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Acts of Violet

Margarita Montimore. Flatiron, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-81506-4

A woman struggles to get out from under her famous older sister’s shadow in Montimore’s mesmerizing latest (after Oona Out of Order). Hairdresser Sasha Dwyer dreads the fast-approaching 10th anniversary of the day her older sister, Violet Volk, a popular but polarizing magician and 1990s pop culture icon, disappeared during a stage performance and never reemerged. Violet’s rabid fans—the “Wolf Pack”—continue to vilify Sasha for supposedly not looking hard enough to find Violet and failing to mourn her “the right way” after she was declared legally dead. As rumors about alleged Violet sightings swirl on social media, Sasha worries that they’ll give false hope to Quinn, Sasha’s college-age daughter, who adored Violet but remains ignorant of her aunt’s selfish and spiteful streak. However, Sasha’s efforts to leave her sister in the past unravel as synchronicities and more sightings point to Violet’s return. Supplementing the straightforward prose with a slew of narrative devices that include tabloid articles, email exchanges, and podcast transcripts, Montimore achieves a thoughtful, panoramic portrait of larger-than-life Violet while underscoring Sasha’s pain as she tries to grieve under an unforgiving public eye. This spellbinding effort delivers its fair share of magic. Agent: Philippa Sitters, David Godwin Assoc. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta

James Hannaham. Little, Brown, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-316-28527-8

PEN/Faulkner award winner Hannaham (Delicious Foods) returns with a timely if sometimes frustrating depiction of life on the edges of America’s prison-industrial complex. Carlotta Mercedes comes home to Brooklyn after serving more than 20 years in prison for armed robbery. Carlotta, a Black and Colombian trans woman who was abused in prison, is a live wire, by turns self-pitying, angry, thoughtful, and raunchily funny. Carlotta’s series of antic encounters with family members, her parole officer, and old friends from the neighborhood doesn’t amount to much of a story, but it gives plenty of opportunities for Carlotta to riff and grouse. Late in the book, after she’s robbed of $500 she’d tucked in her underwear next to what she calls her Señora Problema, Carlotta imagines the thief trying to spend the money at a department store: “I’m sorry, Sir, this money reeks a pussy. Bloomingdale policy be that we don’t assept no kinda pussystank moneys.” She has plenty of wit and verve, and readers are sure to cheer on Carlotta’s doomed efforts to stay clean and out of trouble, but, even so, the underplotted chronicle tends to lag. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not the author’s best. Agent: Doug Stewart, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Cyclorama

Adam Langer. Bloomsbury, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-1-63557-806-5

Langer (The Salinger Contract) brilliantly braids 1980s America with the Trump era in his inventive latest. In a 1982 Chicago high school, rumors swirl about the inappropriate sexual conduct of the magnetic and troubled Tyrus Densmore, 43, who is directing a production of The Diary of Anne Frank, but they are dismissed by teachers and students alike. Student Eileen Muldoon thinks she saw Tyrus performing oral sex with a teenage boy, but decides she was imagining things because “sex is everywhere” for her now, from the porn mags in Tyrus’s office to TV sitcoms. Her classmate Judith Nagorsky also doesn’t think there’s anything abnormal about Tyrus, having observed “just about every member of the high school faculty ‘engage in improper behavior.’ ” Judith is cast to play Anne Frank’s mother and, in 2017, directs a revival of the play after allegations about Tyrus resurface and he abruptly resigns, while Eileen defends Tyrus and supports Trump (“It was one of those things you said in private, something that made you realize you had more power than people thought you did”). The novel handles Tyrus’s abuses of power in thrilling and unexpected ways, but even more captivating is how Langer uses the story of Anne Frank to magnify cultural, political, and personal conflicts (“In the show, Peter and Anne are in love and want nothing more than to fuck each other’s brains out,” Tyrus says. “But they never will because they’ll never get to be alone”). Readers will applaud Langer’s outstanding performance. Agent: Stephanie Abou, Massie & McQuilkin. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

Sophie Irwin. Viking/Dorman, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-49134-8

