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Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan

Erika Fatland, trans. from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Pegasus, $29.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-64313-326-3

Norwegian social anthropologist Fatland (The Village of Angels) details her eight-month trip through “five of the newest countries in the world” in this fascinating memoir. Traveling through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the former Soviet republics that all became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991—Fatland details the peculiarities of “the Stans” (Persian for “ ‘place’ or ‘lands’ ”): “Turkmenistan is more than eighty per cent desert, whereas more than ninety per cent of Tajikistan is mountains; the regime in Uzbekistan is so corrupt it’s comparable to North Korea, while the people in Kyrgyzstan have deposed two presidents.” But what Fatland finds throughout her travels is a nostalgia for the “good old days” when “the world was red... the shops were full of tinned food.” Anachronistic practices still exist, such as the problem of bride snatching in Kyrgyz villages, and there are several desolate places, such as Polygon in Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons. Ultimately, Fatland concludes that these nations are “still struggling to find their identity, bridging the span between east and west.” Her remarkable look at the region serves as a solid introduction to an area that remains little traveled by those from the West. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Lady Hotspur

Tessa Gratton. Tor, $29.99 (592p) ISBN 978-0-7653-9249-7

Gratton returns to the expansive world of The Queens of Innis Lear with this intricately layered fantasy, a loose, gender-bent adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. A prophecy predicts disaster for three closely entwined women in the kingdom of Aremoria. When Hal’s mother overthrows the king, Hal is expected to transition from hard-living Lady Knight to respectable heir to the throne. Hal’s best friend, Banna Mora, daughter of the conquered king, is exiled. Lady Hotspur, Aremoria’s fiercest warrior, is as devoted to her country as she is to her lover, Hal, and dear friend, Banna Mora, but knows that the demands of status will force her and Hal to part eventually. Hal is focused on avoiding responsibility, drinking, and finding ways to be with Hotspur, while jealous Banna Mora schemes to take Aremoria back. Hotspur is forced to choose between her reckless lover and the ruler she thinks would do right by her kingdom. Gratton’s lush world is full of magic, mischievous spirits, and otherworldly rituals. Readers won’t have to be familiar with either the previous book or the source material to appreciate this well-crafted, if over long, fantasy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms

Matthias Roberts. Fortress, $16.99 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-5064-5566-2

Therapist Roberts debuts with a pithy dissection of shame that delivers useful insights for a coherent, healthy sexual ethics. He opens with a discussion of three ways people cope with the pervasive shame around sex that Christianity has encouraged. They can live shamefully by keeping their sexual desires and actions secret, they can attempt to leave their faith shamelessly (which only temporarily removes the psychic pain), or they can bumble somewhere in the middle with unclear ideas and ad hoc solutions. Before providing the resolution to these approaches, Roberts hastily unpacks various inaccurate views that have informed Christian sexuality, including that the Bible is unambiguously consistent, pro-patriarchy, and anti-queer. For Roberts, the way through shame is gaining comfort with four paradoxes about sex: that it is both healthy and risky, that it causes and covers vulnerability, that it needs safety while being inherently unsafe, and that one has to make mistakes to use it correctly. The author’s explanations of the physiological responses to sex, openness to many varieties of sex (including hookups), and personal stories of clients combine into a persuasive argument about honoring and understanding sex as connection. All readers, especially LGBTQ Christians, will come away feeling energized and equipped to deploy the suggestions for healthier sexuality without the weight of shame. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Moorish: Vibrant Recipes from the Mediterranean

Ben Tish. Bloomsbury, $36 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4729-5807-5

London chef Tish uses Moorish influence as a launchpad for this exuberant, if culturally freewheeling, debut. The Moors—Muslims who colonized areas of Spain and Italy for centuries—firmly stamped their mark on southern European cuisine, and here Tish presents solid if sometimes curious takes on Moorish cooking. A chapter titled “Fresh” includes a watermelon salad with blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and Moscatel vinegar as well as a fried squid that’s coated with chickpea batter and served with orange aoili, and includes sardines al saor—a Venetian Jewish dish—because “it is such a lovely plate of food that I can’t bring myself to exclude it.” No matter—the food is inventive, often brilliantly so: fish cured in bergamot juice is topped with spicy Calabrian sausage, and venison skewers are coated with quince glaze. He pairs rice and black beans (known in Spain as Christians and Moors) with tender simmered octopus, and a puff pastry chicken pie—a signature dish at Tish’s Alhambra Palace restaurant—is cooked on a charcoal grill. Desserts are standouts: cassata is colored forest green with Iranian pistachios, and cookies are made with lard (to weed out hidden Jews and Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition) and toasted flour. Home cooks will delight in Tish’s alluring, Moorish-inspired recipes. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace

Nikki Haley. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (262p) ISBN 978-1-250-26655-2

