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Songs for the Brokenhearted

Ayelet Tsabari. Random House, $29 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8900-7

In this heartfelt and lyrical debut novel from Tsabari (The Art of Leaving, a memoir) a Yemenite Jewish woman contends with her family’s origins. Zohara Haddad returns from New York City to her native Tel Aviv for her mother’s funeral in August 1995. She stays with her sister, Lizzie, and gets caught up in the family conflicts she’d hoped to leave behind. Their parents fled from persecution in Yemen in 1950, living at first in a squalid refugee camp with their infant son, Rafael, who was separated from them by camp officials, and whose unknown fate put a lingering strain on the family, causing Zohara to suspect her mother wished she had been born a boy. Now that she’s back in Israel, she angers Lizzie by attempting to warn her about her 17-year-old son Yoni’s involvement with a right-wing group. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated, Yoni happens to be in the crowd of anti-Rabin protesters and is arrested. At times, the historical background overshadows the central narrative, but for the most part Tsabari artfully plays up the religious and secular contrasts between East and West, and her well-developed characters, dramatic plot twists, and rich descriptions of Tel Aviv will keep readers turning the pages. This is transportive. Agent: David Forrer, InkWell Management. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Exposure

Ava Dellaira. Zibby, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-1-958506-67-7

Dellaira (In Search of Us) explores gender and racial power dynamics in her gripping debut. The narrative begins in 2004, when Black Chicago high schooler Noah King gets drunk with his creative writing instructor, a white college student named Juliette Marker, and goes home with her. Dellaira cuts the scene there, and a flash-forward reveals that, unbeknownst to Noah, Juliette will die two days later. The circumstances of Juliette’s death remain a mystery until the third act, when they’re uncovered in 2016 by Juliette’s best friend and lover Annie, who’s still racked with guilt over avoiding Juliette’s calls the day she died. A third plot thread tracks Noah’s departure from Chicago to Hollywood, where he starts a family with his novelist wife, Jesse. Now, he’s poised to break out as a screenwriter and director with the release of his much-anticipated debut film, which is based on his struggles after losing his mother at seven. Dellaira’s explorations of grief are complicated and wrenching, and she digs into multiple viewpoints to explore the complex issues that emerge once Juliette’s version of events with Noah comes to light. Readers of Celeste Ng should take note. Agent: Richard Florest, Rob Weisbach Creative. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Bad Land

Corinna Chong. Arsenal Pulp, $21.95 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-55152-959-2

Chong (The Whole Animal) offers a muddled story of a loner and her troubled family. Thirty-something Regina lives alone in her childhood home in the badlands of Alberta, Canada. Her younger brother Ricky left home seven years earlier, and in the interim, Regina has spoken to no one and become dangerously overweight. When Ricky shows up with his six-year-old daughter, Jez, he refuses to explain their sudden appearance and the absence of Clara, his wife and Jez’s mother. Regina assumes the pair are on the run, and she gives them refuge, hoping to form a meaningful relationship with Jez. When Jez squeezes Regina’s pet rabbit too tightly, knocking the wind out of him, Regina slaps her on the forearm. The episode causes Regina to confront the long history of violence in their family, including her mother’s abuse, and these details reverberate when Chong reveals why Ricky and Jez fled from their home. Unfortunately, the meditation on generational trauma is obscured by underdeveloped characterizations, particularly of Regina, whose extreme isolation and obesity feel a bit exploitive in the absence of deeper insights. It’s a letdown. Agents: Marilyn Biderman and Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Under the Eye of the Big Bird

Hiromi Kawakami, trans. from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda. Soft Skull, $27 (288) ISBN 978-1-5937-6611-5

