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The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo

Ian Stansel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23 (208) ISBN 978-0-544-96339-9

After murdering his brother, Silas Van Loy gets on his horse and heads north, followed closely by Lena Van Loy, his brother’s wife. Lena (and the faithful stable assistant who accompanies her) seeks justice, and as they chase Silas through the mountainous landscape of present day Northern California, Stansel’s rhapsodic debut novel reveals the history of the Van Loy family—the rise and fall of their renowned horse training business, the rivalry that simultaneously binds the brothers together and pushes them apart, and Lena’s powerlessness to control or end the relentless feud. The book draws upon many of the western genre’s finest traditions: a bitter and inescapable rivalry, a narrative propelled by the pursuit of justice, a reverence for the powerful relationship between horse and rider. But in many other ways, the story stands apart: Silas and Lena’s travels through the rugged Californian terrain are punctuated not by shoot-outs or high-speed chases, but powerful memories and meditations on partnership, rivalry, regret, and redemption. Stansel’s debut is a moving exploration of the complicated and fateful bonds of brotherhood. Agent: Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Atlas of Forgotten Places

Jenny D. Williams. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-12293-3

Gritty and intricately plotted, Williams’ debut novel, set in the war-torn Uganda of 2008, gets under the surface of recent political turmoil and the relationship between East Africa and Western aid organizations. Alternating chapters follow Sabine, a former aid worker who has returned to Uganda from Germany to look for her missing niece, Lily, and Rose, an Acholi woman who has a past with Lord’s Resistance Army and bears physical and emotional scars from her war experiences. When it turns out that Rose’s lover Ocen has disappeared with Lily, she and Sabine form an unlikely rescue group, accompanied by Christoph, a cultural anthropologist studying in Rose’s town. Their search will bring them into dangerous territory where a surprise military offensive against the LRA has recently forced the rebels from hiding. In the midst of struggles and atrocities so large and all-encompassing, the narrative sometimes gets away from the more interesting personal stories. But overall Williams’s book paints the contours of the real-life conflict admirably, making the thrilling disappearance story relatable with nuanced characterizations and a wealth of strong subplots concerning reclaiming love, protecting family, and guarding hope for a new future when the present seems to be teetering on disaster. Agent: Marly Rusoff, Marly Rusoff & Associates. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

Hendrik Groen, trans. from the Dutch by Hester Velmans. Grand Central, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4217-8

Delightful and moving, Groen’s novel shares a full year of the eponymous octogenarian’s journal entries, detailing his day-to-day observations, humorous inner monologues, and overall zest for life within a nursing home in Amsterdam. Bored with the daily monotony of life at the center, he decides to keep a journal for a complete year to expose the frustrations, gripes, and groans of his fellow “inmates” and the realities of growing old. Between hilarious quips about life, Hendrik regales readers with the joys of the motor scooter and his decision to relent and wear adult diapers. Hendrik’s good friend Evert—a crotchety old fellow who gets his kicks riling up the other residents—helps stave off the loneliness, but it’s when new resident Eefje arrives that Hendrik feels a spark he hasn’t experienced in a long time. Hendrik, Eefje, and Evert, along with a small group of wily seniors, decide to have a little fun while they still can by organizing the Old-But-Not-Dead Club to plan outings and excursions, including tai chi and cooking classes, and visits to the casino and museums. Engaging and hilarious, Hendrik’s diary gives a dignity and respect to the elderly often overlooked in popular culture, providing readers a look into the importance of friendship and the realities of the senior care system in modern society. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Lightkeeper’s Daughters

Jean E. Pendziwol. Harper, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-257202-8

