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Basic Black with Pearls

Helen Weinzweig. New York Review Books, $14 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-68137-216-7

Celebrated in Canada as a feminist classic, Weinzweig’s (1915–2010) searing 1980 novel captures a woman’s awakening to her lover’s exploitation. A woman using the alias Lola jets from city to city, following the clues Coenraad leaves behind in copies of National Geographic to indicate the sites of their glamorous rendezvous. But when Lola arrives in Toronto—their next destination and the city she ostensibly resides in—there is no National Geographic awaiting her arrival. Desperate, she follows clues from a botany article she’s been handed by a hotel clerk instead, and these lead her on a tour of the “shabby streets of my youth.” She stumbles onto a sweatshop owned by a Holocaust survivor, a Yiddish-speaking baker, and performers rehearsing an opera. Each fanciful encounter sparks “blows of memory” that reveal the facts of her life she sought to leave behind: her marriage, her Jewish heritage, the poverty of her upbringing. Her long-delayed acknowledgment that “Coenraad was not coming” drives Lola to seek out her abandoned home and confront the woman who replaced her in her former life. Though the ending may be a let-down to some, Weinzweig’s prose style is sharp, particularly her dialogue: strange and surprising, it knocks every character interaction askew. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Darkling Bride

Laura Andersen. Ballantine, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-425-28643-2

Atmosphere doesn’t come any more dark and dank than in this gothic novel from Andersen (The Boleyn King) that takes place in an Irish castle riddled with secrets and haunted by ghosts. Hired to catalog the library at Deeprath Castle, Carragh Ryan, a Chinese-American academic, early on proclaims, “I’m here for the library. Not for men, and not for ghosts.” But her work will involve her with both, the former in the person of the handsome, brooding Viscount Aidan Gallagher, a London art cop who inherited his title and the castle 23 years ago after the mysterious deaths of his parents. The ghosts arrive via a haunted local folktale, that of the Darkling Bride. In a parallel narrative set in 1879, English novelist Evan Chase comes to Deeprath Castle pursuing the legend and falls in love with its young mistress, Jenny Gallagher, who meets an untimely death. In the present, Carragh and Aidan team up to get to the bottom of all three deaths and their ties to the legend of the Darkling Bride. Andersen (The Boleyn King) has plenty of surprises up her sleeve to keep the reader entertained on the way to a suspenseful ending, including hypnosis, a changeling, and—of course—ghosts. (Apr.)

This review has been corrected; an earlier version included an incorrect setting.

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Country Dark

Chris Offutt. Grove, $24 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2779-2

Offutt’s exceptional new novel (following his memoir My Father, the Pornographer) brings to light with gritty, heartfelt precision what one character, a social worker, calls the “two Kentuckys, east and west, dirt and blacktop.” The book follows Tucker, Kentucky-born and -raised, as he returns home in 1954, a teenager fresh out of the Korean War. On his way, Tucker saves a 14-year-old girl, Rhonda, from being raped by her uncle. Tucker and Rhonda soon marry and set up house in his family’s old cabin while Tucker finds work running moonshine across state lines. A decade later, Rhonda has had two miscarriages, as well as given birth to a hydrocephalic boy who wasn’t expected to survive infancy, two baby girls who lie listless in some mysterious sedation, and one healthy girl named Jo. While Rhonda and Tucker hope God has a plan, “Rhonda couldn’t see what this plan was other than a punishment. She loved the babies... but they were too bad off to love her back.” This hard living drives the narrative, each heartbreak matched only by Tucker’s steadfast determination to do right by his family. Offutt’s prose cuts deep and sharp, but Tucker and Rhonda remain somewhat mechanical, despite the nuance of the language used to describe them. The novel, however, is an undeniable testament to the importance and clarity of Offutt’s voice in contemporary American literature. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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West

