighborhood is “quickly becoming another charm in Philadelphia’s hipster bracelet,” invaded by “the sons of lawyers and pediatricians who aspired to look like the sons of miners and farmers”). Deagler is even better when Dennis looks inward, weighing his precarious liberation from booze (“A substance so wholesome they served it in church”). This is a standout. Agent: Samantha Shea, Georges Borchardt, Inc. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Witches of Bellinas

J. Nicole Jones. Catapult, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-1-64622-180-6

Jones (Low Country: A Memoir) conjures a Northern California cult in her beautiful and eerie debut novel. The story takes the form of a written statement by Constance “Tansy” Black, who’s locked herself into a schoolhouse in the unincorporated coastal village of Bellinas to document how her husband, Guy, came to die there not long after the couple arrived from New York City. Her account begins with Guy announcing he’d finally like to have a child, Tansy’s greatest wish, while on a visit to Bellinas in June, and talking her into staying there with him at his cousin Mia’s guest house. When the couple return the following month, they’re welcomed warmly by Mia’s wellness influencer husband, Manny, and initiated as members of his “high-vibe” Bohemian Club. The next morning, Tansy can’t remember what happened at the club. It turns out life in Bellinas is far from idyllic; Mia warns Tansy not to go into the forest alone; her relationship with Guy becomes strained after he reneges on their plans to have children; and she feels taunted by the strong nightly winds that cause her to have insomnia and nausea. By late August, while on a drive outside town, Tansy remembers that Manny raped her during the initiation. Back in Bellinas, she discovers that Mia and the other women are witches who can manipulate the wind. Jones’s lyrical yet ominous prose affects a bewitching vibe of its own (“Don’t believe those who say that the fog is just fog... that the thunderheads worn by nearby mountain peaks are merely weather”). Readers will find this haunting tale is tough to shake. Agent: Stephanie Delman, Trellis Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Piano Bench

Ralph Webster. Ralph Webster, $9.99 e-book (432p) ISBN 979-8-8396-3049-9

Webster (The Other Mrs. Samson) chronicles in his intriguing if meandering latest the life and times of a German Jewish doctor who becomes an “unintended bigamist.” In the frame story, Josef Samson, 82, lives in 1962 New York City with his third wife, Kaethe. Over the course of the narrative, he recounts in admittedly “long-winded” terms how the two came to be together and the secrets he’s kept since the “golden” interwar years of his native Berlin. In 1912, he marries a distant cousin named Hilda and is devastated when she and their unborn child die from a fall three years later. More than a decade passes before he meets and marries a sculptor named Inge, though his mother’s disapproval of Inge, who’s not Jewish, causes the couple to drift apart. In 1928, Josef begins an affair with his mother’s 18-year-old caretaker, Kaethe. Rather than seek a divorce from Inge, Josef leaves for Paris in 1933 and Kaethe, who doesn’t know he’s married, joins him shortly after. Though Josef’s narration is laden with exposition and repetitive self-justification, Webster pulls off a dramatic account of the couple’s topsy-turvy lives during WWII: interned in 1939 France due to their German background, they’re released following the 1940 German invasion, get married, and flee to the U.S. after the Nazis begin rounding up Jews. Historical fiction fans will delight in this poignant saga. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Red Grove

Tessa Fontaine. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-60581-0

Fontaine’s expressive debut novel (after the memoir The Electric Woman) blends a teen girl’s coming-of-age story with a probing portrait of an intentional community for women in Northern California. Sixteen-year-old Luce Shelley has been living in the remote and woodsy commune, known as Red Grove, for the past eight years. Her mother, Gloria, brought her here with her little brother and Gloria’s twin sister, Gem, after Gem was attacked by her boyfriend, fell into a coma, and entered a vegetative state from which she has yet to emerge. Una, Red Grove’s charismatic and fanatical leader, has her eye on Luce as a potential successor, but Gloria, a psychic, is less committed to the commune than many of the others, and wants a different future for her daughter. More complications ensure when one of Gloria’s clients dies from a heart attack on the premises. After a reporter calls with questions about the commune’s suspected role in the man’s death, Gloria disappears. Luce, in trying to find her mother, discovers more about Red Grove than she bargained for. Though a melodramatic ending strains credulity, Fontaine shines with the complex story of Luce’s evolving understanding of her community and her family. This tugs at the heartstrings. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Guncle Abroad

