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Unrest

Sandra Heath. Sandra Ann Heath, $24.99 (350p) ISBN 978-0-9965517-2-4

Heath’s debut novel masterfully incorporates family, romance, tension, and fully realized characters into a wonderfully written piece of historical fiction set in 1978 Tehran, during the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution. Seventeen-year-old Annette Patterson—aka Annie—arrives in Tehran with her mother, her 18-year-old sister, and 11-year-old brother. They’re joining their father, Colonel Jack Patterson, at his new military assignment of helping to procure equipment for the Air Force, but unlike where they’ve lived before—which has ranged from the U.S. to Greece—Iran is almost overwhelmingly exotic to them. The strange desert landscapes, the local customs, unique foods, and awesome landmarks threaten to overpower Annie’s senses. Sibling rivalry between Annie and her sister, Debbie, escalates when the family befriends 18-year-old Amir and both girls start to fall for him. As tension grows within the family, so too does it grow in the country: killings and demonstrations occur with increasing frequency. When a restaurant the family had patronized is bombed, Annie realizes “this happened two weeks to the night we’d celebrated Debbie’s birthday there.” The time period is accurately captured from the viewpoint of the Pattersons as well as from the Iranian characters’ perspectives. This is a superb accomplishment of character development, as well as an immersive journey through Tehran’s many landmarks. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hanna Who Fell from the Sky

Christopher Meades. Park Row, $24.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-7783-2873-5

Hanna, the heroine of this uneven coming-of-age novel with a fantasy element from Canadian author Meades (The Last Hiccup), lives in Clearhaven, an idyllic rustic town whose inhabitants practice polygamy. As Hanna nears her 18th birthday, she becomes formally betrothed to a middle-aged man who watched her grow up and already has four wives. But then she meets Daniel, a Clearhaven resident who has recently returned from a nearby city. As her wedding day approaches, her growing attraction to Daniel causes her to question not only her role in Clearhaven but the town’s entire culture. Her father, Jotham, has a financial stake in her union, which becomes more muddled when her mother, Kara, Jotham’s second wife, discloses the secret about Hanna’s origins suggested by the title. Hanna’s plight is sure to move many readers. Others, however, will be put off by the vague, unimaginative worldbuilding and lose patience as Hanna vacillates between doing what the community expects and doing what feels right for her. Agent: Anne Bohner, Pen & Ink Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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George & Lizzie

Nancy Pearl. Touchstone, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6289-3

Librarian and NPR commentator Pearl has made a living recommending great books; in this debut novel about love, regret, and forgiveness she tries her hand at fiction with mixed results. Her heroine is Lizzie, the only child of two famous but emotionally distant psychologists who use Lizzie to test their theories. Against the backdrop of this loveless childhood, Lizzie embarks on the “Great Game” of sleeping with every starter on the high school football team, but her attention-seeking efforts fail to generate anything more than negative voices in her head and a deep-seated self-hatred. When later her lust-filled relationship with college classmate Jack falls apart, Lizzie worries the Great Game is to blame. In steps George, a dental student with a “marshmallow” heart who wants nothing more than to make Lizzie happy. But even after Lizzie and George say “I do,” Lizzie finds herself pining for Jack. Pearl doesn’t give readers enough time to witness the deepening of George and Lizzie’s relationship for it to be convincing, and at times the characters seem out of step with the realities of 1990s-era early adulthood. Still, the path George and Lizzie’s relationship takes toward wholeness points to truths about the way people self-sabotage, the complexity of love, and the importance of being able to let go of the past. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hame

Annalena McAfee. Knopf, $28.95 (592p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3172-4

McAfee’s long novel about a small island is at once fascinating and frustrating. It centers on Grigor McWatt, a fictional Scots nationalist bard who arrives on the (also fictional) Hebridean island of Fascaray in 1942, declares it his soul’s true home, and remains until his death in January 2014. That August, Mhairi McPhail, the granddaughter of a Fascaray legend who was raised in Canada, comes to Fascaray to organize a McWatt museum and write a scholarly book on him. Mhairi has her young daughter in tow but has left her problematic husband in Brooklyn. As she struggles to reorient and reinvent herself, Mhairi discovers inexplicable gaps in McWatt’s life story. The novel interweaves Mhairi’s first-person narrative with excerpts from her study of McWatt and his texts, including lists and jottings from his 14,000-page Fascaray Compendium and numerous classic poems he has rewritten in Scots. Mhairi’s voice is witty, and the metafictional play—which, like McAfee’s 2012 debut novel, The Spoiler, exploits tensions between authenticity and invention, subject and writer—is clever. But the narrative’s momentum and Fascaray’s resonance as an emblem of both Scotland and the notion of home get buried in the avalanche of “nonfictional” detail. The novel can be tough going for anyone not fascinated by and knowledgeable about all things Scottish. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Tales of Falling and Flying

Ben Loory. Penguin, $17 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-14-313010-9

Life and death are treated with equal gravity and levity in this nimble, refreshing collection of shorts from Loory (Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day). Each of these stories is a deceptively small bite, its depth of flavor often growing and lingering. Divided into four sections, the first three each 13 yarns long and the last a single story, the book engages both the profound and the frivolous. Reality flirts with and sometimes gives way to the bizarre, the economy and style of language making a man with disappearing body parts (“Missing”) and a sloth seeking work in the city (“The Sloth”) equally vivid. Each of these microcosms, whether involving well-known people and places or anonymous characters and locales, carries the appropriate emotional weight to enchant without overwhelming. Loory is at his best in worlds tilted slightly from reality involving quests tinged with mystery and heartache, such as the man seeking a woman who vanished after falling from a cliff in “The Fall” and the treasure-hunting crew that meets a different kind of siren in “The Island.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Salt Line

