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A Betting Woman

Jenni L. Walsh. Wyatt-Mackenzie, $15 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-948018-95-1

Walsh (Becoming Bonnie) hits the jackpot with an impressive fictionalization of the life of Eleanor Dumont (formerly Simone Jules), a blackjack dealer in the Old West. In 1849 New Orleans, Simone, 19, is happy to be marrying trader David Tobin. But after Simone’s parents and sister die in a fire and David reveals his interest in taking over her father’s jewelry shop, Simone boards a ship bound for San Francisco for a fresh start. With a mind for numbers and memories of her mother playing 21, Simone endears herself to a gruff saloonkeeper when she brings in thousands of dollars at the blackjack tables, using her velvety feminine voice to throw the drunken gold panners off their game. A romance with Black freedman Arthur Reynolds is cut short after a New York merchant named Reuben Withers accuses Simone and Arthur of card sharping, then stabs him to death. Simone tracks Reuben across the West and sets up a gambling club in Nevada City, Calif., where she changes her name to Eleanor, earns the nickname “Madam Moustache,” and wonders if Reuben will show his face. Walsh weaves emotion and suspense with historical details of a woman persevering in the face of inequality as she finds a way to earn a living. Readers will relish Walsh’s fully developed portrait. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Time Outside This Time

Amitava Kumar. Knopf, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-31901-7

Kumar (Immigrant, Montana) delivers a mostly engaging polemic about the role of fiction in a post-truth world. As Indian American novelist-journalist Satya works on a novel about fake news at a residency on an Italian island in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic (along with feverish rumors and fabrications) begins to spread across the globe. The novel will be about “models of social acceptance,” as Satya drily narrates. Satya turns to obvious sources for guidance and material: George Orwell’s 1984 and Donald Trump’s tweets. While still on the island and later at home with his family in Maryland, he records boyhood memories from India, muses on the slippery relationship between journalist and subject, compiles news clippings, tells the story of a police raid on an Indian guerilla leader, reflects on police brutality and mob violence, and writes flash fictions. Scattered throughout are engaging summaries of psychological experiments—of varying validity—which are supplied to him by his wife, Vaani, a psychologist studying alpha male rhesus macaques. There are some moments of grandiosity (“What can one write to save a life?”), but it sizzles when it gets to Satya’s attempts to deploy, or resist, the “seductive language” and “hectic plots” of fiction amid pervasive mistruths. Overall, this experiment pays off. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness

Claire Vaye Watkins. Riverhead, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-33021-0

In this vivid if overstuffed outing from Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus), a writer named Claire Vaye Watkins returns to her hometown of Reno for a reading. The trip is meant as a brief respite for Claire from her husband and daughter, but it becomes a monthslong stay as she grapples with memories of those who are gone. Her late father, Paul, a member of the Manson Family, was described by her mother, the late Martha, as the cult’s “number one procurer of young girls.” Martha, meanwhile, died when Claire was in her 20s, either by an accidental opiate overdose or by suicide. She also remembers an ex-boyfriend who died in a car crash. And as Watkins catalogs her “maternal ambivalence” and “wifely rage,” she breaks the rules of her open marriage by falling in love with an extramarital partner. While Claire’s memories provide the narrative thrust, nearly a third is spent on her family’s history, including letters from Martha to her cousin from 1968 through the ’70s (“I think I’m mentally ill. Love is a fucking hassle”), and the material doesn’t quite illuminate Claire’s story or develop the plot. What makes this work is Claire’s raw sense of pain on the page, and the evenhanded honesty with which Watkins portrays her actions. Thought Watkins overreaches, her talent is abundant. Agent: Nicole Aragi. Aragi, Inc. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The War Nurse

Tracey Enerson Wood. Sourcebooks Landmark, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4926-9816-6

