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With Teeth

Kristen Arnett. Riverhead, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-19150-7

Arnett (Mostly Dead Things) paints a complex picture of a queer family in this well-sculpted drama. Protagonist Sammie and her wife, Monika, have a son, Samson, who proves to be an ornery and enigmatic child. (Among other things, he willfully lets a strange man attempt to abduct him at the age of four and later carries a school project doll of himself everywhere.) Sammie is the more anxious and hands-on of the parents; she works part-time as a copy editor, while laid-back Monika excels as a lawyer. In addition to doubting her fitness as a parent, Sammie misses the social life she had pre-Samson and “didn’t like the way other women looked at her wife, didn’t like the fact that no one looked at her that way anymore.” By the time Samson’s 16, he has become a skilled swimmer and retains much of his inscrutable personality, Sammie and Monika have separated, and Sammie struggles with dating. Arnett’s prismlike prose is supplemented by vignettes focused on peripheral characters, such as Samson’s teachers, which add some maximalist flair to the domestic story. With its vividly rendered characters, this offers an intense rendition of a modern family. Agent: Serene Hakim, Ayesha Pande Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Fugitivities

Jesse McCarthy. Melville House, $25.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-61219-806-4

McCarthy’s captivating debut tackles race and the American dream through the story of a Black man living in Brooklyn who grew up in Paris. Jonah teaches in a beleaguered public school, where he befriends fellow teacher Isaac, who is also Black. The two become roommates in a gentrifying neighborhood (“the migration all in reverse,” Isaac calls it), and when Jonah’s friend Octavio Cienfuegos invites Jonah on an open-ended trip to Rio de Janeiro, Jonah is intrigued but hesitant. Octavio, meanwhile, insists Americans are “tethered, bothered, harassed by tasks,” and are better off expatriating. Isaac turns down Jonah’s invite to join him (“I got to fight on the home front”), and Jonah takes Octavio up on the offer after receiving a timely inheritance. Before they leave, a public-drunkenness incident lands Jonah in trouble with police, but he’s saved when a kind bystander—Nate Archimbald, a former professional basketball player—talks the cops into letting him go. Later, Nate gives Jonah a letter for a former flame who moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, and the two men bond over lovers lost to other continents (for Jonah, a woman in France). With its rich, lyrically drawn atmosphere (of Isaac’s classic soul LPs, “The scratchy records somehow thickened things, popping softly in the air while they bantered”) and incisive commentary, such as on the shifting fortunes of young white men in the city’s literary scene, McCarthy’s tale maintains an authentic feel. Readers are in very good hands with this smart, empathetic, and soul-searching writer. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Barcelona Dreaming

Rupert Thomson. Other Press, $15.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-63542-042-5

Three dynamic characters wrestle with the instabilities of love and life in Thomson’s shimmering triptych (after Never Anyone but You). Amy, an English woman who moved to Barcelona for marriage and stayed after her separation, aids Abdel, a young Moroccan sex worker after he is raped. They begin an affair, which ends after a racist neighbor tries to prevent Abdel from entering her building. Nacho, an aging, hard-drinking jazz pianist, lives with his girlfriend and son in a suburb of Barcelona. After Nacho meets a renowned soccer player who asks him for Spanish lessons, Thomson ends their story with a crushing curveball. Jordi, a busy translator, befriends a neighbor who confesses to being haunted by a demonic chest of drawers. With seamless prose, Thomson affords an intimate glimpse into the three protagonists’ hearts and minds, and several peripheral characters intriguingly appear throughout. Descriptive flourishes, meanwhile, produce a consistent stream of wonderfully odd details, such as the cars left overnight in a garage that seemed “as if they were living things, holding their breath.” Throughout, Thomson gracefully ties together themes of longing, love, and the inequities caused by age and race. The result is memorable and moving. Agent: Peter Straus, RCW Literary Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Honey Mine: Collected Stories

Camille Roy. Nightboat, $17.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-64362-074-9