Holly Goddard Jones. Putnam, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1431-6

Set in the near future, this second novel from Jones (The Next Time You See Me) introduces readers to a U.S. separated into territories behind giant vibrating walls (called “the salt line”) designed to keep out tiny ticks that carry the fatal Shreve’s disease. While life behind the salt line feels very similar to our social media–driven contemporary world, extreme tourism expeditions into the wild offer the rich and famous an opportunity to remember a natural setting free from physical borders. The narrative focuses on one such expedition, introducing a full cast of complex characters with hidden motivations—a rock star and his girlfriend, a tech mogul, and an unassuming housewife. As the group leaves behind the comfort of life behind the salt line and acclimates to the dangers normally kept at bay, allegiances are tested and new friendships are forged. Fans of Jones will appreciate her return to an ensemble-driven narrative, and new fans will find social commentary and intense thrills rolled into one seamless story. Outwardly an adventure story, this suspenseful novel uses a thrilling premise to examine the fallout of abandoning universal freedoms in order to ensure collective safety. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Complete Ballet

John Haskell. Graywolf (FSG, dist.), $16 trade paper (216p) ISBN 978-1-55597-787-0

Fiction and essay share the stage in Haskell’s captivating, erudite novel, both a metafictional history of romantic ballet and the story of a young man’s missteps in L.A.’s underworld. The unnamed narrator’s interest in dance comes from his daughter, whose tragic early death also broke up his marriage, sending him from Chicago to L.A. to build a new life as a masseur. Falling under the spell of the charming club owner Cosmo and his girlfriend Rachel, a dancer, he behaves recklessly, losing more money than he can afford in a poker game run by the mob. Entwined with this noirlike account are the narrator’s musings on the plots of famous ballets—including Giselle, Petrushka, and Swan Lake—and the lives of balletomanes (like Joseph Cornell) and dancers (including Anna Pavlova, Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, and Nureyev), which help the narrator reflect on the turns of his own life. In imaginative, analytical, affectless prose, Haskell gives new life to well-known stories danced onstage, constructing interiorities and motivations for the characters, and drawing connections between the emotions of the ballets and his narrator’s story (which to readers well versed in cinema may begin to seem familiar, too). Meeting a stranger, the narrator thinks that “I could see in her face the same kind of eagerness my daughter used to have, the same willingness Nijinsky had, to risk his common sense.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Affections

Rodrigo Hasbún, trans. from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. Simon & Schuster, $23 (144p) ISBN 978-1-5011-5479-9

The Ertl family produced two infamous members whose lives are fictionalized in Hasbún’s moody and spare novel. Hans Ertl was a famous Nazi cinematographer exiled to Bolivia after World War II, where he became obsessed with finding the Lost City of Paititi. His eldest daughter, Monika, who accompanied him on an expedition to find the mythological land, married into a wealthy family before becoming radicalized, joining the Marxist revolutionary movement, and becoming a guerilla fighter. All of this is known as fact, but through his measured and oddly ethereal writing (reminiscent somewhat of Paulo Coelho), Hasbún creates a sort of double exposure of the Ertl family’s slow demise over the upheaval roiling through South America. The impact of Hans’s restlessness on his family—his three daughters and their mother—frames the narrative, which unfolds through multiple points of view. Somehow, it is Trixi, the sister who stayed behind with her mother while the rest of the family sought Paititi, whose staid narrative provides the most powerful moments: from her unhappy, cancerous mother deliberately introducing her to cigarettes at age 12, to the devastating paragraph in which Monika corrects Trixi’s naive belief that her older sister’s lover died accidentally: “They kicked his spine until it snapped.” This is an inventive, powerful novel. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Five-Carat Soul

James McBride. Riverhead, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1669-3

Humming with invention and energy, the stories collected in McBride’s first fiction book since his National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird again affirm his storytelling gifts. In the opening story, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” vintage toy dealer Leo Banskoff gets a lead on a priceless collectible: the long-lost train set made for Robert E. Lee’s son Graham by one of Smith & Wesson’s founders. In one of several surprises that upend his assumptions about value, Banskoff prepares for fierce negotiation but finds that the train’s impoverished, devoutly evangelical owner wants to give it away. In “The Fish Man Angel,” a weary President Lincoln makes a late-night visit to his dead son Willie’s horse, weeping alone before overhearing words that change history. In “The Christmas Dance,” a Ph.D. candidate begs two of the only surviving members of the African-American Ninety-Second Infantry Division to describe its role in a senselessly bloody World War II encounter; though their reluctance jeopardizes his thesis, ultimately the men—unlike the government they served—honor even unspoken promises. One of two groups of linked stories reimagines the animal world, while the other visits a gritty neighborhood of Uniontown, Penn., during the Vietnam War as teenagers grapple with limitation and longing. McBride adopts a variety of dictions without losing his own distinctively supple, musical voice; as identities shift, “truths” are challenged, and justice is done or, more often, subverted. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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