YA author Pendziwol (Once Upon a Northern Light) pins her first story for adults to the “fortunes of chance” that bring mixed blessings to the last family manning a lighthouse on the Ontario side of Lake Superior. The narrative nimbly tacks between the past and present of Elizabeth Livingstone, a near-blind expat raised on Porphyry Island in the 1920s and ’30s. Since recovering her father’s old day logs, returned by a constable investigating a shipwreck, she’s eager to get to the bottom of the tragedy that forced her and her twin sister to leave the island 60 years before. Her failing eyesight prevents her from diving in until “fortune” pairs her with Morgan Fletcher, a foster teen sent to do community service at her retirement home. Game on. Cagey and drawn to bad company, Morgan turns out to be on an ancestral quest of her own and proves the perfect Watson. This is a perfect hammock read for those who love the Brontë sisters and Jodi Picoult in equal measure. Agent: Jenny Bent, Bent Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing Down a Dream

Beverly Jenkins. Morrow, $14.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-241265-2

Jenkins continues the saga of Henry Adams, Kans.—the historic town settled by former slaves and purchased on Ebay by Bernadine Brown in Bring on the Blessings. Bernadine is back, alongside the eclectic cast of town characters, including a few new residents. In this second of the series, the town has to come together to deal with a potentially calamitous embezzlement scandal, new township merging offers, a near shut-down of the town’s only diner, and a cash-strapped wedding for two of Henry Adams’s most adored residents. Although the novel is abuzz with subplots, Bernadine’s longtime neighbor and friend Gemma Dahl occupies the central thread. Gemma’s quiet life is disrupted when she comes across two orphaned children, Lucas and Jaz Herman, stranded on the road after a torrential storm. Gemma is determined to give the kids a home after hearing their horrendous stories of life in the foster system, but is shocked to discover that she cannot foster African-American children due to racial biases within the state’s social services. Heartbroken at being ripped from their new home, Lucas and Jaz start to lose hope that they will ever have a normal family life. In this winsome novel, Jenkins opens up the small, insular town to embrace the dreams of society’s most marginalized. Fans of Jenkins will enjoy the many new plotlines and characters established, and readers new to Henry Adams will be enthralled by Gemma’s story of determination. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Tornado Weather

Deborah Kennedy. Flatiron, $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-07957-2

Kennedy’s heartbreaking debut novel captures the warped and isolated landscape of today’s American Midwest. Narrated by myriad characters whose voices swirl into a vortex that becomes, literally, a tornado, the story hangs ever so loosely on the disappearance of Daisy Gonzalez, daughter of a local schoolteacher in Colliersville, Ind., who was disabled in the hit-and-run that killed her mother three years prior. The owner of a dairy farm nearby has replaced all his workers with Mexican laborers, and tensions in the community run high. Colliersville has only one policeman, but many others in town feel responsible for the missing girl, and a search ensues. Hector, Daisy’s devastated father, cannot teach, nor eat, nor fathom what has happened. Fikus, the bus driver who left Daisy alone on the street the day she disappeared, convinces his old workmate, Irv, a hermit roadkill collector, to help him search for clues. Wally, adult child of the dairy farm owner who works at the local hair salon and wants to be called Willa, has an opinion about Daisy’s disappearance, but Trevor, who talks to animals, knows better. Though this story is hung on a child gone missing and a tornado on the horizon, the focus is the flawed folks who people it. The author is a fine mimic, inhabiting her characters in such a way that we know them from the inside out. The denouement, coming as it does from a surreal, bird’s-eye view, is very strange indeed. Kennedy’s superb chorus leaves an indelible impression. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Telling the Map

Christopher Rowe. Small Beer (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-61873-132-6

In his inventive debut collection, Rowe bends the world we know, remaking regions of the southern United States. Appalachian settings, recurring characters, and dystopian themes of societal degradation link the stories. In “The Voluntary State,” a band of marauders from Kentucky attack a painter named Soma’s car and kidnap him. Japheth Sapp, the leader of the captors, recruits Soma in a plan to sneak into Nashville and kill Athena Parthenus, the governor of Tennessee. Meanwhile, Jenny, a mechanic, reunites Soma with his repaired (and sentient) vehicle. All paths converge in an explosive conclusion. In “The Border State,” twin cyclists Maggie and Michael Hammersmith set off on a bike race across Kentucky. Their ride takes them along a river and the Girding Wall, which isolates Athena’s Tennessee. The race evolves into a search for their missing father, and a hunt for answers to mysterious messages from their mother, who drowned in a flash flood 20 years earlier. Rowe skillfully reinvents familiar narratives and widens common story lines into a world where anything seems possible. Wild creativity, haunting imagery, and lyricism—as displayed in “Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms”—urge readers forward even as the pacing slows to provide needed exposition. While at times the poetic syntax of the sentences hampers comprehension, the book offers an immersive and original reading experience. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Live from Cairo

