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The Laughter

Sonora Jha. HarperVia, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-324025-4

Jha follows her memoir How to Raise a Feminist Son with a tense and propulsive tale of race and power on a Seattle college campus. Oliver, a divorced English professor, has been fantasizing about his much younger colleague Ruhaba, a Pakistani Muslim law professor. After Ruhaba’s 15-year-old nephew, Adil, arrives from France under murky circumstances to live with her, Oliver hires the reticent teen to walk his dog as a means to ingratiate himself with Ruhaba. From the outset it is clear something unsettling has taken place, with Adil revealed to be in the hospital and Oliver frequently visited by the FBI, though Jha doesn’t hint at what happened. Oliver narrates with an arch tone, believing he’s “getting warmer” in his quest to get close to Ruhaba, but as campus protests break out, he is dismayed to discover the two of them are on different sides of social justice issues, as Ruhaba joins students’ demands to “decentralize whiteness.” Jha mordantly portrays the bewilderment of Oliver and other liberal white professors at accusations of racism, and casts the self-congratulating sanctimony of younger faculty under a similarly withering light. With careers at stake, disturbing secrets emerge and Oliver’s earlier musings about Ruhaba suddenly assume a more sinister cast. Jha’s gripping passion play will shock readers. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Wilderness Tales

Edited by Diana Fuss. Knopf, $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-593-31897-3

Literature scholar Fuss (Dying Modern) wrangles 40 stories into this excellent anthology focused on the American wild. Introductory bios provide evocative details and critical insights about the authors, such as Ambrose Bierce, who was born on the Ohio frontier and whose work has inspired contemporary writers of weird fiction. Bierce’s “The Eyes of the Panther,” about a woman’s nocturnal encounter with a wildcat, boasts the strangely precise details he’s known for (a character bears “the expression of a poet and complexion of a pirate”). Lore of another panther features in Lauren Groff’s “The Midnight Zone,” in which a mother and her two boys try to rough it on their own at a deserted Florida camp where a panther was rumored to lurk. In “Pond Time” by Gretel Ehrlich, a woman travels to Alaska in search of her deceased husband’s daughter, whom he fathered with another woman decades earlier. Ehrlich beautifully conveys the impact of the intense landscape on the narrator’s psyche (“the footings of reality were loose”). In Annie Proulx’s tense and layered “Testimony of the Donkey,” hikers Marc and Caitlin become lovers in Idaho, bonded by their devotion to nature and driven apart on the trail by an argument. Short fiction fans will find much to chew on. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome Me to the Kingdom

Mai Nardone. Random House, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-49818-7

In Nardone’s elegant debut collection, characters seek love, belonging, and a means of survival in Bangkok. With assured prose and an appreciation for the details of everyday life, the author evokes a city that is merciless, crowded, and alienating. In the first story, “Labor,” a young couple from the provinces moves to the city in 1980. There, Nam gives her boyfriend, Pea, a 30-day deadline to “make them a living.” In “What You Bargained For,” Rick, an American tourist fresh off a divorce, meets Nam at a bar. “Women are meant to be Thai,” his buddy Phil, a frequent visitor to Thailand, tells him. Later stories feature Rick and Nam’s daughter, Lara, who grows up attending international school and never quite feels at home in either culture. In the title story, Lara, having dropped out of a grad program in the U.S., learns how to make money gambling from another Thai expatriate, a senior citizen named Mrs. Anwar. Other characters come from a different social stratum: Benz, an enterprising street urchin, and Poongping, whose father’s family fled from the “purges of the Cultural Revolution” in China. Nardone’s knack for cataloging the many ways in which life can disappoint is a highlight of each of these nuanced entries. This author has talent to burn. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Marvelous

Molly Greeley. Morrow, $28.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-324409-2

