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New Waves

Kevin Nguyen. One World, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-984855-23-7

Nguyen’s stellar debut is a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism. Margo, a 20-something black engineer, and Lucas, a 23-year-old Asian customer service rep, bond over the ingrained racism at their tech startup employer, a messaging app called Nimbus, in New York in 2009. When Margo’s strong opinions lead to her dismissal, she drunkenly convinces Lucas to help her steal the usernames and passwords of Nimbus’s users. Margo soon regrets this, but nevertheless apparently leverages the data to land her and Lucas jobs at Phantom, a rival startup with an app that immediately deletes read text messages. Margo dies in a car accident, and Lucas is distraught and afraid, wondering if the accident was really an accident or something more sinister. He steals Margo’s laptop and decides to contact Jill, a struggling writer whose work Margo spent hours providing feedback on. He and Jill stumble into a relationship while Phantom’s popularity among teenagers pushes Lucas into a new role implementing a monitoring process contrary to the lofty ambition of the founders. Lucas’s scramble to meet the growing intensity of his professional and personal lives, as well as his jealous conviction he knew Margo best, leads to a series of missteps with rippling consequences. Nguyen impressively holds together his overlapping plot threads while providing incisive criticism of privilege and a dose of sharp humor. The story is fast-paced and fascinating, but also deeply felt; the effect is a page-turner with some serious bite. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Children of the Stars

Mario Escobar. Thomas Nelson, $26.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7852-3479-1

Escobar highlights the tempestuous, uplifting story of two Jewish brothers who cross Nazi-occupied France in hope of reuniting with their parents in this excellent tale. In 1941, the Nazis control much of France. Brothers Jacob and Moses—12 and eight years old, respectively—have been staying with their aunt Judith for the past year while their parents search for a safe place for them to move. Then the boys are picked up in a raid and taken to a velodrome that’s been repurposed as a detention camp housing thousands of Jews. After a guard nearly beats Moses to death, the brothers decide they must escape. Thus begins Jacob and Moses’s life on the run, first from the gendarme, then the hatred of neighbors and strangers in occupied France. While they face many dangers, they also encounter people who risk their lives to help the two boys reunite with their parents. Among the brutality and despair that follows in the wake of the Nazis’ rampage through France, Escobar uncovers hope, heart, and faith in humanity. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ashes

Sharon Gloger Friedman. Outskirts, $16.95 trade paper (316p) ISBN 978-1-4787-6947-7

Early-20th-century Russia and New York are vividly rendered in this affecting debut that centers on a Jewish family’s immigrant experience. Amid escalating anti-Semitism, a brutal pogrom against Jewish businesses and individuals commences in Kishinev on Easter in 1903. Meyer Raisky; his wife, Sadie; and their 13-year-old daughter, Miriam lose family, friends, and their livelihood. They leave for America, joining relatives on the Lower East Side, where Meyer becomes a pushcart peddler, Sadie sews, and Miriam works in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sweatshop. Unfortunate events including Meyer’s head injury and inability to work and Sadie’s brother-in-law walking out on his family heighten the realization that this is not the better life the family had hoped for. Emboldened by work indignities, a layoff, and a romance with a union organizer, Miriam pickets in the 1910 garment workers’ strike; the following year, she barely escapes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which claimed 146 lives and led to industry reforms. Friedman captures the essence of a tight-knit, observant Jewish family beset with tragedy, squeezed by hard times, and defined by historical events. Friedman makes a potent statement about the resiliency of the human spirit. (Self-published.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Red Letter Days

Sarah-Jane Stratford. Berkley, $17 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-451-47557-2

