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The Tobacco Wives

Adele Myers. Morrow, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-308293-9

Myers makes a sparkling debut with a coming-of-age tale about the limited opportunities available to the women of a tobacco town. In the spring of 1947, 15-year-old Maddie Sykes assists her seamstress aunt in Bright Leaf, N.C. When Etta is hospitalized with the measles, Maddie takes over Etta’s client list, sewing gowns for the wives of the top tobacco executives. Mitzy Winston, Etta’s most valued customer and wife of Richard Winston, the president of Bright Leaf Tobacco, takes a maternal interest in Maddie and invites her to live in the Winston home. The teen’s initial enchantment with the town—its seemingly happy workers and uniform prosperity—is dashed when she stumbles on a confidential letter in Richard’s study from a doctor who helped create Bright Leaf’s new MOMints cigarettes, marketed for women, which reveals cigarettes are harmful to pregnant women and infants. Maddie then finds out about a cover-up and begins to recognize that the women around her are being unfairly treated, from factory and field workers to the executives’ wives, whose contributions to the businesses go unpaid, and she considers blowing the whistle about the letter. The ending comes a bit too abruptly, but the fabulous fashion descriptions and Maddie’s unwavering determination more than make up for it. Historical fiction fans will be pleased. Agent: Stefanie Leiberman, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The High House

Jessie Greengrass. Scribner, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-1-982180-11-9

Two half siblings eke out their survival after an environmental catastrophe in the quietly devastating latest from Greengrass (Sight). In the near-future, a London scientist named Francesca travels around the world to study flooding brought on by climate change with her partner, whose 18-year-old daughter Caro watches Francesca’s toddler son, Pauly, Caro’s half brother. A nonlinear narrative reveals that Francesca has prepared a house on high ground in Suffolk for the family, complete with supplies and a vegetable garden to make them self-sustaining. After Francesca and Caro’s father drown in a storm in Florida, Caro and Pauly trek to the isolated home. There, they discover Sally, a young woman whom Francesca hired as a caretaker along with her grandfather, who remembers the last major flood in the area when he was a child. As Caro battles incapacitating grief and Sally grapples with the survival plan bestowed upon them, the world continues to disintegrate. Unlike other postapocalyptic tales, plot is secondary to the emotional weight borne by the characters who know the end is coming, and to the harrowing glimpses of the future as the house’s residents “do nothing but try to make sure that we will have enough to eat so that we might continue to do the same the next day.” Throughout, their gradual reckoning with their existence and the fate of the planet is made heartbreaking through Greengrass’s stunning prose. Painful and beautiful, this is not to be missed. Agent: Lisa Baker, Aitken Alexander Assoc. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Jack Ruby and the Origins of the Avant-Garde in Dallas: And Other Stories

Robert Trammell.. Deep Vellum, $16.95 trade paper (308p) ISBN 978-1-64605-049-9

The title novella in this piquant double-decker volume from Trammel, who died in 2006 and was primarily a poet (Queen City of the Plains), transforms Jack Ruby from a murky footnote figure into a bold mover and shaker. The other 22 stories, originally collected under the title The Quiet Man, feature other larger-than-life citizens of Dallas. Trammell gives his characters vivid, evocative names like Oak Cliff Benny (a barfly who shows up in "D.J.'s Trial," "Waiting," and other stories) and Jimmy Ace (the heavy-drinking salesman in "Boredom" and "Unintended"). Even the historical figures who show up are imbued with the texture of fiction, like Mr. Thomas Y. Pickett, whose 1930 replica of George Washington's Mount Vernon figures into "Benjamin Murchison Hunt Smith." The stories are lively and colorful, but taken together, they can feel repetitive. The novella, told in short chapters full of rumors, factoids, and stark black-and-white photos, is the crown jewel, and it's made convincing by its audacity ("Jack Ruby was like Dallas's Andy Warhol before Andy Warhol was Andy Warhol," Trammell writes). Here, Jack is a major supporter of local culture and something of a reprobate, with an equal interest in art and exotic dancers. Trammell's riffs on Ruby and the less glamorous corners of Dallas coalesce into a winning portrait. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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How We Are Translated