Greeley (The Heiress) draws on a 16th-century episode that inspired “Beauty and the Beast” in her moving if overwrought latest. In Tenerife, a hairy baby boy is found abandoned at a church and taken in by a woman who has seen most of her family killed or captured by the Spanish conquerors. Given the name Pedro, he’s subjected to other children’s taunts and known as La Bestia. Later, he’s abducted by pirates, sold at the market, and finally, at roughly 10 years old in 1547, taken to Blois. At the French court, Pedro studies French, Latin, Greek, and Italian, and his scholarship astonishes the courtiers and makes King Henri proud, thus securing Pedro a place at the court. Pedro’s marriage in 1570 to Catherine, 17, is rocky at first, as she’s forced into the union to clear her merchant father’s debt and turned off by Pedro’s appearance. Greeley nicely develops the gradual bond between Catherine and Pedro, which blossoms into unconditional love, though the story tends to drag and the writing is prosaic (faced with news described as wind that “whips like a storm,” a character cannot “stopper his ears against it, cannot deny its stormy force”). Readers who enjoy retold fairy tales may want to take a look. Agent: Jennifer Weltz, Jean V. Naggar Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Y/N

Esther Yi. Astra House, $26 (224p) ISBN 978-1-6626-0153-8

In Yi’s stunning debut, a writer becomes obsessed with a K-pop idol. When the unnamed narrator sees a boy band’s performance, she’s struck with an overpowering love for one of the members, Moon. After, her fandom verges on religious devotion, and she does whatever she can to feel close to Moon, even if it means losing her boyfriend or risking her job. She begins writing stories about meeting him, identifying her protagonist as “Y/N” (your name), so that her readers can imagine themselves as Y/N. When Moon announces he’s leaving the group and retreating from the spotlight, the narrator flies to Seoul to find him, where her fervor increases. Yi brings a distinctive voice and lush prose to her depiction of the narrator’s fixation, which culminates in a contest for fans to meet the band and intertwines with the narrator’s Y/N stories: “One evening, Y/N and Moon buy a pair of codfish and let the bodies hiss parallel in the pan until the smell fills their tiny apartment like the spirit of a third person.” The narrator’s feelings for Moon are complex and varied, which makes her quest endlessly intriguing. Strange, haunting, and undeniably beautiful, this shines. Agent: Ian Bonaparte, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/16/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Time’s Undoing

Cheryl A. Head. Dutton, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-47182-1

A Black journalist investigates an ancestor’s murder in the meandering latest from Head (Charlene Mack Motown Series). In 2019, Meghan McKenzie, 28, covers the Black Lives Matter movement for the Detroit Free Press and convinces her editor to send her to Birmingham, Ala., to look into her great-grandfather Robert Harrington’s 1929 death, following up on a family legend that he was killed by a cop. With the help of white librarian Kristen Gleason, smooth city official Darius Curren, and BLM leader Monique Hendricks, Meghan makes inroads with older Black residents who provide information and direction for her search. But her research into a crooked cop who was also murdered soon draws suspicion from locals, who attempt to threaten her into silence. As Meghan continues her quest and entertains her attraction to Darius, flashbacks fill in Robert’s life as a carpenter who is begrudgingly respected by white folks and whose flashy car and unwillingness to be meek draws the wrong kind of attention. Eventually, the leisurely pacing of Meghan’s investigation gives way to a hasty conspiracy-riddled final act. Though imperfect, the author’s meticulous tracing of racism’s legacies will intrigue historical fiction fans. Agent: Lori Galvin, Aevitas Creative Management. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Bookworm

Robin Yeatman. HarperPerennial, $17 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-327300-9

Yeatman debuts with an entertaining if muddled story of a woman who wishes for another life. Victoria has a dead-end job at a spa in Montreal and a controlling husband she loathes. She finds solace in reading, and as she gets increasingly lost in her books, she imagines a series of Quixotic scenarios in which she kills her husband, each method inspired by something from a novel. Victoria’s husband, though, isn’t her only problem: she bemoans a good friend and finds fault with a new love interest’s performance in bed. At first, Yeatman succeeds at bringing the reader over to Victoria’s side, rooting for Victoria to make a change. But as things progress, it’s unclear whether the narrative is meant as satire, or whether Victoria is supposed to be an antihero or a sympathetic character. There’s fun to be had, but unlike the books that transform Victoria, it’s not the stuff of literature. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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On a Woman’s Madness