Steven Rowley. Putnam, $29 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-54045-9

The wise-cracking and wisdom-dropping protagonist of The Guncle returns for more adventures in Rowley’s diverting sequel. Patrick O’Hara, a 49-year-old sitcom star, is dreading his widower brother Greg’s second wedding. He’s not the only one—his beloved niece and nephew, Maisie, 14, and Grant, 11, also disapprove of their father’s relationship with Livia, a wealthy Italian marchesa. When Greg pleads for Patrick to take the children for a few weeks before the wedding, Patrick agrees, happy for the distraction from his anxiety about turning 50, which has driven a wedge in his relationship with his younger boyfriend, Emory. At Lake Como for the wedding preparations, Patrick finds a new cause of concern: Livia’s fashionable lesbian sister, Paloma, whom he worries will supplant him in his niece and nephew’s adoration. He also makes a noble attempt to discourage Maisie and Grant from scheming to put a stop to the wedding, where a series of rom-com-worthy unfold. Rowley keeps the retread afloat with Patrick’s biting wit (about the motormouthed Grant, Patrick says to his agent, “He’s what happens when the ventriloquist dies and the dummy keeps talking”). The author’s fans will gobble this up. Agent: Rob Weisbach, Rob Weisbach Creative Management. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Wafers

Ha Seong-nan, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong. Open Letter, $17.95 trade paper (350p) ISBN 978-1-948830-98-0

In Ha’s impressive and suspenseful collection, contemporary South Koreans contend with loss, the unreliability of memory, and the lingering effects of past traumas. In “House of Wafers,” a recently single woman returns to the ramshackle house she grew up in and begins a relationship with a longtime neighbor. The protagonist of “Shadow Child” lost his memory in an accident and lives in a sanitarium. Instead of regaining his memories thanks to visits from his family, he finds himself drawn to an abandoned bicycle with a child’s seat, visible from his window. In the affecting “Daytime to Daytime,” a woman travels to Switzerland to claim her husband’s body after his fatal fall from a hotel window; aided by a male colleague who’s in love with her, she reads her husband’s journal and retraces his final steps. The woman running away from her life in “Button” has kidnapped a close friend’s young child; the friend may have had an affair with the woman’s husband. Throughout, Ha secures the reader’s investment by gradually revealing her characters’ motivations and backstories as the scope of their often-irresolvable predicaments comes into focus. Seldom optimistic yet always arresting, this collection is not to be missed. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Akmaral

Judith Lindbergh. Regal House, $19.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-64603-469-7

Lindbergh (The Thrall’s Tale) draws on Herodotus’s Histories for a crackling novel focused on the lives of ancient Central Asian women warriors known as the Sauromatae, descendants of escaped Amazon captives. The story centers on its eponymous lead as she reflects on her crowning achievement: turning her people from “a disparate multitude of wandering herders” into a nation. Flashbacks to the future queen’s childhood reveal that when she was five years old, a shaman prophesied she would become someone important. Though Akmaral grows up in a society of women fighters who serve Targitai, their warrior god, even her mother’s combat prowess is no match for a group of depraved raiders whom Akmaral eludes by hiding under a yurt. As a young woman, she becomes romantically involved with two men: Erzhan, a fellow fighter and hunter who approves of her for having “sipped the enemy’s blood”; and Timor, a peaceful Scythian prisoner whose story she gradually picks up as they learn each other’s languages. Lindbergh brings her protagonist’s ancient world to life with compassionate depictions of Akmaral’s love interests and frank portrayals of the savagery around her—especially in Erzhan’s brutal treatment of a young foe. Admirers of Laura Shepperson’s Phaedra will be riveted. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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I Want You More