In Irwin’s sparkling debut, set in Regency-era England, a young woman’s plans to marry into wealth get derailed when the brother of her would-be beau catches on to her scheme. After Kitty Talbot’s fiancé calls off their engagement, she needs to find a new way to pay off the debts she and her four sisters inherited after the deaths of their parents. With dwindling funds, Kitty and her sister Cecily travel from Dorsetshire to London to stay with their aunt Dorothy, a widowed former actor. There, Kitty sets her sights on the moneyed Archibald de Lacy, but his brother Lord Radcliffe soon arrives in town and, recognizing Kitty’s motives, tries to prevent an engagement between her and Archie. Radcliffe is taken by surprise when Kitty promises to stop pursuing Archie if Radcliffe introduces her to high society so that she might meet a new suitor. He agrees, but quickly realizes that there’s more to Kitty than he first assumed, and the attraction between them deepens. Irwin’s zippy narrative is enhanced by the wry banter between Kitty and Radcliffe (“ ‘Perhaps I ought to compile a suitable list,’ [Radcliffe] said thoughtfully, ‘of gentlemen rich enough to satisfy you and yet so lacking in moral character that I feel no guilt about unleashing you upon them’ ”). Jane Austen fans will be charmed. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Here We Go Loop De Loop

William Jack Sibley. Atmosphere, $19 trade paper (340p) ISBN 978-1-63752-775-7

Sibley (Sighs Too Deep for Words) crams this quirky Texas epic with humor, contemporary issues, and oddball characters. Wealthy rancher Pete Pennebaker is dying and wants to hand his empire off to his only daughter, Marty, who has recently returned from New York City and is carrying on a poorly concealed relationship with Pettus Lyndecker, the oldest in a large family of downwardly mobile ranchers with a history of legal troubles. Chito Sosa, a Mexican investment banker, arrives and surprises Marty and Pete by introducing himself as the widower of Marty’s deceased brother Tom, who made Chito promise to return to his hometown to spur change for the better. Meanwhile, Pettus’s sisters struggle to keep their flower shop afloat after a spoiled young woman open a competing shop across the street, and Pete uses his influence to protect a newly arrived Syrian refugee. A love triangle between Pettus, Chito, and Marty takes an unusual turn while complicated schemes to thwart business rivals produce life-altering consequences. Sibley manages to keep all the plates spinning while offering a strong sense of small-town Southern life. This eccentric, multifaceted story has a great deal of heart. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Ruins

Phoebe Wynne. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-27206-5

Against the backdrop of an aging French chateau, Wynne (Madam) offers the dark and befuddling tale of a group of English girls in the summer of 1985, one of whom revisits the scene 25 years later when the chateau is up for sale. Ruby Ashby, nearly 12, awaits another idyllic summer in her family’s vacation manse when three university friends of her father Toby arrive with their daughters, and things go awry. The girls are bombarded with lascivious remarks by the two men—one crosses a line by coercing Ruby to sit on his lap, another gropes her. Tension ratchets up when Toby’s former university love arrives with her provocative 17-year-old daughter, Ned, who has a penchant for Latin classics and likens the chateau’s male guests to different classical characters. Wynne packs the plot with jealousies, class rivalries, emotional and physical abuse, and accidental deaths—not to mention the endless sparring amongst the former university colleagues. One of the girls from the fateful summer returns in 2010 as a widow considering purchasing the chateau, but her identity is hidden until late in the book, a decision that comes off as frustrating rather than suspenseful. The author then cobbles together a perplexing ending, further derailing the promising premise. This confused coming-of-age story misses the mark. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Brenner

Hermann Burger, trans. from the German by Adrian Nathan West. Archipelago, $22 (424p) ISBN 978-1-953861-30-6

Swiss writer Burger (1942–1989) makes his posthumous English-language debut with the revelatory if sputtering story of a fallen tobacco empire and its despairing heir, Hermann Arbogast Brenner. Brenner, estranged from his wife, children, and siblings and fighting a yearslong battle with depression, buys a sports car, believing his life will end within a few years. As Brenner continually hints at his soon-to-come suicide, he drives around Switzerland, visits friends, and discursively muses on his intellectual interests, all while smoking cigars. He recalls his brief stay at a children’s home where he was viciously bullied: in Brenner’s recollection, his bully made him crouch for hours, attacking him when he tried to move, but the nuns who ran the home refused to believe that their star pupil could be so ferocious. However, when Brenner revisits the home, he also remembers people showing him great kindness, and now questions the veracity of his own memories. Taken in total, and thanks to West’s lucid translation along with a series of evocative photos, the chronicle offers a cogent view of a rambling man desperate to shape his life into meaning. It’s a bit of a slog, but fans of a certain style of discursive Euro fiction will find this pleasantly diverting. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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At Sea

