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The Night Is Done: A Durant Family Saga

Sheila Myers. CreateSpace, $12.99 trade paper (260p) ISBN 978-1-5487-3239-4

Myers (Imaginary Brightness) satisfyingly concludes her historical trilogy set in the Gilded Age by presenting the detailed downfall of ruthless real estate mogul William West Durant; his exasperated wife, Janet; and his estranged sister, Ella. In 1931, the penniless Durant recounts his tragic life. After inheriting his father’s vast wealth and interest in the Adirondack Railroad, William immediately begins to make bad investments. He squanders money on yachts, panders to princes, and builds mansions he can’t afford to run, all while hiding assets from Ella. She sues him for her rightful inheritance and tries to overcome discrimination to become a novelist. Meanwhile, Janet, verbally abused and infantilized by William, begins an affair with her doctor. After getting proof of William’s own infidelities with an actress, Janet sues for divorce. While at times it’s fun to follow William’s wallowing in his absolute greed, arrogance, and deceptive business practices, the petty slights, retribution, and rich-people problems wear thin, and the frequent changes in points of view muddles the plot. Nevertheless, Myers expertly depicts a precarious era soaked in vicious gossip, stained reputations, and ostentatiousness. Readers will enjoy the historical details that bring this Gilded Age soap opera to life. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs

Katherine Howe. Holt, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-30486-5

In this slow-moving follow-up to her bestselling The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Howe continues the tale of Connie Goodwin, a descendant of a Salem witch. The story is told through alternating timelines, one in Massachusetts in 2000, the other stretching from 1661 in England to 1816 Massachusetts. In 2000, 34-year old Connie is an assistant history professor at Northeastern University finishing a book on the history of witchcraft and putting together her tenure application. Once that’s accomplished, she plans to marry her longtime boyfriend, Sam Hartley. Shocked by her unplanned pregnancy, Connie’s startled when her mother, Grace, advises her to break up with Sam. It’s the only way to protect his life, Grace reminds Connie—the husbands in their family die young. Both women believe it’s a family curse connected to their female ancestors’ magical proclivities. But Connie decides to find a witchcraft recipe that will save Sam’s life. A mysterious key and a portrait of relative Temperance Hobbs—whose husband, Obadiah, lived to a ripe old age—may provide Connie with the answers she seeks. The earlier timeline traces the lives of Connie’s female forebears, including Deliverance Dane, who was accused of witchcraft at the Salem witch trials. The story lacks tension, however, and the witchcraft angle doesn’t do much to elevate it. Fans of the first book might enjoy catching up with Connie, but those encountering her for the first time won’t find themselves bewitched. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME Entertainment. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Haunting Paris

Mamta Chaudhry. Doubleday/Talese, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-54460-3

Chaudry’s debut is a heart-wrenching love letter to Paris masked as a wartime tragedy. Told from several perspectives, one of which is a ghost, the story is handed from Sylvie, a piano teacher in 1989 reeling from the death of her psychoanalyst husband, Julien; eventually to Julien himself, hovering in the ether as a saccharine-voiced revenant. In the bicentennial year of the French Revolution, a grieving Sylvie finds a folder that leads her on a search for information about members of Julien’s family who were arrested in the tragic Vel d’Hiv Roundup in 1942, when 13,000 Parisian Jews were rounded up in a single night, many of them children. With empathy that Julien’s ghost admits he lacked, Sylvie sets out to discover if her husband’s niece may have survived, and in doing so begins to heal her own broken spirit. Julien is more than omniscient as he cedes the story to various historical figures, including those who witnessed that tragic night when his sister and her twins are taken. But every page about these Parisians and their fair city is so fraught with emotion that eventually they lose their impact. Readers who adore Paris and war stories may nevertheless forgive this very fine writer for not showing more restraint. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Lightest Object in the Universe

Kimi Eisele. Algonquin, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61620-793-9

