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A Girl in Exile

Ismail Kadare, trans. from the Albanian by John Hodgson. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $260 (192p) ISBN 978-1-61902-916-3

A middle-aged writer’s oblique connection to a young suicide is the avenue by which Kadare (The General of the Dead Army) provocatively explores the intrusive Albanian state apparatus of the 1980s. When the Party Committee summons writer Rudian Stefa, he worries artistic censors complained to the regime about his latest play. If not the play, perhaps he should worry about shoving his girlfriend Migena, or accusing her of being a spy. The regime’s invasiveness becomes increasingly clear as the tragedy of the dead girl—who grew up in exile—unfolds and connects her to Rudian; Migena asked him at a signing to autograph a book “for Linda B.” The authorities have Linda’s copy of the book and her diary, which reveals an obsession with Rudian and provides clues to a desperate plan that involves Migena. Comparisons to Kafka are inevitable, but there’s also some Joseph Heller here. Kadare successfully renders Big Brother, and, though Linda’s hopeless scheme strains credulity, this is nonetheless a poignant narrative about exile. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Driest Season

Meghan Kenny. Norton, $25.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-393-63459-4

Kenny’s debut novel is a frustratingly tentative coming-of-age narrative set on a Wisconsin farm during World War II. Cielle is almost 16 when she finds her father’s body hanging in the barn following his suicide, and the novel follows her family through their period of mourning: Cielle, her sister, and her mother try to make sense of what happened, while also determining how exactly their lives will change in the wake of the tragedy. The farm is actually owned by a local landlord and leased to the family, and since Cielle’s father’s suicide means they have contractually foregone their rights to it, much of the novel’s tension involves the family’s attempts to keep the true cause of death a secret and pretend it was accidental in order to save the farm. Young men close to Cielle enlist in the war effort, disappearing just like her father, and her feelings of destabilization in this time of uncertainty are palpable and heartfelt. But her epiphanies throughout feel forced, and the supporting characters seem to exist only to fulfill specific narrative purposes. The story arrives at its logical conclusion mostly by refusing to detour into more complicated terrain. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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My Name Is Venus Black

Heather Lloyd. Dial, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-59218-8

Lloyd’s moving debut explores the reverberations of a crime and its aftermath for a teen girl and her family. Venus Black is 13 years old, a seemingly normal teen and good student, when she shoots and kills her stepfather Raymond and is sent to prison. Venus won’t talk about why she committed the crime. Shortly after, her developmentally disabled little brother, Leo, to whom she is very close, goes missing. In 1986, at 19, Venus is released, and she’s desperate to start over. Taking a new name, she makes a life for herself in Seattle, attracting the eye of a local cop, Danny, and befriending her landlord’s nine-year-old niece, Piper, but thoughts of Leo still haunt her. Not knowing whether he’s alive or dead is excruciating, and her overbearing mother, Inez, desperately wants to make amends for the events that led to the shooting. Just as Venus gets settled, information comes to light about Leo’s disappearance that threatens her delicately balanced new life. Lloyd portrays Leo sensitively and adroitly brings the resilient Venus to life, but the narrative is marred at times by clunky prose and too-neat solutions. Still, this is a satisfying tale about family, forgiveness, and moving on, and will have crossover appeal for older teens. Agent: Jane von Mehren, Aevitas Creative. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Daphne

Will Boast. Liveright, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-63149-303-4

Boast’s supple debut novel plays with the myth of Daphne, placing a version of the Greek nymph into contemporary San Francisco. Rather than transforming into a tree, the title character suffers a condition that leaves her literally paralyzed whenever she feels strong emotion, able to think and feel but unable to support or move her body. She is pursued by construction worker Ollie, a down-to-earth Apollo, and their love affair suffers predictable complications. Though the romance plot prunes the novel into a restricted shape, and late revelations about the heroine’s father offer too-pat explanations for some of her experiences, memoirist Boast (Epilogue) precisely depicts Daphne’s emotional states, with brief, sensorily rich passages when she is on the brink of overload, and more relaxed, mundane ones when she is comfortably at her computer or engaging in less charged relationships. While Ollie may be a standard-issue hero, Boast surrounds Daphne with a full range of other friends, relatives, and medical research coworkers, including an anxious mother, a partying best friend, and the various members of the support group for those who share her malady. The novel offers a striking metaphor for the ways emotion is experienced in the body. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Call Me Zebra