Ian Bassingthwaighte. Scribner, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-4687-9

Bassingthwaighte’s expansive first novel plunges straight into the heart of Cairo in the throes of the Arab Spring of 2011. Told from multiple perspectives, this searing tale follows several well-meaning, but perhaps unequipped, young people as they try to forge a path to freedom for Dalia, an Iraqi refugee separated from her husband, who is waiting for her in Boston. Hana, an Iraqi-American resettlement officer, first denies Dalia’s application to leave Egypt, citing strict rules, in spite of her awareness of Dalia’s harrowing experiences of rape and torture. Charlie, Dalia’s American attorney, who is passionate about Dalia’s case and overwhelmed by the existential futility of his job, convinces his earnest Egyptian translator, Aos, and eventually the skeptical Hana that they should go to whatever lengths necessary to see to it that this deserving refugee finds relief and happiness. But Cairo is a volatile, dangerous place, the streets full of protestors and vicious policemen, and Charlie’s plan spirals out of control. The author paints a deep and empathetic picture of the inner struggles of his courageous, flawed characters, who in the midst of mortal danger and insurmountable odds, grapple with the most fundamental questions of right and wrong. The answers follow neither rules nor laws, making the climax to this novel breathtaking and heartrending. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Reason You’re Alive

Matthew Quick. Harper, $25.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-242430-3

Meet David Granger, the bigoted 68-year-old Vietnam veteran and narrator of Quick’s (The Silver Linings Playbook) dark, funny, and surprisingly tender new novel. After a brain tumor is removed, Granger allows some unknown government lackey to transcribe his life story: a patriotic, often cynical, sometimes paranoid, but always engaging recitation. He shares the horrors of Vietnam and his encounter with Clayton Fire Bear, the fake name of a Native American to whom he owes an apology. He describes his family relationships: his love for his granddaughter; his semi-estrangement with Hank, his pretentious son; and his tragic marriage to Hank’s mother, Jessica, which began as an effort to save her life after being raped and impregnated and ended years later with her suicide. Granger’s life is rife with instances that either prove or belie his reputation as a xenophobic, racist homophobe. Identifying the “you” in the title proves illuminating; is it Clayton Fire Bear, Hank—who until now was ignorant about his paternity—or Granger himself, who tried and failed to keep Jessica’s demons at bay and too late realized she returned the favor with more subtlety and success? (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Less

Andrew Sean Greer. LB/Boudreaux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-31-631612-5

In Greer’s wistful new novel, a middle-aged writer accepts literary invitations around the world—making his way from San Francisco to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, and Japan—so that he will have an excuse not to attend the wedding of a long-time lover. Arthur Less is not known primarily for his own work but for his lengthy romantic association with a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, an older man who was married to a woman when their liaison began, and he believes himself to be the butt of many cosmic jokes and that he is “less than” in most equations. This is partially proven true, but not entirely. And even in Less’s mediocrity, when aided by a certain amount of serendipity (and displayed by the author with ironic humor), he affects people. Greer (The Confessions of Max Tivoli), an O’Henry-winning author, writes beautifully, but his occasionally Faulknerian sentences are unnecessary. He is entirely successful, though, in the authorial sleights of hand that make the narrator fade into the background—only to have an identity revealed at the end in a wonderful surprise. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (July)

Reviewed on 05/26/2017 | Details & Permalink

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