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Birdie & Jude

Phyllis Moore. CreateSpace, $12.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-986712-95-8

Moore’s insightful novel centers on a meaningful connection between two women of different generations. Hurricane Gino is heading toward Texas, and Birdie Barnes, an older woman, is living on the island of Galveston. While walking her dog on the beach before the storm hits, she finds 26-year-old Jude, who’s just been released from the hospital after a car accident that killed her friend. Jude’s injuries don’t appear to be life-threatening, but Birdie invites Jude back to her home to rest and shower because, “I’m tired of looking at that clump of dried blood in your hair.” The two share stories as ferocious winds shake the shutters, and each senses she knows the other. Birdie, never married, has lived on the island her entire life, while Jude has moved through foster homes since she was four years old. Birdie is close to her only living relative, her adult nephew, Barry, while Jude’s only friend, Casey, died in the car wreck that injured Jude. When Birdie decides to go on a cruise with friends after the hurricane has passed, she asks Jude to house-sit, and the subsequent meeting between Jude and Barry is fateful. Birdie’s beautiful home and the beach town are lovely settings for the connections between women struggling with questions about their life choices. Moore brings depth and emotional punch to this utterly absorbing story of magically entwined lives. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Such a Fun Age

Kiley Reid. Putnam, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-54190-5

In her debut, Reid crafts a nuanced portrait of a young black woman struggling to define herself apart from the white people in her life who are all too ready to speak and act on her behalf. Emira Tucker knows that the one thing she’s unequivocally good at is taking care of children, specifically the two young daughters, Briar and Catherine, of her part-time employer, Alix Chamberlain. However, about to turn 26 and lose her parents’ health insurance, and while watching her friends snatch up serious boyfriends and enviable promotions, Temple grad Emira starts to feel ashamed about “still” babysitting. This humiliation is stoked after she’s harassed by security personnel at an upscale Philadelphia grocery store where she’d taken three-year-old Briar. Emira later develops a romantic relationship with Kelley, the young white man who captured cellphone video of the altercation, only to discover that Kelley and Alix have a shared and uncomfortable past, one that traps Emira in the middle despite assertions that everyone has her best interests at heart. Reid excels at depicting subtle variations and manifestations of self-doubt, and astutely illustrates how, when coupled with unrecognized white privilege, this emotional and professional insecurity can result in unintended—as well as willfully unseen—consequences. This is an impressive, memorable first outing. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME Entertainment. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Check In at the Pine Away Motel

Katerina Bivald. Sourcebooks Landmark, $16.99 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-1-4926-8101-4

Bivald (The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend) delves into what’s important in life in this bittersweet tale about life after death. Henny Broek, the novel’s narrator, is only in her 30s when she’s accidentally killed by a passing truck, but she’s not ready to leave those in her life behind­—so she moves invisibly through places, and observes interactions. Her lifelong best friend, an audacious lesbian named McKenzie, is running the motel where Henny worked her entire adult life. The other two friends from their teenage quartet have come back to the small town of Pine Creek, Ore., for Henny’s funeral, and they’re staying at the motel. Michael was the love of Henny’s life, but he’d been traveling the world as a successful geologist. Camila, who inherited the motel and had been gone since she went to L.A. after high school to make the transgender transition to her proper female self. Henny hangs out with all of them, trying to interact with them but not seeming to get through, struggling to discover how she can move on. Although her friends are bereaved, they somehow become invigorated by the loss, whether it’s Michael helping his brother get his life on track or all of them painting a pride flag on the high school. In a story about the lives a single person can touch, the highlight is fittingly Bivald’s memorable characterizations, as she makes each person and their needs distinct and complex. This is a winning novel about the lasting impact of love. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Incompletes

Sergio Chejfec, trans. from the Spanish by Heather Cleary. Open Letter, $14.95 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-948830-03-4