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24 (304p) ISBN 978-0-544-94460-2

In Oloomi’s rich and delightful novel (after Fra Keeler), 22-year-old Zebra is the last in a long line of “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists” exiled from early ’90s Iran. Years after her family’s harrowing escape, alone in New York after the death of her father (her mother died in their flight to the Kurdish border), Zebra decides to revisit some of the places where she has lived in an effort to both retrace her family’s dislocation and to compose a grand manifesto on the meaning of literature. Like Don Quixote, one of her favorite characters, Zebra’s perception of the world (and herself) is not as it appears to others, and her narration crackles throughout with wit and absurdity. As she treks across Catalonian Spain, she journeys through books and love affairs and philosophical tousles with Ludo Bembo, her also-displaced Italian foil. Their pattern of romantic coupling and intellectual uncoupling repeats itself; more interesting are Zebra’s other exploits—her strange and brilliant interpretations of art, her belief that her mother’s soul has been reincarnated inside a cockatoo, and the field-trip group she takes on pilgrimages to famous sites of exile. This is a sharp and genuinely fun picaresque, employing humor and poignancy side-by-side to tell an original and memorable story. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Trenton Makes

Tadzio Koelb. Doubleday, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-385-54338-5

In this taut debut, Koelb takes on manhood and the rise and fall of the American Century as Trenton, N.J., evolves from a booming postwar factory town to a place full of closed factories and dope-smoking, draft-dodging hippies. The protagonist, Abe Kunstler, is a watchful, angry man whose life is predicated on keeping his secret: he is no man at all, but a woman who killed her traumatized veteran husband in a marital fight, cut her hair, and, physically built up from wartime factory work, went out into the world. For Abe, power lies in manliness, not the weak body of a disrespected female. For a while he achieves that power: he acquires the suit that makes him feel like a “real man”; a marriage of sorts with Inez, a dancehall girl with a taste for alcohol; and even a son. But the son intended as the final proof and future of Abe’s masculinity comes of age when America is riven by generational divides and mired in a senseless war. Koelb is insightful, if not always subtle, about how short the era of triumphant white American manhood was and its tendency to fight a rear-guard action that hurts men and those they love. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Italian Party

Christina Lynch. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-14783-7

In Lynch’s perceptive debut, set in 1956, Michael and Scottie Messina are a glamorous young American couple who have arrived in Siena, Italy, where the former is to open a Ford tractor agency. But this is just a cover story; unknown to Scottie, Michael is a CIA agent charged with ensuring that the city’s next mayor will not be a Communist. Michael and Scottie also have other secrets: Michael is a closeted gay man who has come to Italy to be with Duncan, his lover from Yale, who has something he is hiding from Michael. And Scottie is pregnant and has yet to get up the nerve to tell her husband, for reasons that include yet another secret. Michael is soon involved in espionage capers, while Scottie becomes embroiled in the search for a missing local youth she befriended. The secrets come out just as Ambassador Clare Booth Luce arrives in Siena for a visit. The story plays like a confectionary Hollywood romance with some deeper notes reminiscent of John le Carré and Henry James. Scottie is a resilient main character who might have been played by Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn in a 1950s movie adaptation of this entertainingly subversive take on that seemingly innocent period. Agent: Claudia Cross, Folio Literary Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Has the World Ended Yet?