Jessica Gait%C3%A1n Johannesson.. Scribe, $16 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-950354-82-5

Johannesson's tender and madcap debut explores themes of family, history, and language as it follows Swedish-born Kristin, 24, through a single hectic week of her life in Edinburgh. She's not sure if she is pregnant, and is putting off finding out. At the same time, her partner, Ciaran, who was born in Brazil but adopted as a small child by a Scottish woman, has surprised Kristin with his latest obsession: immersing himself in a "Språkbad," or language bath, to learn Kristin's native language-by bingeing on Bergman movies, covering their flat in vocabulary Post-It notes, and using a Swedish cab driver as a practice partner-all of which Kristin greets with dismay. Perhaps Kristin's dread of Swedish is due to her day job as a Viking reenactor at the National Museum of Immigration, where she can only speak Swedish and must pretend she does not understand English. Many bizarre characters emerge, and a lot happens over the course of the week, but not everything comes together. What keeps things moving is Johannesson's focus on the couple's love and heritage through the powers and the pitfalls of language, giving things a spiritedness reminiscent of the work of Elizabeth McKenzie. While uneven at times, on balance it's a delightful romp. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Greek Myths

Charlotte Higgins.. Pantheon, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-31626-9

Higgins (Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths) delivers a luminous collection of Greek myths relayed by women and goddesses through the weaving of tapestries. Many of the fantastical stories of witches, slayers, and monsters feature violence against women and familial murder. Athena depicts the origin of the world, her birth, creation of men by Zeus, and four scenes of war between gods. Alcithoe weaves a tale of Thebes with Europa, kidnapped and raped by Zeus; King Oedipus, who murdered his father and married his mother; and the murder of Pentheus, king of Thebes. Philomela's section includes the egotist Narcissus and Pygmalion, who loved a statue; and an account of her death at the hands of Tereus. Andromache tells of the relationship between the goddess Aphrodite and Adonis, a mortal. Helen, who blinded men with her beauty, depicts her love affair with Paris and the legendary fall of Troy to the Greeks. Circe, a witch and a recluse, punishes intruders. Penelope's handiwork is woven and unraveled daily as she awaits the return of Odysseus. While unseasoned mythology readers will have a tough time keeping a handle on the myriad deities, mortals, and creatures, Higgins's versions are consistently smart and imaginative. This makes for a provocative and alluring reanimation of the classics. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Defenestrate

Renee Branum.. Bloomsbury, $16 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-63557-739-6

Branum's quirky and poignant debut focuses on a family beset by bad falls. Unreliable narrator Marta and her twin brother, Nick, both in their 20s, have grown up with an anxious Catholic Czech mother who believes the family is cursed because their great-grandfather pushed a man to his death from an under-construction church steeple. Marta and Nick cope with the ever-present superstition and their own fears by acting out scenes from Buster Keaton movies. After their father's death from heart failure, they spend several years living in Prague, and upon returning to their Midwestern city, Nick falls from a fifth-floor window, injuring himself severely, and Marta must reckon with her own problems, including her alcohol abuse. As Marta begins to forge a new relationship with her mother, and to untangle the codependent dynamic with her brother, she takes tentative steps toward building a life apart from the family curse. Moody and descriptive rather than plot-driven, Branum's narrative jumps blithely through time without missing a step. While readers may guess the secrets Marta is careful to conceal from herself, the collage of striking scenes and reflections offers frequent delights. Readers willing to go out on a limb will find much to savor. Agent: Frances Coady, Aragi Inc. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Wedding Party

Liu Xinwu, trans. from the Mandarin by Jeremy Tiang.. Amazon Crossing, $24.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-5420-3120-2