In this visionary speculative work from Kawakami (The Nakano Thrift Shop), set in a distant future where the human population has been devastated by an unknown cause, survivors have broken into small communities scattered across the globe. The remaining humans are overseen by clones called Watchers, who guide people’s development and reproduction, and are in turn assisted by AI-programmed cyborgs known as Mothers, who raise the clones and serve as midwives and nannies for natural-born children. As thousands of years pass under these arrangements, the communities evolve differently: one group develops psychic powers; another cultivates the ability to photosynthesize; another maintains their genetic diversity by splicing their DNA with animals. Eventually, the Mothers become a species of their own, left to grieve when the human race finally goes extinct. Kawakami falters at times with heavy chunks of exposition devoted to outlining the technology and other worldbuilding details. She enchants, however, with depictions of the future from her characters’ perspectives, such as a woman’s recounting of her community’s hybridization with animals (“My husband told me that his first wife had been of mouse origin. The next one was of horse origin, and the third, of kangaroo”). This will stay with readers. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Trust Me

Scott Nadelson. Forest Avenue, $18 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-942436-63-8

Nadelson (While It Lasts) spins a tender story of a divorced dad attempting to forge a bond with his 12-year-old daughter. Lewis has custody of Skye on weekends at his cabin in the Oregon woods, where she comes to share Lewis’s love of nature as they fish for trout. He empathizes with her grief and rage over climate change and his divorce from her mother, with whom Skye spends the weeks in Salem, and learns to contend with Skye’s growing pains. The novel takes place over one year in a series of vignettes, each dedicated to one of their weekends together, and it builds to a climactic scene with a wildfire bearing down on the cabin. Though the crisis point feels a bit jarring, the pitch-perfect father-daughter dynamic comes to life on every page, with the sarcastic and spirited Skye playing well off the often-befuddled Lewis. Throughout, Nadelson successfully evokes the peacefulness and wonder of the wilderness setting. Thanks to the affecting family story at its core, this stands out among the recent spate of climate fiction. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Speak / Stop

Noémi Lefebvre, trans. from the French by Sophie Lewis. Transit, $18.95 trade paper (120p) ISBN 978-1-945492-99-0

Lefebvre (Poetics of Work) stages a sparkling dialogue about class, literature, and longing to escape one’s life. The first section, “Speak,” begins with the question, “May I begin?” and finds a chorus of unidentified voices mounting a campaign of delay and redirection against the would-be speaker. Over the course of the chorus’s free association, they riff on such authors as Proust and Flaubert, comparing themselves to the Verdurins, the salon hosts in The Search of Lost Time, and Madame Bovary, whose desperation resonates with their desire to escape their boring lives in the French countryside. The second and final section, “Stop,” can be read as an expression of what the author would say to the chorus of “Speak” were she given the chance. In it, Lefebvre refutes the chorus’s calls for the utility of art and takes aim at Flaubert’s insistence that writers should conceal the scaffolding of their work by including excised passages from “Speak.” She also reveals intriguing points of inspiration for her work in the Oulipo literary movement, which embraces the use of self-imposed constraints in the writing process, and a radio play by Nathalie Sarraute. The audacious self-critique regularly risks ponderousness, but for the most part it pays off. Readers of experimental literature are in for a treat. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Essential Elizabeth Stone

Jennifer Banash. Lake Union, $16.99 trade paper (324p) ISBN 978-1-6625-0543-0

In the heart-wrenching latest from Banash (The Rise and Fall of Ava Arcana), the daughter of a Martha Stewart–esque lifestyle guru learns that most of her mother’s life story is a lie. When Juliet Stone was a girl, her mother, Elizabeth, would reminisce about her idyllic childhood in tony Bar Harbor, Maine, where her own mother was renowned for the parties she hosted. After Elizabeth dies suddenly of cancer, Juliet is approached by Elizabeth’s publisher to write the definitive biography of her mother. While digging for material, Juliet discovers that Elizabeth built her brand on a lie. In fact, she was raised as Billie Abbot on the poor side of Bar Harbor, where she worked her way up from maid to chef for a wealthy family whose matriarch eventually guided her to success. Juliet’s life is further upended when she catches her husband of 15 years, an employee at her mother’s company, having sex with an intern. Banash steadily illuminates the contours of Elizabeth’s past by switching between Juliet’s research and chapters from a younger Elizabeth’s point of view, and she makes Juliet’s emotions palpable as she weathers one revelation after the next. Readers will race through this expertly plotted tale. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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A Home for the Holidays