Peter Darbyshire. Buckrider (IPG, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $18 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-928088-44-8

From the first page of the opening story “The Bacchae,” when readers learn that “Loki sleeps in alleys... Mars runs a hedge fund that preys on distressed companies... [and] Dionysus makes sex dolls in a Los Angeles warehouse,” it is clear that this collection is an off-kilter treat. Darbyshire (The Warhol Gang) delights in mashing pop-culture genres together, exposing profound truths beneath classic tropes in ways at once hilarious, weird, and heart-breaking. In the titular story, an aging superhero reclaims his lost sense of purpose on the day when angels begin to fall from the sky. In “Deja Yu Makes the Pain Go Away,” an executive discovers that “the second-worst thing about being dead is you have to keep working.” “The Calling of Cthulhu” has H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled god working for a temp agency because “god of war, gateway to the apocalypse, and earth devourer are no longer acceptable callings.” A hit man is assisted by a talking blow-up doll in “You Shall Know Us by Our Vengeance.” Molox, “the Infernal Gatekeeper to Hell…[now] known as the Processing Clerk, Department of Admissions and Exits,” struggles with the paradox of “The Only Innocent Soul in Hell.” What is most impressive in Darbyshire’s wild tales of demons, ghosts, zombies, and deity salesmen is his clear understanding of what it is that makes humans so human. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Holy Jester! The Saint Francis Fables

Dario Fo, trans. from the Italian by Mario Pirovano. Opus, $38.95 (160p) ISBN 978-1-62316-082-1

This illustrated collection of fictionalized vignettes by the late Nobel Prize–winning playwright Fo (The Pope’s Daughter) is a touching ode to the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Fo opens with an introduction that lays out the purpose of the fables: to revive a version of the saint based on historical materials, many of which the Vatican destroyed in order to present a docile, sanitized Francis for the canon. (Fo’s information is based on the work of historian Chiari Frugoni, who draws on sources, such as Thomas of Celano, that escaped censure for centuries in Italian churches and libraries.) Fo’s Francis is irreverent, antiauthoritarian, creative, and devoted to the poor and his faith. The fables themselves are told largely via dialogue, translated into contemporary-sounding (albeit somewhat clunky) English by Pirovano: “He really was a bona fide jester with all the tricks of the trade up his sleeve.” Though these lengthy exchanges sometimes seem better suited to the stage, they effectively convey Francis’s grandiose, comic personality and the lively society that surrounded him. Readers will follow his adventures communing with animals, persuading the pope to allow him to preach, combating traditional hierarchy and violence, and outsmarting objections to his approach to Christianity. The tales are aided considerably by Fo’s bright, distinctive illustrations, which both pay homage to and transcend the stories’ 13th-century setting. Readers may not be left with a substantive understanding of St. Francis’s biography, but Fo succeeds in bringing him to lasting, appealing, revisionist life. Agent: Domitilla Ruffo, Agenzia Danesi Tolnay (Italy). (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Blue Ridge Sunrise

Denise Hunter. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-7180-9050-0

With mixed results, Hunter (The Convenient Groom) considers themes of trust and the corroding power of secrets in this weighty family drama wrapped in a winsome reunion tale. After five years away, Zoe Collins returns to Copper Creek, Ga. with her daughter and her protective boyfriend, Kyle, to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Soon Zoe learns that her grandmother left her the farm as well as a peach orchard. Instead of returning to Nashville with Kyle, Zoe decides to stay in Copper Creek and reboot her life. Old friendships are quickly rekindled and Zoe begins to make amends for her recent distance from her family. But the one thing Zoe didn’t plan on is her old flame, Cruz Huntley, being the orchard manager. Pieces seem to be falling almost too neatly into place until Cruz learns a secret about Zoe’s daughter that’s been kept hidden for years. Hunter creates characters that are loving but also determined and single-minded—leading to situations that escalate beyond the scope of reason. Overt references to God are few and far between, with faith informing the characters’ upbringings but not their behavior. Hunter admirably eschews any lightweight resolutions in favor of a heart-pounding story with dramatic twists. Agent: Karen Solem, Spencerhill. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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