Short story writer and essayist Liu's impressive U.S. debut centers on a day in December 1982 and the residents of a historical residence in Beijing. Superstitious Auntie Xue, who's obsessed with keeping up appearances, is throwing a wedding banquet with her husband for their youngest son, Jiyue, and his bride, Xiuya. Tensions rise as Jiyue's boorish friend Luo Baosang gets drunk and picks on the talented but low-birth chef Lu Xichun. Long-suffering but dutiful daughter-in-law Zhaoying tries to make things run smoothly, even as her husband is late to arrive. Visitors and wedding crashers stop by throughout the day, and the author does a fantastic job of unfurling each character's inner life, as well as the backstories and motivations of other residents. Some people, for instance, find it odd that Lu Xichun turns down a free teapot. (The heart-wrenching reason is revealed later.) Even minor characters elicit empathy when their decisions cause disaster. Reminders of the recent Gang of Four regime, during which people were publicly humiliated and punished for minor faults, are always present, and Liu seamlessly works this legacy into the narrative. This glimpse of the recent past is a treat. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Strangers I Know

Claudia Durastanti, trans. from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris.. Riverhead, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-08794-7

Durastanti's insightful and complex English-language debt examines a family's lifelong communication issues as its unnamed protagonist, an author and translator and 30-something daughter of two deaf Italian parents, explores the mysteries and myths of her life story. Her parents disagree on how they met, and divorce when the narrator is a young girl, causing her to split her childhood between Brooklyn, with her mother, and southern Italy, with her father. They don't teach her sign language, which makes communicating with them confusing or impossible, and her parents are often unstable (“It's easier to say my parents are deaf, more complicated to say they're mentally ill"). As a teen wandering down St. Marks Place, she discovers punk, prompting her to discard her “conformist magazines" and fall in love with the city's smell of “candy and garbage." In college, she aches for guidance but struggles with intimacy, convinced that “estrangement" and poor communication are normal in a relationship, while real love is a myth. The narrator also addresses her feelings on being an outsider as an immigrant, and not knowing which social class she fits into in the U.S. While some of the narrative can feel jumbled, Durastanti offers profound insights and can capture moments of beauty. This makes for an enjoyable and distinctive bildungsroman. Agent: Sandra Pareja, Massie & McQuilkin. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Sisters of Night and Fog

Erika Robuck.. Berkley, $17 (480p) ISBN 978-0-593-10216-9

Robuck (Hemingway's Girl) delivers an enticing tale of two women who risk it all to help the French Resistance. Former American teacher Virginia d'Albert-Lake lives in France with her French husband, Philippe. Together they endure the German occupation, and Virginia refuses to return to the U.S. despite pleas from her mother. French-speaking Englishwoman Violette Bushell marries French Legionnaire Étienne Szabo after a whirlwind courtship in London. After Étienne leaves to fight the Germans in Egypt, Violette joins the Special Operations Executive and Virginia and Philippe join the Resistance. Virginia and Violette meet when they are arrested and taken to Fresnes Prison near Paris, and their bond strengthens as they endure the hardships of imprisonment and, later, life at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where Violette inspires heroic efforts in support of their fellow prisoners. Robuck lures the reader into the mud and the muck alongside the protagonists as they face the dangers and destruction wrought by the conflict. Fans of WWII dramas are in for a treat. Agent: Kevan Lyon, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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An Impossible Love

Christine Angot, trans. from the French by Armine Kotin Morimer.. Archipelago, $18 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-953861-04-7

The uneven latest from Angot (Incest) slowly unveils the devastating impact of a terrible family secret. The narrator, Christine, tells of the affair her parents had before she was born. Pierre and Rachel want a child, but Pierre doesn't want to marry Rachel. When Rachel informs Pierre she's pregnant, they take a brief trip to the Cote d'Azur, where he borrows money from Rachel before leaving her, telling her that if she “had been rich” he would have considered marrying her. Rachel moves in with her mother to raise her child, and Pierre occasionally writes letters to Christine, but during rare visits he refuses Christine and Rachel's requests that he legally acknowledge he is the father. After Pierre marries a wealthy woman, Rachel breaks off contact with him, and though Christine has always been close with her mother, she becomes unruly and cruel to her after Pierre reappears. Eventually, a family friend reveals a secret Christine has been keeping. Though Angot writes beautifully about the women's intimate relationship, the final pages rush through Rachel and Christine's struggles to come to terms with Pierre's destructive influence, which feels a bit jarring after the slow, drawn-out setup. It's a decidedly mixed bag, but, at its best, this offers an illuminating account of a mother and daughter's complicated love. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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