In the latest of his discursive novels to be translated, Chejfec (The Planets) composes an intensely ruminative travelogue about a mysterious man. The Argentine narrator thinks back on his compatriot and friend, Felix, who many years ago “decided to leave his country and survive in the world like a wandering planet.” Felix sends back occasional messages from his travels, postcards and notes constituting “only the smallest part of a reality concealed from [the narrator].” The latest of these missives is written on Moscow hotel stationary, whose logo of an open door seems to invite the narrator to speculate on Felix’s hazy life. The hotel, on the outskirts of Moscow, “would serve perfectly as a residence for outcasts, as a hospice for the terminally ill, or as a graveyard for the living dead.” Its manager, Masha, the narrator imagines, is “an imprecise being with the mutable consistency of a dense fog,” whose life is as circumscribed as Felix’s is boundless. The novel has few characters and fewer events. Masha finds a bundle of old currency in an unoccupied room; Felix follows her on her morning errands. In the narrator’s imaginings, each finds the other unknowable, a mere fabrication or character, an “incomplete” whose true nature, like foreign lands, can never be fully apprehended. This is a dense, knotty read that provides glimpses of murky identities behind half-open doors. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Is There Still Sex in the City?

Candace Bushnell. Grove, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8021-4726-4

In this novel, bestselling author Bushnell (Sex and the City) offers an up-close look at the sometimes steamy, sometimes sedentary sex lives of eligible older women navigating the dating market. Divorced and contentedly living alone, narrator Candace receives a call from famed magazine editor Tina Brown, who suggests she get back to dating­, and writing about it. Candace reluctantly agrees (sex—like “cleaning out the gutters”—has been neglected of late). With characteristic wit and piquant humor, Candace travels between her Upper East Side apartment and a small house in the Long Island Hamptons, where she is joined by a set of aging single girlfriends who are also scouting for sex and/or romance. Candace devotes a spicy chapter to “cubbing” (50-plus women dating men in their 20s), but she doesn’t pursue this approach, warning that “cubs” may just be seeking free rent. She does, however, go out with a 31-year-old musician she finds on the dating app Tinder, and dines with a 75-year-old “senior-age player” (SAP), an older single man of means. Many middle-aged men, she observes, prefer dating much younger women, and finding an “age-appropriate” partner isn’t simple (though not, she proves, impossible). Though it may take some effort both online and IRL, many older women, Bushnell’s self-named character asserts, can date and mate with gusto. With its exploration of familiar themes of female friendship and the conundrums of male/female relationships, Bushnell’s clever new work will be adored by fans of Sex and the City and its HBO and film spin-offs. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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What Is Missing

Michael Frank. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-29838-8

Following the memoir The Mighty Franks, Frank’s memorable debut novel showcases father-son relationships and the primal drive to have children. Teenager Andrew Weissman meets Costanza, an Italian-American woman whose famous novelist husband died the previous year, while in Florence with his divorced father, Henry. Then Henry, an infertility specialist, meets Costanza in a museum, and the novel follows a quasi-Oedipal track with father and son attracted to the same captivating woman. Henry and Costanza’s romance takes center stage, as does their desire to conceive a child together, but Costanza and Andrew have a connection that makes Henry uneasy. Frank delves into how Henry’s hubris sabotages his relationships, shows Andrew feeling alienated by Henry, and explores how Costanza comes to grips with her complex marriage. The novel is filled with trenchant moments of sweetness and betrayal, as well a stunning reveal of the harrowing gauntlet infertile women go through to conceive. This is an intricate and dynamic examination of familial ties: both what strengthens them and what can tear them apart. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix

Alain Mabanckou, trans. from the French by Bill Johnston. Indiana Univ., $20 (160p) ISBN 978-0-253-04388-7

Set in the fictionalized African country of Vietongo, this uneven novel from Mabanckou (Black Moses) follows Hortense Lloki, a young mother from the nation’s north living as an outsider in her husband’s southern homeland. When a southern general stages a coup to oust the sitting northern president, violence erupts throughout the country. Hortense’s husband, Kimbembé, falls in with a southern militia led by “Vercingetorix,” and quickly becomes violent and abusive, prompting her to flee and seek refuge in the port city of Pointe-Rouge. An avid reader, Hortense’s flight prompts her to begin recording her own story, and her colorful, digressive memories provide the bulk of the novel. Chiefly written in the safety of a friendly villager’s home, Hortense recounts her childhood and education in the country’s north; her courtship and eventual marriage to Kimbembé, her middle school teacher; their departure to Vietongo’s south and her life and friendships there. As such, Mabanckou’s novel is less a portrait of war than it is a snapshot of the lives it derails. While often arresting, Mabanckou’s story is limited by this form. Hortense can be a frustrating narrator, passive and unable—or disinclined—to act on her own passions. At under 200 pages, the novel suffers for want of a strong, central voice. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Scent of Buenos Aires