Carys Davies. Scribner, $22 (160p) ISBN 978-1-5011-7934-1

In her transfixing first novel, Davies (author of the story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike) tells a stark story about exploration and extinction on the American continent. Driven by wanderlust to leave his small British village, Cy Bellman sets up a mule farm in rural Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. Reports of the discovery of large fossils in the Kentucky mud, “bones... that were bleached and pale and vast, like a wrecked fleet or the parched ribs of a church roof,” kindles his imagination more than his farm’s jennies and jacks: “it seemed possible that, through the giant animals, a door into the mystery of the world would somehow be opened.” Davies conveys the simultaneous ridiculousness and nobility of Bellman’s obsession, which compels this Don Quixote in a stovepipe hat to leave his daughter to determine whether mammoth beasts still wander the nation’s vast western expanse. Bellman’s Sancho Panza is a teenage Shawnee orphan hired to guide the strange man in his search. Their haphazard, perilous, and occasionally dreamlike traipse is mesmerizing, as is the complex relationship that develops between the two. Though the ending may come across as formulaic, it is nonetheless dramatically satisfying and doesn’t detract from this otherworldly novel. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (Apr.)

This review has been corrected; an earlier version had character inaccuracies.

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Only Story

Julian Barnes. Knopf, $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-525-52121-1

Barnes’s deeply touching novel is a study of heartbreak; like his Man Booker Prize–winning The Sense of an Ending, it includes fading reminiscences, emotional complications, and moments of immeasurable sadness as an aging Englishman remembers his first and only love. Bored 19-year-old Paul meets 48-year-old Susan at the tennis club when they pair up for mixed doubles. She has a husband and two daughters older than Paul, but it is the 1960s, Paul’s first summer home from university, and he is impervious to social correctness, parental disapproval, or long-term consequences. Paul and Susan share a satiric view of their suburban surroundings that turns into a secret romance, then a not-so-secret affair. Together they move to London, where, over the next decade, Paul studies law and becomes a law office manager while Susan deteriorates into alcoholism and depression. Fifty years later, Paul looks back on the relationship in an account strewn with unanswerable questions and observations about the nature of love. As painful memories mount, Paul’s narration switches first to second person and then builds more distance by settling into third person. By revisiting the flow and ebb of one man’s passion, Barnes eloquently illuminates the connection between an old man and his younger self. 75,000-copy announced first printing. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Varina

Charles Frazier. Ecco, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-240598-2

Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906), wife and widow of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, is an inspired choice as heroine for Frazier’s riveting fourth novel (following Nightwoods). “Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences,” he writes, and the events of Varina’s life propel a suspenseful narrative. A quotation from her letters, “my name is a heritage of woe,” is an apt description of the life depicted: Varina, called “V” throughout, is married at 18 to the much older Davis; becomes the mother of six children, only one of whom survives her; flees the collapse of the South as a desperate fugitive with a bounty on her head; and, later, is forced to earn a penurious living as a journalist. She is a flawed but fascinating woman—educated beyond the interests of most southern belles of her time, she is an avid reader of classical literature, fluent in Greek, and possesses a quick intelligence. Frazier alternates V’s chapters with those of James Blake, an orphaned black boy rescued from the streets of Richmond and raised with V’s brood. Frazier’s interjection of historical detail is richly informative, and his descriptions of the natural world of the South are lyrical. While V’s emotional reserve and stoic narration keep her from becoming a fully vibrant character, this is a sharp, evocative novel. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Property

Lionel Shriver. Harper, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-269793-6

The wry and nimble novellas and stories in this collection by Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) focus on how homes and objects shape the lives of those who own them. The collection, which concentrates on middle-class Brits and Americans, is bookended by two richly detailed and sardonic novellas. In the first, “The Standing Chandelier,” a freelance web designer’s relationship with his girlfriend is tested after his high-strung ex-girlfriend gives them a gift that dominates their house. In the concluding novella, “The Subletter,” an American journalist who has been making a meager living in Belfast for years is brought to the edge of a breakdown when she has to share her apartment with an ambitious young subletter. In between, mordant tales touch down in the lives of a young American making herself at home in an African household (“Kilifi Creek”), a recent widow discovering that her late husband had done more than she thought to take care of a seemingly simple garden (“The Self-Seeding Sycamore”), and a slacker whose parents find him impossible to uproot from the household (“Domestic Terrorism”). Shriver’s stories will make readers laugh when they feel they shouldn’t, and the uniting theme of houses and humans works exceedingly well, turning up new wrinkles with each successive story. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Passionate Hope