Wood (The Engineer’s Wife) draws on the life of Julia Stimson, a real-life college-educated nurse from a prominent family who served in France during WWI, for a tepid sophomore effort. In April 1917, Fred Murphy, chief of surgery at Washington University, informs Julia, head of nursing training, that the school been activated by the U.S. military for emergency duty. Their unit ends up in Rouen, where Julia demonstrates her fine administrative skills by refining the methods used for patient triage, streamlining supply purchasing, and establishing shift schedules and ongoing training for her nurses. When a new, virulent strain of the flu pushes her nurses to their limits, they acquit themselves well. Julia also frets over her developing romance with Fred, wondering if she ever wants to get married and worrying that gossip about their relationship might get her sent home. There’s no shortage of events, though the string of happenings fails to coalesce into an actual plot. Stimson’s historical experiences are rife with dramatic possibilities, but Wood too often misses those in favor of dispensing information about nurse training and practices. It’s a disappointing book about a fascinating woman. Agent: Lucy Cleland, Kneerim & Williams. (July)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Chance Library

Freya Sampson. Berkley, $16 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-20138-1

The prospect of a British library’s closure sets in motion the awakening of a shy woman in Sampson’s winsome debut. Library assistant June Jones, 28, has worked for 10 years at the Chalcot library and has never left the village. She had once dreamed of going to university and becoming a writer, but ever since her single mother, a librarian, died of cancer almost eight years earlier, June has shut herself among the books. When the county council proposes closing the library due to budget cuts, the regular patrons protest in hopes of keeping it open. There’s Mrs. Barnsworth, who leaves the smell of wet goat in her wake and hates every book she reads; Stanley Phelps, a tweed-wearing reader of WWII novels; and romance-lover Linda. Initially, June is more concerned for her job, but when Stanley proposes the group occupy the library, June joins in and their action goes viral. They’re joined by Alex Chen, an old school friend of June’s who takes an interest in her and further brightens her spirits. While the simple prose is an initial roadblock, Sampson convincingly brings her characters to life, as well as the importance of their collective crusade to save the library. Readers will be touched by June’s transformation. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout. Random House, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8943-4

Loneliness and betrayal, themes to which the Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout has returned throughout her career, are ever present in this illuminating character-driven saga, the third in her Amgash series, after Anything Is Possible. Narrated by Lucy Barton, now a successful writer, the story picks up after the death of Lucy’s second husband as she navigates her relationship with her unfaithful first husband, William, the father of her two grown daughters. Lucy and William are still close friends, and though William has also remarried, he still needs Lucy, and she him. When William discovers he has a half sister, he summons Lucy, rather than his current wife, to visit where she lives in Maine. Lucy’s quest—indeed Strout’s quest—is to understand people, even if she can’t stand them. “We are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean,” she reflects. The strength of Lucy’s voice carries the reader, and Strout’s characters teem with angst and emotion, all of which Strout handles with a mastery of restraint and often in spare, true sentences. “But when I think Oh William! don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves! Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.” It’s not for nothing that Strout has been compared to Hemingway. In some ways, she betters him. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Runaways: A Writer's Dilemma

Michael Seidlinger. Future Tense, $11.99 trade paper (100p) ISBN 978-1-892061-89-8

A writer attempts to finish the first draft of a novel while distractedly chasing an endorphin rush on social media in the witty latest from Seidlinger (after Dreams of Being), a PW contributor. The protagonist, described only as “a writer,” spends their weeks in an unspecified office job, their nights drinking with friends or alone in a bar, and their weekends gradually eking out a draft while feeling guilty over not meeting their daily 1,000-word quota. It’s tougher with the temptation of social media, which the writer frequently succumbs to. Their posts run the gamut from bona fide viral (“Your first name + your last name = your struggling writer name”) to convoluted bombs that cost them followers, such as, “The secret to being productive is being too poor to do much of anything else.” After an undetermined amount of weeks, the writer finally gets down to work. It’s a relatively happy ending, though it cannily shows how the struggle continues for pretty much any writer who’s not at the level of, say, Stephen King, whom Seidlinger’s protagonist imagines “wakes up with an ironclad ego... points to the typewriter and says, ‘I will use you, I will write you, and I will finish you.’ ” This smart story ought to prompt readers to second-guess the impulse to write—or to tweet. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Olga