In this crisp novel, Stratford (Radio Girls) follows two woman writers who flee to London to escape McCarthy-era repression in the United States. The political drama is based on the true-life creator of the ’50s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, Hannah Weinstein, who headed her own production company in London in 1950. Here she’s Hannah Wolfson, and her Sapphire Films becomes a shelter for blacklisted American writers. The heart of the story, however, belongs to fictional Phoebe Adler, whose support for unions as a factory worker during WWII were ratted out to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, forcing her to leave a burgeoning career in radio, and her adored older sister, Mona, whose medical care depends on Phoebe’s paycheck. Though Phoebe finds work and friendship overseas, there’s no safety. An FBI “hound” follows her, and Hollywood gossip queen—and infamous commie-hater—Hedda Hopper, stalks the studio in a hiss-worthy cameo. The romantic landscape is no less fraught: Phoebe is wary of the attention of British teacher Reg Bassill, who is smitten with her wisecracking New York wit. Phoebe’s hair-raising escape from HUAC’s condemnation offers a James Bond–like finish to Stratford’s bracing adventure that effortlessly melds politics, romance, and history. This delivers on every level. Agent: Margaret O’Connor, Innisfree Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Regrets

Amy Bonnaffons. Little, Brown, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-51616-7

Bonnaffons’s wonderful debut novel (after the collection The Wrong Heaven) is a tale of ghostly love and passion. Thomas Barrett has died, but there has been an “institutional error,” and he’s been returned to Earth for 90 days to live an odd pseudo-life until they—whoever “they” are—can receive him. He’s given guidelines that explain how he can reduce the possibility of regrets while he awaits death, such as avoiding connections with his previous life and resisting sexual contact. Thomas respects the advice until he meets Rachel Starr, a young librarian he first spots in a New York coffee shop. Rachel is drawn to Thomas, too, and they become intensely involved during Thomas’s final weeks. However, Thomas begins to have episodes of fading, first with large holes temporarily appearing in his body, and then an overall increasing insubstantiality. As Thomas’s days on Earth wind down, the two bittersweetly make the most of their time together. The tension of an ephemeral romance and impending loss will keep readers turning the pages, and the luminous prose is vibrant with penetrating observations, whether about moments that are a “crucial node in the universe’s vast plan” or about dying—with or without regrets. This sexy, witty novel about life, death, and love’s power will enchant readers. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Baudelaire Fractal

Lisa Robertson. Coach House, $17.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-55245-390-2

Poet Robertson’s debut novel (after the poetry collection 3 Summers) is a heady, meditative look at art, the self, and the complex relationship between the two. Hazel Brown, a poet, wakes up one morning “to discover that I have written the complete works of Baudelaire.” This confounding and impossible occurrence, though, is no more amazing to the narrator “than it was for me to have become a poet, me, a girl, in 1984.” The novel eschews conventional plot, instead investigating the narrator’s development as a person and poet filtered through examinations of Baudelaire’s life, work, and milieu, especially the mistreated and forgotten women. The prose oscillates between Hazel’s scrutiny of her younger self—living in Paris, clumsily beginning to write, having sex—and contemplations of, for instance, the erasure of Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duval from a painting by Gustave Courbet. As for the authorship of Baudelaire’s work, Hazel notes that there wasn’t any “tiresome striving after it on my part,” implying that rather it was something imposed on her, just as the legacy of male-centric histories are imposed on women. That Hazel became a poet true to her own voice, that she wasn’t erased or overlooked because of her gender, or because men treat women like “a concept,” is for the narrator the more unlikely event. A difficult work of ideas, by turns enlightening and arcane, part autobiographical narrative, part literary theory, Robertson’s debut novel, for those interested in possibilities of fiction, is not to be missed. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Blue Flowers

Carola Saavedra, trans. from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Riverhead, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-1-59463-175-7

Saavedra’s captivating novel tells the stories of Marcos, a recently divorced man settling into a new apartment, and A., a mysterious woman recollecting a failed affair. Their narratives cross paths when Marcos receives a letter written by A. that is meant for his apartment’s previous tenant, who was also A.’s former lover. For nine straight days, additional envelopes from A. appear in Marcos’s mailbox, and each letter digs deeper into A.’s troubled romance. Marcos, himself feeling distant from his ex-wife, his young daughter, his work, and his social circle, reads each letter with a growing fascination. After considering hunting for A.’s intended recipient, he instead frequents shops mentioned by A., and as his obsession with her blooms, he shuts out all responsibilities and takes to searching for the anonymous writer. In chapters alternating between letters and Marcos’s reactions, Saavedra steadily unveils the darkness permeating the lives of her protagonists, and in doing so creates a literary psychological thriller that questions what is real and what is imagined. This tale of desire and yearning is impossible to put down. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Topics of Conversation