Jill Eileen Smith. Revell, $15.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-8007-2037-7

Smith (Daughters of the Promised Land) reimagines the biblical story of Hannah, the prayerful mother of prophet and judge Samuel, with expert attention to historical and cultural detail, as well as emotional sensitivity to the plight of a childless wife of that time. Hannah has found a gem of a husband, Elkanah, who dotes on her despite her barrenness. When he is convinced to marry a second wife, Peninnah, she soon bears children and provokes Hannah mercilessly, and the entire household suffers. Years of social rejection, spiritual despair, and emotional suffering culminate in Hannah’s vow to dedicate her firstborn son, if she should somehow conceive, to God’s service; Samuel is subsequently born after Eli blesses her at the temple of Shiloh. Returning home with the boy, Hannah is declared a prophetess, but Peninnah grows increasingly bitter as she views Elkanah’s elation. While the bones of this story appear in the Bible, Smith’s great feat lies in exploring the plausible emotional and spiritual journeys of Hannah, Elkanah, and Peninnah—the grief and hopelessness of a barren wife, the bitter jealousy of the second wife who only wants to be loved, and the man caught in the middle. Readers will appreciate that Smith infuses this well-known story with emotional depth and a modern sensibility not typically seen in historical novels. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Phoebe’s Light

Suzanne Woods Fisher. Revell, $15.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-8007-2162-6

Fisher (The Return) opens the Nantucket Legacy series with this charming tale of a sea-loving Quaker woman in 1767 Massachusetts. Phoebe Starbuck comes from a proud family of whalers—that is, except for her debt-ridden, hapless father, who tends sheep on Nantucket. Anxious to experience the sea for herself, adventurous Phoebe has her heart set on marrying Phineas Foulger, the handsome captain of the Fortuna. Leaving behind her aging father as he tries his hand at yet another risky business venture, Phoebe marries Phineas and sets sail on his whaling ship. When seasickness and loneliness make the journey more difficult than she expected, Phoebe turns to her great-grandmother’s journal for inspiration and discovers a secret that forces her question her safety on the Fortuna. After Phoebe mysteriously becomes ill, comfort comes unexpectedly from crew member Matthew Macy—a friend from her youth whom she rejected for his lack of Christian faith. Matthew cares for Phoebe as she regains her strength, causing her to wonder whether he is a changed man. The story is filled with twists grounded in generations of family history. Fisher weaves together a pleasing romance that sets a high standard for future series installments. Agent: Joyce Hart, Hartline Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Keturah: The Sugar Baron’s Daughters, Book 1

Lisa T. Bergren. Bethany House, $14.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7642-3024-0

In this first book of the Sugar Baron’s Daughters series, Bergren (Claim) takes readers to 1773 to tell the story of an English heiress who looks to God when suitors pursue her for her estate on the Caribbean island of Nevis. After Mr. Banning dies, his daughters learn that the family sugar plantation in Nevis has not been producing enough to sustain their current lifestyle. Keturah, the oldest, decides she will travel to the island and take care of the plantation herself, reluctantly bringing along her two younger sisters, Verity and Selah. When Keturah’s childhood friend Gray Covington discovers he will be sailing to Nevis on the same boat, he offers to escort them, and the four set off together. Gray’s own future will also be determined by the success or failure of his family’s plantation. At first Keturah shies away from Gray’s help, but the harsh realities of island life—saboteur neighbors, unscrupulous suitors, hurricanes, and emerging family secrets—force Keturah to realize she might need more help than she thought. Through it all, Gray tries to show her how much he’s matured from the casually flirtatious boy she once knew into the focused man now working for his inheritance. Strikingly, the sisters and Gray show a care and familiarity with their enslaved plantation workers that feels incongruous to the time period—a decision Bergren explains in an author’s note—and might be off-putting to some readers. Bergren writes eloquently about colonial life in this enjoyable tale that lays the groundwork for other promising books about these three strong women. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/16/2018 | Details & Permalink

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