Bernhard Schlink. trans. from the German by Charlotte Collins. HarperVia, $27.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-311292-6

Schlink (The Reader) returns with a nuanced portrait of an ordinary German woman who comes of age at the turn of the 20th century. Orphaned as a young girl, Olga Rinke is taken in reluctantly by her chilly paternal grandmother in Prussia. She becomes friends with Herbert Schroder, and by the time they’re in secondary school, she falls in love with him. Olga becomes a teacher and Herbert joins the army, serving in the Battle of Waterberg in 1904 Africa, and in 1914 he sets off to explore the Arctic. Olga continues teaching through both world wars, and in her 60s, at the end of WWII, she flees eastern Germany for Heidelberg, where she takes up work as a seamstress and befriends Ferdinand, the young son of the primary family for whom she works. In the 1950s, Olga supports Ferdinand’s teen rebellion—he reads Brecht and wears American-style blue jeans—and she tells him stories about Herbert’s adventures. The final section features passionate, undelivered letters Olga wrote to Herbert decades earlier, while he was off in the Arctic. While the two big reveals in the final section are strongly telegraphed, the more quotidien mysteries of Olga’s life will keep readers engaged. Readers who love rich character studies will want to pick this up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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I Wished

Dennis Cooper. Soho, $25 (144p) ISBN 978-1-64129-304-4

In Cooper’s surreal and elegiac conclusion to the George Miles Cycle (after Period), a writer named Dennis Cooper continues to recount his obsessive love for a friend from adolescence. Cooper declares a mission to convey a sense of George to those who “don’t give a shit about some weird cult writer’s books.” To get there, he tells his own story. At 10, Cooper’s skull was accidentally split by a rusty axe in an event that “subdivided” his consciousness, planting the seeds for his life as a writer. At 15, he meets 12-year-old George at an all-boys high school dance and talks him down from an acid trip. George wants a gun for Christmas, and Cooper imagines himself as Santa Claus, giving him a pistol and watching George shoot himself. Cooper also fantasizes about John Wayne Gacy’s final victim, Robert Piest, because Piest reminds him of George. The passage is one of many boldly transgressive and strangely successful moves in the fractured narrative. Nick Drake’s dark lyrics are a constant, eerie soundtrack to the boys’ young lives, summed up in one of Cooper’s trademark elliptical bon mots (“Nick Drake’s songs are like a pack of dolphins signaling his solitude incoherently to George and other introverted messes”). With tones of John Rechy and André Aciman, this offers a cathartic sense of closure. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Form and Emptiness

Ruth Ozeki. Viking, $30 (560p) ISBN 978-0-399-56364-5

Zen Buddhist priest Ozeki’s illuminating postmodern latest (after the meditation memoir The Face: A Time Code) explores themes of mourning, madness, and the powers of the imagination. Benny Oh, a 13-year-old boy, begins hearing voices after his jazz musician father dies in a tragicomic accident involving a truck full of chickens. The voices launch Benny on a quest of self-discovery at the library, where he meets a slovenly poet-philosopher called “the Bottleman” and his stunning, anarchic protégé, “the Aleph,” a young woman obsessed with Borges and the Situationists. The duo cause Benny’s life to become more chaotic and yet more thrilling as they encourage him to embrace his inner madness. Meanwhile, Benny’s mother, Annabelle, whose job for a media-monitoring agency requires her to clip and catalogue print newspaper and magazine articles, and who now works from home, starts hoarding, and the house’s clutter becomes increasingly overwhelming. Sometimes this reads like a simple coming-of-age tale, but Ozeki playfully and successfully breaks the fourth wall—Benny, embarrassed by a passage about him being bullied, says to “the Book,” “Can we just skip this, please?”—and she cultivates a striking blend of young adult fiction tropes with complex references to Walter Benjamin, Zen Buddhism, and Marxist philosophy. This is the rare work that will entertain teenagers, literary fiction readers, and academics alike. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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