Hebe Uhart, trans. from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy. Archipelago, $24 trade paper (484p) ISBN 978-1-939810-34-2

This collection from Uhart (1936–2018), her first to be translated into English, introduces new readers to a refreshing and unique writer. Uhart’s stories are written in a voice that’s frank, almost conversational, and occasionally humorous, but they land with surprising gravitas. In “The Stories Told by Cecilia’s Friends,” the titular stories, though mundane, turn out to be oddly prescient for Cecilia, inducing a new outlook on life. Though none are very long, Uhart’s briefest tales are snatches of a scene (“At the Hair Salon”), allegorical (“Christmas Eve in the Park”), or have the tone of a bedtime tale (“The Boy Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep”). While some nail their intent, such as “At the Hair Salon,” which nicely encapsulates the perfect storm of vanity and gossip in a hair salon, or “Hello Kids,” in which children sharply observe animals at the zoo, others can feel like filler, such as “My New Love,” which uses lover’s language to describe a dog. Still, there’s a wonderfully off-kilter humanity to Uhart’s writing that readers are sure to respond to. This collection feels like a deserved celebration of a writer’s career. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Christmas Shopaholic

Sophie Kinsella. Dial, $27 (448p) ISBN 978-0-593-13282-1

Kinsella’s popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon, is back for a delightful ode to shopping, in the engaging eighth Shopaholic novel, this time with a Christmas theme. These days, Becky is in lovely, leafy suburbia and living happily ever after with her husband, Luke, and young daughter, Minnie. When her parents take an apartment in the trendy Shoreditch neighborhood in London, Becky is stuck with planning Christmas festivities for friends and family alike. While running her best friend’s gift shop at grand Letherby Hall, Becky encounters an old boyfriend, who’s now a musician, and his obnoxious girlfriend, who is determined to go into business with Luke. The villainess of this tale and her devious actions are a teeny bit far-fetched, but Becky is as whimsical and wonderful as ever. With hilarious scrapes only Becky could get into—including being locked into a pet store while buying a last-minute hamster for Minnie, integrating an all-male billiards club, and using a permanent Sharpie to mark names of new aftershaves on Luke’s skin as he sleeps—Kinsella delivers a solid and laugh-out-loud funny installment that longtime readers and new fans alike will gleefully devour. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Beadworkers

Beth Piatote. Counterpoint, $23 (208p) ISBN 978-1-64009-268-6

Piatote’s debut collection mixes poetry, verse, and prose to form an impressive reflection on the lives of modern Native Americans. Piatote, a Nez Perce enrolled with the Colville Confederated Tribes, fits much nuance and profundity into stories that often reflect on the ways in which contemporary mainstream American culture continues to erase the identities and traditions of indigenous groups. In “Beading Lesson,” the narrator teaches a girl how to make traditional beaded earrings, noting how fewer and fewer people have been learning the skill in recent years. In “wIndin!,” two friends work on a piece of political art, a board game that comments on systemic oppression of Native Americans throughout history. A woman reunites with an old friend and considers the ways their relationship to each other and their families have changed in “Katydid.” The most impressive and longest, “Antikoni,” is a reimagining of Antigone, complete with a chorus of Aunties. In Piatote’s version, Antikoni strives to rescue the remains of her ancestors from the museum where they have been interred by the “White Coats” and “White Gloves”—“We were born into this suffering. That our own/ blood would be divided/ from us, that our mourning could never come to an/ end, for it can never/ properly begin.” The Nez Perce language is featured throughout the verse passages, and Piatote includes many explanatory footnotes. This beautiful collection announces Piatote as a writer to watch. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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