Emma Fedor. Gallery, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-982171-54-4

A young woman falls in love with a fishlike man in Fedor’s mesmerizing fantastical debut. Unable to find a job or internship after college, Cara stays at her aunt and uncle’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, a haven with fond memories of summers with her now-deceased mother. She meets Brendan, a member of the Army’s Special Forces, who reveals that his superhuman ability to stay underwater for long periods of time is the result of gill-like enhancements made by the military. Though Brendan’s mood swings and abrupt disappearances are concerning, Cara falls for him and abandons her plans to move in with a friend in New York City. After getting pregnant with Brendan and giving birth to their son Micah, Cara stays with Brendan until he and Micah abruptly disappear. Five years later, Cara is still living on Martha’s Vineyard and married to Graham, a comparatively stable guy whose “style is based entirely on comfort and practicality.” Still, she never gives up hope that she will find Micah, especially after a local fisherman says he saw a man and a boy swimming together far out in the ocean, and when she runs into Brendan at her art gallery. Fedor’s neatly plotted narrative keeps the pages turning, and Cara’s emotional pull toward her lost family makes the far-fetched conceit feel believable. This sparkling debut will hook readers. Agent: Wendy Sherman, Wendy Sherman Assoc. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Awoken

Katelyn Monroe Howes. Dutton, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-18528-5

Monroe Howes’s frenetic if flawed debut imagines a dystopia in which people “awoken” from cryogenic sleep face a brutal extermination campaign. Outlaw “Resurrectionists” bring 23-year-old Alabine Rivers back to life 101 years after she died from cancer and had her body frozen in 2020. Reanimation has been declared illegal and the “awoken” are killed on sight in the reformed United America, where traditional gender norms reign and cultural and religious differences are repressed. The Resurrectionists, stationed at a camp in the largely deserted Chicago, explain to Alabine that she’s the poster child for awoken rights because of her boyfriend Max Green’s impassioned activism in support of reanimation before his death. Then the Resurrectionists’ leaders are arrested, spurring a failed rescue attempt during which government agents capture Alabine. Resisting the secretary of science’s demand that she betray her comrades, she escapes and becomes the leader of a Resurrectionist cell that’s determined to disrupt the president’s plans to blow up a massive cryogenic storage facility in Atlanta. However, when Alabine finds out Max’s body is being stored in New York, she decides it’s more important to travel there to reanimate him, setting up a showdown between Alabine and her supporters over their strategy. Monroe Howes’s inventive worldbuilding holds interest, but a few too many close calls and fortuitous escapes stretch believability, and the meaty ideas get lost in the jumbled plot. This doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. Agent: Meredith Miller, UTA. (July)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Wild Hunt

Emma Seckel. Tin House, $16.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-953534-22-4

A young man’s disappearance rouses old superstitions in Seckel’s intoxicating and atmospheric debut. Several years after the end of WWII, the death of Leigh Welles’s father brings her back to the Scottish island she grew up on and leaves her feeling unmoored ahead of the arrival of the “sluagh,” a flock of supposedly haunted crows that menace the island each October when “the border between this world and the next” is believed to be most porous. Rumored to “carry the dead’s souls,” the birds have been growing more aggressive, killing farm animals and attacking a schoolgirl, since the war took the lives of many of the island’s young men. When Leigh’s family friend Hugo vanishes after the annual festival to scare away the sluagh, the locals suspect the birds of evildoing and take Hugo for dead after a thorough search of the small island comes up empty. Unwilling to give up so easily, Leigh joins forces with Iain MacTavish, a war hero and widower, to find Hugo, in the process uncovering forces stranger than either had imagined. Seckel’s descriptions evocatively conjure the roiling dread that permeates the island (“The sluagh had grown so numerous that their once elegant ballets in the air had blacked out the sky. Great unnatural clouds”), underscoring the elegiac reflections on grief and the toll of war. This moody meditation delivers. Agent: Catherine Drayton and Claire Friedman, InkWell Management. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2022 | Details & Permalink

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