A near-future apocalypse forms the backdrop for an intense, moving romance in Eisele’s smart debut. After the U.S. suffers runaway inflation, natural disasters, a flu epidemic, massive protests, and, finally, a nationwide cyberattack on the power grid, society breaks down. Somewhere on the East Coast, high school principal Carson Waller begins a cross-country trek in hopes of finding Beatrix, a woman he’d fallen in love with over email. Biking, walking, and hitchhiking, he slowly makes his way with the help of strangers who often talk about Jonathan Blue and the Center he leads, where food and amenities are provided for all who come. In alternating chapters, the story explores how Beatrix sows the seeds of a community through trade of goods and services with her West Coast neighbors. With no modern means of communication, Beatrix turns to the airwaves to share information, starting a radio show that becomes the center of a new group—and a beacon for Carson—that offers an alternative to the promises of Blue. Fans of Station Eleven will particularly enjoy this hopeful vision of a postapocalyptic world where there is danger, but also the possibility for ideas to spread, community to blossom, and people to not just survive, but thrive. (July)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Soul of the Border

Matteo Righetto, trans. from the Italian by Howard Curtis. Atria, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5011-8812-1

Italian writer Righetto’s first book to be translated into English delivers an intense yet uneven account of 18-year-old Jole’s efforts to take over her father Augusto’s long-standing tobacco-smuggling business after his mysterious disappearance and presumed death. Set in the late 19th century and unfolding in three parts, the narrative chronicles Jole’s arduous three-day journey from Nevada, a small, poverty-stricken village in the Italian countryside, through the Brenta Valley, over the rugged mountains, and across the Austrian border, ending in a mining town filled with workers who are “the very image of damned souls, expelled from hell and exiled on earth.” Though she successfully trades her stash of tobacco for enough copper and silver to provide food and supplies for her family, the return trip home isn’t without drama. In a piled-on sequence of unfortunate events, Jole faces threats from border guards who will capture or shoot her if she is caught with contraband; she is also stalked by a villainous man seeking revenge for Jole’s father’s supposed sexual assault and murder of his own daughter on a previous smuggling journey. A gratuitous scene toward the end further mars the book. Righetto’s in-depth descriptions of the harsh, pastoral scenery are what save the book from being a long-winded recap of a young maiden’s increasingly wretched trials over the river and through the woods, making it most recommendable as a transportive look at a specific time and place. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The History of Living Forever

Jake Wolff. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-374-17066-0

The search for an eternal life potion weaves through raw emotion, scientific curiosity, and heartbreak in Wolff’s intoxicating debut. On the first day of his senior year of high school in Maine in 2010, 16-year-old Conrad learns his chemistry teacher and secret lover Sammy Tampari has died in an apparent suicide. Conrad comes home from school dazed, only to find a package from Sammy that contains journals and a key to storage unit. He discovers that Sammy has long been testing an immortality elixir on himself. Conrad enlists best friend RJ to duplicate the substance in hopes of healing his father’s fatal liver disease and RJ’s sister’s muscular dystrophy. Conrad reads, in Sammy’s journals, about Sammy’s depressed childhood and globetrotting search for ingredients first with his overly forgiving girlfriend Catherine and then with boyfriend Sadiq. Wolff blends the journal entries and other flashbacks with ease, incorporating vignettes of historical figures who were drawn to the search for eternal life, as well as the future, and of Conrad’s 40th birthday and his husband’s brain cancer diagnosis. The epic sweep and sly humor in the midst of enormous anguish will remind readers of Michael Chabon’s work as they relish this heady exploration of grief, alchemy, and love. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Felicity McLean. Algonquin, $15.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-61620-964-3

In McLean’s eerie debut, narrator Tikka Malloy can’t forget the summer of 1992: that was the summer her three best friends, the Van Apfel sisters—Hannah, Ruth, and the hauntingly beautiful Cordelia—walked off into the wild bushland near their Australian suburb, never to be seen again. In a winding novel of flashbacks and hidden memories, readers see Tikka, now a woman in her 30s who has since moved to Baltimore, unable to move past that one summer. Returning to Australia to care for her sister, Laura, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, Tikka navigates the shadowy past of her childhood. Through conversations with Laura, neighbors, and her parents, Tikka stumbles upon painful feelings of guilt, hidden secrets and scandals, and memories better left forgotten. McLean peels back the layers of one scorching Australian summer, revealing the dark secrets and lies hidden behind the cheerful facade of suburbia. This debut, part coming-of-age story and part crime thriller, is both forceful and unnerving. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Stalingrad