Taylor Hahn. Knopf, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-0-593-47070-1

In the satisfying latest from Hahn (The Lifestyle), a singer contends with family secrets and a new romance. Mel Hart is content performing in a Chicago wedding band with her boyfriend, Dan. After Dan accepts a lucrative touring gig with another band, the two break up, leaving her with no place to live. She’s also reeling from the unexpected death of her mother, Connie, whose alcoholism gravely impacted their relationship, and her grief swells when she moves back into Connie’s house two weeks before Christmas. There, she has a surprise visit from Connie’s old friend Barbara, who tells Mel about Connie’s early career as a singer-songwriter and surprising connection to a now-prominent country star. In a charming subplot, Mel falls hard for Barbara’s soon-to-be-divorced son Henry, a doctor. Hahn elicits sympathy for Mel and Connie in plaintive flashbacks to Christmases past and tense mother-daughter moments, like when a teenage Mel kept her dating life secret from Connie, who tried to protect her (“Between the two of us, hadn’t I been the one making good decisions,” Mel reflects). This feel-good holiday novel has just the right amount of grit. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife

Anna Johnston. Morrow, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-339729-3

Johnston debuts with a sweet story of mistaken identity and second chances. The narrative begins with a failed rescue attempt, as impoverished widower Fred Fife tries to help a nonresponsive man, who turns out to be nursing home resident Bernard Greer, away from a river’s edge. After Bernard falls into the river and is carried out of sight, a harried nursing home employee ushers Fred, who looks just like Bernard, back to the home. Because Bernard exhibited signs of dementia, nobody believes Fred’s insistence that he doesn’t belong there, and when Bernard’s body is discovered with Fred’s wallet, which fell into the river during the botched rescue attempt, he’s identified by the police as Fred. After Fred’s initial resistance, he settles into the relative comfort of the home, befriending fellow resident Albert, who, in his dementia, believes Fred is his brother. When Bernard’s estranged daughter, Hannah, appears at the nursing home, Fred, who always longed for children and deeply misses his late wife, decides to lean into his lie to offer Hannah a happy and supportive version of the man who abandoned her. Johnston places the painful realities of grief and aging alongside Fred’s puckish antics and lands a convincingly hopeful ending. The result is a triumphant last act story. Agent: Stacy Testa, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Lightning Bottles

Marissa Stapley. Simon & Schuster, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-6680-1576-6

In the dramatic if superficial latest from Stapley (Lucky), a rock star becomes infamous after she’s blamed for the disappearance and presumed death of her bandmate husband. Jane Pyre, bassist for the legendary Lightning Bottles, which she formed in the early 1990s with frontman Elijah Hart, is now living in a remote part of Germany, five years after Elijah’s disappearance in Reykjavik. Her isolation ends when her next-door neighbor Hen, a 17-year-old Lightning Bottles fan, alerts her to a photo she saw online of graffiti in Berlin, which might contain a message from Elijah. A clue from the art sends them on a road trip to other locations around Europe, where they find more drawings in a similar style, giving Jane hope that Elijah might be alive. The narrative flits between the women’s quest and the band’s early years, when Jane is discouraged by her religious mother and dismissed by music journalists, who prefer to focus on Elijah and ignore her songwriting contributions. Later, she’s blamed by the public for Elijah’s self-destructive drug use. While the novel plausibly conveys the pitfalls of fame, Stapley introduces but neglects to explore heavier themes of codependency and exploitation. There’s a bit too much filler in this ’90s nostalgia trip. Agent: Samantha Haywood, Transatlantic Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2024 | Details & Permalink

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