Miranda Popkey. Knopf, $23.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-525-65628-9

The women in Popkey’s astute debut bristle with wanting. Readers meet the unnamed narrator in Italy, “twenty-one and daffy with sensation,” where she is working as a nanny for a well-off friend’s younger brothers while her friend leaves her behind in favor of Greek tourists she’s met on the beach. In her third week, she has a late-night conversation with her friend’s mother, Artemisia, an Argentinean psychoanalyst, about their paralleled romantic histories with much older men, both their former professors. These conversations about power, responsibility, and desire, often as they manifest in relationships with men, provide the backbone for the subsequent sections of the novel, which follow the narrator through breakups with friends, with lovers, and motherhood. As the years progress, the narrator’s hyperawareness and cheeky playfulness when it comes to her narrative as something she owns, grows as well. At a new moms meetup in Fresno 14 years after that night in Italy, the narrator asks the rest of the moms to share “how we got here.” The story she herself shares is an echo of the one she told Artemisia, but better, the details burnished and editorialized. Popkey’s prose is overly controlled, but this is nonetheless a searing and cleverly constructed novel and a fine indication of what’s to come from this promising author. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Cartier’s Hope

M.J. Rose. Atria, $27 (334p) ISBN 978-1-5011-7363-9

A reporter seeks to uncover the secrets of the Hope Diamond in the vivid latest from Rose (Tiffany Blues). In 1910 New York, heiress Vera Garland works as a reporter using the pen name of Vee Swann so that she can dredge up secrets of New York’s high society for her gossip column, “Silk, Satin and Scandals.” When Vera finds a letter addressed to her recently deceased father, she discovers that he and his male lover were being blackmailed by the owner and editor of another paper, Thelonious Oxley, who threatened to disclose their affair if her father’s lover would not pay for ads in Oxley’s publication. Vera believes that he will again resort to blackmail. After visiting Cartier’s store and learning about how the Hope Diamond has a history of bringing bad luck to those who touched it, Vera devises a scheme: she will agree to write a story for Oxley about how jeweler Pierre Cartier has used fictitious legends to increase the value of the diamond, and then write an exposé on Oxley’s expected blackmail of Cartier to suppress her story. At Cartier’s, Vera also meets and is charmed by Jacob Asher, a Russian jeweler. As Vera falls under Jacob’s spell, she starts to feel guilty about using him to get information for her story. Vera must determine whether her quest to avenge her father is worth destroying her budding relationship with Jacob. The narrative cleverly explores highlights of early 20-century history and heaps on plenty of intrigue. Rose irresistibly combines elements of mystery, romance, and historical events in this memorable novel. Agent: Dan Conaway, Writers House. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins. Flatiron, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-20976-4

With this devastating yet hopeful work, Cummins (The Crooked Branch) breathes life into the statistics of the thousands fleeing their homelands and seeking to cross the southern border of the United States. By mere chance, Lydia Quixano Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, survive the massacre of the rest of her family at her niece’s quinceañera by sicarios of the Los Jardineros cartel in Acapulco. Compounding the horror of the violence and loss is the fact that the cartel’s leader is a man that Lydia unwittingly befriended in her bookstore. Lydia and Luca flee north to the only refuge that she can imagine: her uncle’s family in Denver. North of Mexico City, all other sources of transportation become impossible, so mother and son must risk traveling atop La Bestia, the freight trains that are the only way to reach the border without being seen. They befriend two beautiful sisters—Soledad, 15, who is “a living miracle of splendor,” and Rebeca, 14—who have fled life-threatening circumstances in Honduras. As the quartet travel, they face terror on a constant basis, with danger possible from any encounter, but also compassion and occasionally even wonder. This extraordinary novel about unbreakable determination will move the reader to the core. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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