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Each of Us Killers

Jenny Bhatt. 7.13, $17.99 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-7333672-6-4

The stories in Bhatt’s rich debut collection mine the complicated experiences of Indians and immigrants. As one character notes in “Journey to a Stepwell,” destiny “is simply a dagger thrown at you, which you must catch either by the blade or the handle. If you can figure out which end is which.” In “Return to India,” Bhatt gives voice to a group of employees at a U.S. engineering firm who piece together the details of an Indian American coworker’s murder while revealing their history of microagressions and racial bias. “Life Spring” explores a divorced baker’s life in Mumbai and the inspiration she takes from a one-night stand (“I think, sometimes, of what happened that night with Charlie as a kind of oven spring for my life”). In “Neeru’s New World,” a live-in maid in Ahmedabad is propositioned and blackmailed by another servant, causing her to feel trapped not only by the class divide but by her limited power as a woman. Bhatt is skilled at locating her characters’ suffering and desires, and her blunt prose captures their matter-of-fact worldviews. These stories are memorable on their own, and they add up to a powerful expression of the hunger for success on ones own terms. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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His Only Wife

Peace Adzo Medie. Algonquin, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61620-915-5

Medie’s busy debut turns on a family drama caused by polygamy in Ghana. Afi Tekple, a seamstress living with her widowed mother in Ho in 2014, is surprised when wealthy matriarch Aunty Faustina Ganyo engineers a proposal to Afi from Faustina’s son, Eli. Faustina hopes Afi can lure Eli away from Muna, Eli’s de facto Liberian wife, whom the Ganyos disapprove of. Eli, busy with business travel, marries Afi in absentia and the Ganyos move Afi into an apartment in Accra. Afi, recognizing her role as “the key to other people’s happiness,” pursues her own fulfillment by using the Ganyo family connections to enroll in a prestigious fashion design program. Even after Afi becomes pregnant, Eli refuses to move her into his house and evict Muna, and the pain of sharing her husband with Muna and her responsibilities to the Ganyos pushes Afi to her breaking point. Afi’s narration is driven by a series of episodes, from Afi insisting on learning to drive to selling her designs to the country’s first lady, and while the relentless pacing leaves little room for reflection on her emotional turmoil, Medie succeeds at channeling Afi’s desires and desperation. This stirring tale sings when Afi learns to flex her limited power. Agent: Kiele Raymond, Thompson Literary Agency (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Savage Kiss

Roberto Saviano, trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-0-374107-95-6

Saviano’s disappointing sequel to 2018’s The Piranhas continues the story of a youthful Naples organized crime gang. While the author has done heroic investigative reporting of the Camorra crime syndicate, as detailed in his nonfiction book Gomorrah, this effort leans on mob fiction tropes of de rigeur bloodshed, betrayals, and numerous shoot-outs. The Piranhas’ leader, teenager Nicolas Fiorillo, is bent on vengeance after his brother, Christian, was killed by another young thug, Dentino, who has just become a father. Nicolas targets the newborn baby, but his plan to gun down the infant in the hospital nursery is foiled. Nicolas’s continuing quest for revenge, his fears that his group includes a traitor, and his attempts to expand his power make up the bulk of the plot. Nothing here feels remotely fresh, and Saviano fails to facilitate any empathy for his psychopathic antihero, who places his family in jeopardy thanks to a careless error that’s rather convenient to the plot. Awkward translated prose (“On his tongue, he felt the silence that is created between father and son when they make peace.”) is another negative. Admirers of Saviano’s journalism will hope he sticks to nonfiction. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Good Family

A.H. Kim. Graydon House, $17.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-5258-0458-8