This inventive and substantial collection from poet and performance artist Roy (Sherwood Forest) demonstrates the author’s sharp wit and laser-eyed analysis of gender and class issues, punctuated by perspective on the realities of being a lesbian in the U.S. In “Isher House” the narrator explores a run-down historic house with her then-girlfriend and learns that neighborhood myths, like relationships, are sometimes built on fantasy. In “Lynette #1,” a crush becomes the gateway to a party world of exhilarating temptations and nested stories. Roy manipulates literary forms to suit her material, as in “Baby or Whose Body Is Missing,” originally written for a gallery performance and composed of a fractured outline describing an infant’s breast feeding along with snippets of narrative (“I was a bar dyke before all this gender-theory crap came along. I kissed and fucked like every other girl in my invisible world”). Throughout, she writes about articulating the truth of experience: “Writing a story is a little like dragging a tree out of a dark wood and then wrapping it with strings of starry lights.” Her best work mixes fact and fiction, as Roy constructs metafictional puzzles while ruminating on the past: “My histories have no accuracy to them, but they are crammed with facts.” Fans of experimental fiction should take note. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Cape Doctor

E.J. Levy. Little, Brown, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-316-53658-5

Levy (Love, in Theory) delivers an elegant and provocative spin on the life of trans icon James Miranda Barry. Jonathan Mirandus Perry, born Margaret Brackley in Cork, Ireland, in 1795, attends medical school, serves in the British Army, and later joins the household of Lord Charles Somerton in South Africa as his personal physician, where the two men become close. After Somerton becomes seriously ill, Perry becomes careless about keeping up his masculine attire and Somerton discovers his secret. They become lovers for a time, and here Levy provides rich insights on the effects of men’s desire (“To be the object of a man’s fierce desire felt intoxicating, bracing and wounding all at once. A power most women know from girlhood, but which I never had, having become a boy before I ever became a woman”). Perry then becomes pregnant and secretly travels to Mauritius to give birth, and the baby is whisked away to adoptive parents. While many trans advocates and allies will take issue with Levy’s feminist framing of Perry’s story (and, indeed, some already have), which involves Perry referring in his narration to his past self “Margaret” as “she,” Perry’s narration brims with fascinating details about medicine and social mores of the time. This beautifully written work will spark much debate. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Stone Loves the World

Brian Hall. Viking, $28 (464p) ISBN 978-0-593-29722-3

Hall returns to characters from The Saskiad in this strikingly original take on science, uncertainty, and the longing for connection to others and to the world. New Yorker Mette White, 29, a math savant and computer game programmer, shuns most human relationships. When her tentative romance with a colleague collapses, she considers suicide but instead gets on a Greyhound to Seattle, a destination chosen at random. Her mother, Saskia, an aspiring playwright who broke up with Mette’s father, Mark, before Mette’s birth and raised her largely alone, worries when Mette disappears. She calls Mark, an astronomy professor whose relationship with Mette consists mostly of emails filled with logic and mathematical puzzles. Unconcerned at first, Mark becomes as alarmed as Saskia when they discover Mette has flown from Seattle to Denmark to meet Saskia’s father, Thomas, a former cult leader who repeatedly had sex with Saskia’s friend when the girls were teenagers. Rushing to Denmark in pursuit, they miss Mette in transit but revisit their own fractured relationship. Hall shuttles the reader through time as well as space, depicting the unhappy marriage of Mark’s parents and Saskia’s loss of her mother two decades earlier. To allay their emotional pain, all lose themselves in information—whether about medieval mystery plays, prime numbers, or the physics of tire rotation. Hall takes a risk with sprawling, dense passages, and pulls it off by majestically drawing together the various threads of this consistently moving and entirely unconventional narrative. It’s a stellar achievement. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wiley Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog

James O. Long. Bottlefly, $7.99 e-book (290p) ISBN 978-0-9848113-5-9

A perceptive dog infiltrates Abraham Lincoln’s White House in Long’s charming satire. Sometime after Lincoln’s death, a biographer writes to the Library of Congress, seeking information about a dog Lincoln was rumored to have had as president. The request kicks off a series of letters, including one from Lincoln’s cousin, who claims the dog had been trained to chew tobacco and use a spittoon. The story then flashes back to Lincoln’s first term, when his physician brings terrier/spitz mix Cooper to the White House. A plot involving Cooper’s role in Lincoln’s 1864 reelection provides the frame for a series of vignettes and sketches that evoke vaudeville style slapstick humor via misunderstandings and folksy word play (which are sometimes marred by curiously anachronistic expressions such as “my bad”). Cooper is witness to the idiosyncrasies of the first family by participating in a Christmas party, eating pages of Lincoln’s memoir, and helping to write the Gettysburg Address. With caricatured portrayals of the postmaster general, generals Grant and Lee, and members of the Senate and Supreme Court, Cooper doles out plenty of commentary on the follies of government and war. This will put a smile on readers’ faces and elicit a few good laughs. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Essence of Nathan Biddle