Astrid Roemer, trans. from the Dutch by Lucy Scott. Two Lines, $24.95 (284p) ISBN 978-1-949641-43-1

Roemer makes her English-language debut with this classic of queer Black literature, originally published in the Netherlands in 1982, about a Surinamese woman who flees from her marriage after nine days. A newlywed Noenka arrives alone from her village to the capital of Paramarimbo, bent on living her life on her own terms having separated from her possessive and frightening husband, a wastrel named Louis Niewenhuis. In this new cosmopolitan world, she becomes a wanderer. Never far from the persecutions of whites and the example of her strict Catholic mother, denied a divorce from Louis, and well aware of the experiences of her plantation-born father, Noenka slips into an abusive relationship with a man named Ramses, who is equal parts savior and captor. She then falls in love with a woman named Gabrielle and searches for a new definition of love that encapsulates the couple’s mysterious passion, which persists in the face of prejudice and colonial attitudes. “I know it,” Roemer writes, “there are limits, but do they exist for love?” The author vividly conveys the narrator’s inner life, as Noenka teeters at the precipice of madness. As Roemer pushes at the boundaries of the senses, she melds biting postcolonial social commentary with a lush dreamscape. Scott’s translation is a gift to English-language readers. (Feb.)

Correction: The character Noenka's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this review.

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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My Last Innocent Year

Daisy Alpert Florin. Holt, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-85703-3

Florin debuts with an immersive if overly polished campus novel involving a creative writing student’s affair with her professor. Isabel Rosen, a New Yorker, enrolls at Wilder College in New Hampshire at the behest of her working-class father in the late 1990s. Shortly before she leaves for college, her mother dies from cancer. Grief-stricken during her freshman year, she’s preoccupied by memories of her mother. By Isabel’s senior year, her writing talent is recognized by R.H. Connelly, a married and formerly successful poet who is subbing for famous author Joanna Maxwell, who normally runs the senior workshop but is on leave due to an impending divorce from her professor husband, Tom, which caused a bit of a scandal. Against this backdrop, which also includes the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, Isabel and Connelly have an affair. Connelly helps Isabel grow creatively, though she has qualms about their relationship and suspects Connelly has done this before. Florian does great work exploring the era’s murky sexual politics, but the prose is burnished to the point of feeling stilted, and a post-college section feels a bit rushed. While sterile, this throwback has its moments. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Someone Else’s Shoes

Jojo Moyes. Viking/Dorman, $29 (400p) ISBN 978-1-984879-29-5

Moyes’s charming spin on Trading Places (after The Giver of Stars) follows two 40-something women who end up with each other’s shoes. After Sam Kemp accidentally grabs the wrong bag at her London gym and finds in it a custom-made pair of Louboutins, she takes to wearing the heels to business meetings and finds a new confidence among her colleagues. Meanwhile, American Nisha Cantor ends up stuck with Sam’s sensible flats. Nisha returns to the hotel where she’s staying with her wealthy husband, Carl, only to find he’s locked her out and frozen her accounts, blindsiding her. Then the gym suddenly shuts down and Sam has no way to return Nisha’s belongings, so she leans into her new life, avoiding her depressed husband and a boss who’s out to get her. Meanwhile, Nisha takes a job at the hotel where she was once a guest, and Carl gives her the ultimatum to find the Louboutins, which he’d given to her, or forfeit any kind of divorce settlement. The plot leans a bit too much on convenience, but Moyes is never short on her trademark clever observations (of Sam: “There is a particularly vindictive tenor to the kind of hangover that occurs in your forties”). The author’s fans will have a ball. Agent: Sheila Crowley, Curis Brown. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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