Kim’s warped debut begins on the final night of the Lindstrom family’s annual reunion at the weekend getaway house they call Le Refuge. The next day, Hannah Min drives to Alderson Prison in West Virginia with her younger brother, Sam, and his beautiful blonde wife, Beth, part of the wealthy Lindstrom family, who is about to begin her sentence after being convicted of fraud in her high-ranking position at a pharmaceutical firm. At the prison, the guards assume Hannah, who is Korean American, is the one self-surrendering, and pointing to Beth, who is white, Hannah feels “like a narc.” The narrative is loaded with finger-pointing and suspicions of back-stabbing. Beth’s former nanny, Lise, 16, blew the whistle on Beth’s company’s fraudulent marketing, which led to a child’s death. During a prison visit, Beth asks Hannah, a law librarian, to help find out who helped Lise, and why. Hannah digs into the case and begins uncovering family secrets, such as Sam’s sizable debt to Beth’s brother. In chapters alternating between Hannah’s and Beth’s perspectives, the reader glimpses Beth’s easy time in the white-collar prison and Hannah’s wry commentary on the Lindstroms, as well as kept guessing over which characters are trustworthy. This addictive, over-the-top dramedy would make for a great TV series. Agent: Kirby Kim, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (July)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Nicotine Chronicles

Edited by Lee Child. Akashic, $15.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-61775-859-1

The varied latest collection in Akashic’s Drug Chronicles Series (The Marijuana Chronicles) focuses on smoking over the course of 16 stories that see characters battle their demons and set their moral baselines. The most successful entries delve bone-deep into addiction, as characters smoke to smother physical pain, loneliness, and their days. In Child’s “Dying for a Cigarette,” a stubborn screenwriter adds smoking into his script as a way to indicate “a small human weakness,” not realizing his smoke breaks during a lunch with producers allow the Hollywood execs to exploit his own weakness and get their way. Joyce Carol Oates’s “Vaping: A User’s Manual” follows a high school athlete’s account of his vape addiction, which deepens after his mother’s cancer worsens. A cop in Bernice L. McFadden’s “God’s Work” kidnaps girls for a black-market ring run by a priest, all the while judging others based on their smoking habits. Despite the obvious reasons not to smoke, quitting would often be too much of a sacrifice, as a character in Eric Bogosian’s “Smoking Jesus” realizes. Some stories, however, simply employ cigarettes as props, making the collection feel padded. At the high points, these writers capture the mental gymnastics behind the characters’ bad decisions, and the joy such bad decisions can bring. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mighty Oak

Jeff W. Bens. Blackstone, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-9826-0416-5

In Bens’s blistering latest (after Albert, Himself), Tim “Oak” O’Connor is an enforcer for a West Texas Hockey League team. During a two-month suspension for injuring another player, Oak flies home to Boston for his mother’s funeral. There, he’s ashamed to be seen by Kate, his 14-year-old estranged daughter from a failed marriage. Oak, addicted to painkillers from all the damage the game has done to his body and mind, works odd (and sometimes illegal) jobs, such as stealing copper wiring from a demolition site with his old friend, Slats, now married to Oak’s ex and raising Kate, while reflecting on his years of absence and regrets. Oak gets some hope from a new relationship with Joan Linney, an attorney who defends him after he is arrested for hitting a cop, and bonds with Kip, a 14-year-old boy he rescues from bullying outside a hockey rink. Both Joan and Kip play an important role as Oak struggles to make a new life for himself, both in and out of the rink. Oak is deeply tragic, a man of good intentions who is dogged by bad luck and worse impulse control; the author makes his story an emotionally fraught and enriching one for the reader. Filled with memorable characters, pungent dialogue, and a lean, hard-bitten writing style, Bens’s superb novel brilliantly faces down traditional notions of manhood. (Sept.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly noted this was the author's first novel.

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Lending Library

Aliza Fogelson. Lake Union, $14.95 trade paperback (300p) ISBN 978-1-5039-0401-9

Fogelson pairs a passionate bibliophile with a handsome construction worker and achieves maximum charm in her quirky and sweet debut. After frustrated painter Dodie Fairisle leaves New York City for fictional Connecticut suburb Chatsworth to teach art in an elementary school, the Chatsworth library becomes her refuge. Dodie is a next-level booklover (Fogelson’s first line, “I was sniffing glue again,” refers to Dodie’s intimacy with the “heady scent” of a spine), and after asbestos is discovered in the library and it’s forced to close, she responds by setting up a makeshift lending library in the sunroom of her house. It immediately becomes a community draw and leads to a relationship with construction worker Shep Jamison. The new couple abstractly discuss their feelings about having children, but when they have a sudden opportunity to adopt, Shep gets cold feet. Fogelson strikes the perfect balance with Dodie, making her charming and vulnerable, and Dodie’s love for books and passion for connecting them with readers is strongly felt. Supporting characters such as Dodie’s old art school friend and a book-loving child amplify the appeal. This should be catnip for book clubs. (June)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses

Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Delphinium, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-883285-92-0

Schwartz (Two-Part Inventions) reflects on small but revealing moments in this meticulously crafted collection. The title story focuses on an old married couple who confess their secrets to each other, which include past love affairs and smoking while pretending to quit. Set in and just outside New York City, this quintessential Schwartz story begins with ordinary characters in a familiar situation, then tension and complexity slowly build toward a surprising insight for the reader, if not the character. Many Schwartz protagonists are resentful loners. “A Taste of Dust” portrays a woman unable to summon empathy for her ex-husband’s remorse over leaving her for a younger woman. The narrator of “I Want My Car” grows increasingly concerned as he realizes his ex-wife is not going to return his beloved automobile. Several stories deal with aging and illness. In “The Golden Rule,” a woman is inundated by calls for assistance from an elderly neighbor. Schwartz explores different perspectives on reality in stories like “Apples,” “Tree of Porphyry,” and “Fragment Discovered in a Charred Steel Box.” Among the best are those featuring characters puzzled by their own behavior, such as a moviegoer who keeps the pair of shoes she finds under her seat, and a stranded motorist who steals an ivory Buddha figurine from the house where he takes shelter. This first-rate collection demonstrates why Schwartz remains an American literary treasure. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Two Ways

Jodi Picoult. Ballantine, $28.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-984-81835-5

Picoult (A Spark of Life) explores age-old questions about a possible parallel universe in this shrewd tale. The life of narrator Dawn McDowell, a specialist in the ancient Egyptian coffin text the Book of Two Ways, has taken two paths, indicated by alternating chapter titles. In “Water/Boston,” Dawn is a death doula facing an impasse in her marriage to quantum mechanics professor Brian Edelstein, after he missed his daughter’s birthday to spend time with an adoring student. The “Land/Egypt” path begins with Dawn’s life before Brian, when she was on a PhD track as an Egyptologist, worked at a Yale-sponsored dig, and developed a connection with fellow student Wyatt Armstrong. In the present, Dawn returns to Egypt to see if she can pick up the life with Wyatt she left behind, and the trip is described in two ways that mirror one another with a few key differences. Along the way, Picoult unloads a great deal of info on quantum mechanics, parallel worlds, Egyptian history, religion and hieroglyphics, the machinations of archeological digs, and the process of dying. The dual-life construct can be confusing, and readers may find it not sufficiently explained, but Dawn’s story offers keen insight on the limits of love. Picoult’s fans will appreciate this multifaceted, high-concept work. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Jack

Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-27930-1

Robinson’s stellar, revelatory fourth entry in her Gilead cycle (after Lila) focuses on Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of a Gilead, Iowa, minister, and the beginnings of his romance with Della Miles before his 1957 return to Gilead in Home. Jack, who disparagingly styles himself “the Prince of Darkness,” finds his life spiraling out of control in St. Louis, where, after dodging the draft during WWII, he spends several years increasingly prone to bouts of heavy drinking, petty theft, and vagrancy. His tailspin is interrupted when he meets Della Miles, an English teacher from a prominent Black family in Memphis. Despite a disastrous first date, the details of which are hinted at in the beginning, and over the numerous objections of Della’s family and white strangers, Jack and Della fall in love, bound by a natural intimacy and mutual love of poetry. Robinson’s masterly prose and musings on faith are on display as usual, and the dialogue is keen and indelible. (“Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you,” Della tells Jack.) This is a beautiful, superbly crafted meditation on the redemption and transcendence that love affords. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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