Swan Huntley. Zibby, $27.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-958506-71-4

Ghostwriter Zara Pines falls under her client’s spell in this deliciously disquieting outing from Huntley (Getting Clean with Stevie Green). Though Zara has never heard of Jane Bailey, she accepts an assignment to write the television chef’s memoir because she needs the money. Though she’s loath to leave behind a promising new romance in California to live with Jane in the Hamptons, Zara quickly settles into the hedged and soundproofed house Jane inherited from her dead husband. The two women also discover a mutual sexual attraction, and Zara enjoys relinquishing control over her own life as she agrees to follow Jane’s workout regimen and diet. In a strange development, Jane encourages Zara to wear matching outfits and get an identical haircut, and the women’s surface-level similarity unnerves Bijou, Jane’s beleaguered housekeeper. Ghostwriter and client begin an affair, but after Jane takes a surprising action that imperils her career as well as the book deal, Zara realizes her position in Jane’s life is more tenuous than she thought. Huntley strikes a delicate tonal balance between seductive and serious as the living situation becomes dangerous for Zara. Readers who have ever wondered, “Do I want to be her or be with her?” will feel a chill up their spines. Agent: Nora Gonzalez, Gernert Co. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Housemates

Emma Copley Eisenberg. Hogarth, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-24223-0

Two queer artists explore pastoral Pennsylvania in the sumptuous if rambling latest from Eisenberg (The Third Rainbow Girl). Things kick off when Bernie Abbott, a barista and photographer, moves into a house in Philadelphia with four roommates including Leah McCausland, a media studies PhD candidate who is nonbinary. She befriends Leah and is turned on by the sounds of her sexual escapades through a shared wall. When Bernie learns her old professor, the late photographer Daniel Dunn, has bequeathed her his old cameras, plates, and negatives, she wants to reject the offer—Dunn was accused of sexual assault—but Leah changes her mind: “He’s dead.... The slate is wiped blank.” Then Leah receives a grant from her program and enlists Bernie’s collaboration on a vaguely sketched project (“I just want to drive around and look at things and I’d write things down and you’d photograph them”). Bernie’s mission to pick up Dunn’s belongings at his home in rural Mifflin County gives the pair a destination. En route, they encounter rebellious cigarette-smoking Amish teens outside a country buffet and smarmy men lurking around their motel, and their partnership becomes not just creative but romantic. The story starts at a crawl, but once Eisenberg revs the engine, she reaches luminous heights. Readers will count themselves lucky to go along for the ride. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Dark Side of Skin

Jeferson Tenório, trans. from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Charco, $16.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-913867-73-7

Brazilian author Tenório tackles in his intimate and artful English-language debut the dysfunction and racism experienced by a family in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Pedro, the 22-year-old narrator, finds a sacred Yoruba stone among the belongings of his recently deceased father, Henrique. Throughout the narrative that follows, Pedro addresses his father directly as he reconstructs Henrique’s life (“I didn’t want your absence to be your only legacy. I wanted your presence, some form of it, even if it was painful and sad”). Touched on are Henrique’s career as a teacher, his childhood, his teenage loves, his marriage and its dissolution, his experience of fatherhood, and his run-ins with racist police who routinely stopped him because of his dark skin color. Pedro blends touching accounts of his parents’ failed marriage (“Living together quickly brought to light all the ghosts that haunted the pair of you”) with a poignant and bracing depiction of Henrique’s lifelong harassment by law enforcement (at 50, after he’s stopped and searched just like he was as a teen, he’s left “feeling the gaze of suspicion.... Because a suspect is always a suspect, even if the police let you go”). This slim volume packs a stinging punch. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/01/2024 | Details & Permalink

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