Vasily Grossman, trans. from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Books, $24.95 trade paper (1,080p) ISBN 978-1-68137-327-0

Grossman’s epic, sprawling novel from 1952 is a masterpiece of intertwined plots that cascade together in a long sequence of militaristic horror. Grossman (1905–1964), best known for this book’s sequel, Life and Fate, was on the scene as a Soviet war reporter during WWII’s Nazi siege of Stalingrad, and the novel teems with his firsthand observations. The action is told from dozens of perspectives, ranging from humble workers to Hitler himself. Most of the characters have some relationship to Stalingrad’s Shaposhnikov family. After an opening dinner party, the Shaposhnikovs are separated by a war that has drawn ever nearer to their city. Alexandra, the family matriarch, is forced into exile with her oldest daughter, Ludmila. Ludmila’s husband, Viktor Shtrum, an important scientist, is worried that his Jewish mother has been a victim of the Holocaust. Alexandra’s second daughter, Marusya, and her daughter, Vera, display heroism in their wartime work in an orphanage and a hospital. The beautiful Zhenya, Alexandra’s youngest daughter, has left Nikolay Krymov, a communist thinker, and is being courted by Pyotr Novikov, a gifted military strategist. Two of the family’s grandchildren, Tolya and Seryozha, are in military units defending the city. When the bombing of Stalingrad begins, Grossman cuts between viewpoints, rewinding time over and over again. A spectacular afterword details the extent of censorship the text suffered under Stalin. As a stand-alone novel, this is both gripping and enlightening, a tour de force. When considered as a whole with Life and Fate, this diptych is one of the landmark accomplishments of 20th-century literature. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Travelers

Helon Habila. Norton, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-23959-1

The plight of contemporary African refugees is the dramatic core of this moving tale. The nameless narrator of the book’s opening (the novel is divided into six sections with different characters, but the narrator connects all of them) is a native Nigerian finishing work on his dissertation, who accompanies his American wife on her art fellowship to Berlin. While she paints, he falls in with a community of students who hail from Malawi, Senegal, and other African nations. Through the characters’ friendships and associations, Habila (The Chibok Girls) relates the stories of a number of asylum seekers who fled wretched circumstances and now face uncertain prospects (among them a former doctor working in Berlin as a nightclub bouncer and a man who escaped with his family from an armed Somalian rebel who was determined to marry the man’s 10-year-old daughter). The narrator comes to know the depths of their desperation himself when, returning from Switzerland, he loses his papers and is deported to a refugee camp in Italy. “Where am I? Who am I? How did I get here?” cries one refugee, summing up the sense of dislocation and loss of identity they all feel, yet Habila never presents them as objects of pity, but rather as exemplars of human resilience. Readers will find this novel a potent tale for these times. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Oval

Elvia Wilk. Soft Skull, $16.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-59376-405-0

Wilk’s provocative if flawed debut highlights the difficulties of idealism and the dangers of corporations co-opting progressive goals. In a near-future Berlin with astronomical housing costs, 20-something scientist Anja and her artist-turned- “disruption consultant” boyfriend Louis live in an experimental sustainable community. The perpetual malfunctions of the house compound their struggles with strict rules such as composting all trash they produce (they surreptitiously discard it offsite), limiting their use of climate control, and not smoking. When Louis returns from his mother’s funeral in Indiana, Anja worries about his ostensible lack of grief. Howard, an ex-boyfriend and the slick PR face of the mega-corporation where Anja works, suddenly announces her project on self-constructing cartilage-based architecture has been canceled, but she will be immediately rehired as a consultant with hazy duties. Anja, who works despite having a large trust fund, suspects a conspiracy and enlists her former lab partner Michel and unfocused quasiactivist friends Laura and Dam for emotional and investigative support. As Anja grows increasingly cold to him, Louis reveals he has been feverishly developing a drug designed to make people more generous. Before launching distribution through Berlin’s clubs, he convinces Anja to try it out with spiraling, unexpected consequences. While the parts do not gel into a satisfying novel, Wilk’s wry satire poses pressing questions. (June)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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