J. William Lewis. Greenleaf, $27.95 (428p) ISBN 978-1-62634-846-2

In Lewis’s ambitious but uneven coming-of-age debut, a teenager casts about for meaning in 1950s Alabama. A year earlier, rising senior Kit Biddle’s cousin Nathan was murdered by Nathan’s reverend father as a “direct order” from God, and years before that his father died in an accident. As the summer draws to a close, Kit broods about his ex-girlfriend Anna, who just wants to be friends. His best friend, Eddie Lichtman, urges Kit to stop acting like a “tragic figure,” which has come to define his personality, along with the poetry he’s begun writing. Kit’s teacher Mr. Marcus takes an interest and they meet on weekends to talk about existentialism and go over his poems, but Kit tires of hearing he will have a promising future if he just applies himself. Meanwhile, newly voluptuous classmate Sarah decides to make a move on Kit, and he later feels conflicted about having gone “parking” with her, which leads in part to his taking a bizarre and disastrous joyride in a stolen truck. The book’s first half is strangely evocative, but the second half, consisting of a slow drip of details that explain how Kit ended up in a hospital and the consequences of Nathan’s death, is alternately opaque and repetitive. The precocious male character may resonate with readers who came of age in the period. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pack Up the Moon

Kristan Higgins. Berkley, $16 trade paper (480p) ISBN 978-0-451-48948-7

Higgins (Good Luck with That) delivers an outstanding romantic weeper with this tale of young newlyweds facing a terminal illness. Lauren Park is dying from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis—“twelve syllables of doom”—but she’s determined to leave a little bit of herself in her husband Josh’s life after she’s gone. She does so by writing letters to Josh and leaving them with her best friend to dole out month by month after her death. The letters are structured as to-do lists, ranging from basic tasks to ensure Josh takes care of himself (“Go to the grocery store and stop eating food from cartons over the sink. Don’t be a loser!”) to encouragement to start new relationships. After Lauren dies, Josh’s raw grief is palpable, as is Lauren’s reluctance to leave the love of her life, which comes through in her letters. Delightful supporting characters add to the charm, such as a Banana Republic salesman who comforts Josh after he has a breakdown while trying to fulfill one of Lauren’s tasks. Perfect pacing and plotting lift Higgins’s masterly latest. This is going to break (and restore) plenty of hearts. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Songs in Ursa Major

Emma Brodie. Knopf, $22.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-31862-1

Brodie’s breezy debut draws on the American soft rock music scene of the 1960s and ’70s to mixed results. In the summer of 1969, “heir apparent of folk rock” Jesse Reid is supposed to perform at a famous festival on an island off the coast of Massachusetts that bears more than a passing resemblance to Martha’s Vineyard. When Jesse is suddenly sidelined by a motorcycle accident, local band The Breakers, led by 19-year-old Jane Quinn, takes his place, to resounding success. Soon, Jesse’s manager offers to make Jane a star, and Jane visits gorgeous, tormented Jesse at his parents’ island mansion, where he is recovering from his injuries. After Jane and her band get a record contract and start touring with Jesse, Jane and Jesse become romantically involved, and she becomes aware of his increasing dependence on drugs. Brodie’s narrative is at its best when focused on the mechanics and politics of music production, which emerge from the perspectives of the band’s manager and sound engineer. Brodie also has a clear grasp of the hurdles faced by Jane as a female musician, but the romantic and erotic aspects of the novel are less convincing (“his hands gripping her hips like handles on a plow”). In the end, this riff on A Star Is Born doesn’t transcend its well-worn origins. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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