Former South Carolina governor Haley (Can’t Is Not an Option) delivers a selective and self-serving account of her stewardship of her home state in the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church shooting and her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley movingly describes trying to call Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, State Senator Clementa Pickney, before she realized he was one of the shooter’s nine victims. She takes issue with President Obama for—according to her interpretation of his remarks—suggesting that the Southern “way of life” was to blame for the murders, and details the bipartisan vote to remove the Confederate flag from state house grounds. Haley admits to not knowing much about the UN ahead of her appointment (except that “most Americans didn’t like it”), but takes credit for convincing Russia and China to support sanctions against North Korea and standing up to the General Assembly’s “anti-Israel bias.” She paints Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House chief of staff John Kelly as “disloyal to the president,” and claims that Trump has a right “to change his mind,” even if it leads to the embarrassment of others. Haley’s unwillingness to fully address the counterarguments to her policy positions undermines her authority, and her claims to have left the UN before the 2018 midterms simply because she needed “to take a breath” will ring false to readers keeping track of how often she describes herself as “ambitious” and “no wallflower.” As groundwork for a future campaign, however, this carefully worded memoir does its job. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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China in Another Time: A Personal Story

Claire Malcolm Lintilhac. Rootstock, $39.95 (246p) ISBN 978-1-57869-019-0

In this posthumously published illustrated memoir, Lintilhac, the daughter of an American missionary doctor, endearingly tells of her life as a rural nurse in China. Born in a remote village in North China during the final days of the Qing Dynasty in 1899, Lintilhac spent her life in small communities, working as a traveling nurse or in hospitals before moving to Vermont in 1958. During her time in China, she witnessed the Boxer Rebellion, a decade of warlords, and the country’s transition from a dynastic nation to an early incarnation as a Communist country. She kept copious notes, and her son, Phillip Linthilac, used those along with excerpts from hours of interviews (some of which readers can listen to via the book’s companion website) to assemble this remarkable tale. She shares copious stories and photos of events she witnessed: treating patients during a typhoon, making water drinkable pre-industrialization, the custom of foot binding, the Battle of Shanghai, and the rise of Mao. Her view of a crucial period of transition is truly a marvel to behold. This impressive work is sure to add depth and color to the reader’s understanding of early 20th-century China. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Providence After Dark and Other Writings

T.E.D. Klein. Hippocampus, $30 (592p) ISBN 978-1-61498-268-5

Spanning nearly a half-century, the 61 essays, editorials, articles, reviews, op-ed pieces, and letters collected in this miscellany are a sumptuous sampling of the author’s appreciations and critiques of (among other topics) writing, books, and film. Klein (Reassuring Tales) is best known as a writer of weird fiction, the subject of half of the book’s contents, and he includes insightful appraisals of the work of Ramsey Campbell, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and other horror luminaries, as well as “Horrors! An Introduction to Writing Horror Fiction,” a feature written during his influential tenure as the editor of Twilight Zone magazine that is both an instructive guide for aspiring horror writers and a potted history of the genre’s best authors and works. He also writes perceptively about movies, even though, as he notes in the genially self-deprecating “How I Flopped as a Paramount Script Reader,” he was not good at spotting commercially viable film material. Each of the book’s six sections ends with an interview in which Klein is allowed to expand on himself as well as his interests. In one, conducted in 2016, he encourages readers of genre fiction “to read more nonfiction in general”—an advisory that his fans will find this book fulfills. Those new to Klein’s work will be inspired to seek out his fiction after finishing this compulsively readable collection. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man

Rod Duncan. Angry Robot, $12.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-85766-844-8

Illusionist spy Elizabeth Barnabus has barely returned from her pirate voyage in The Outlaw and the Upstart King when she is forced to venture back to the fringes of the Gas-Lit Empire in the exhilarating third installment of Duncan’s The Map of Unknown Things series. Upon returning to London, Elizabeth must recount her adventures to the hostile Patent Office, a clever bit of exposition that will ease new readers into the steam punk world of this alternate history. When the Patent Office brands Elizabeth a traitor, she flees to America and the untamed wilds of the Oregon territory to track down her long-lost twin, Edwin, and prove her patriotism by finding evidence of the forces threatening the Empire. Despite years of separation and differing politics, Elizabeth and Edwin’s bond is intense and their reunion touching. Edwin comes out to Elizabeth as nonbinary, leading to a tender exploration of gender identity. But trouble’s brewing in Oregon, and Elizabeth is torn between loyalty to her twin or her beloved Empire. The charismatic duo at the heart of this adventure are sure to please. Agent: Ed Wilson, Johnson & Alcock. (Jan)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Concert of the Night

Jonathan Buckley. New York Review Books, $15.95 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-68137-395-9

This underwhelming American debut from British author Buckley follows a grieving man’s yearlong journal. Late-middle-aged David, divorced and running the Sanderson-Perceval Museum of local history and scientific oddities, pedals back and forth across his life through a series of vignettes and ruminations centered on his former partner, actor Imogen. Now that she’s gone, David revisits her work in several arthouse films as he tries to navigate his life alone, dealing with his ex-wife, his sister, and a transient young man named William whom Imogen encourages him to befriend. While David’s takes on history and literature are insightful and often pleasurable to read, and his evolving, fatherlike relationship to William is moving, the narrator is a confounding character. He seemingly prefers to do nothing, to be alone with his work, and he grumpily disapproves of everyone—from his ex-wife’s new lover to Imogen’s on-screen costars, whom he criticizes for overacting or lack of skill. The women in his life—who all seem to adore him despite himself—appear one-dimensional. Imogen, particularly, is distractingly precocious, and her dreamgirl qualities come across as ridiculous without adding anything to readers’ understanding of David’s psyche or his relationships with women. This novel is far too interested in its narrator’s own supposed brilliance than in the concepts it pertains to be about. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Barefoot Woman

Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. from the French by Jordan Stump. Archipelago, $16 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-939810-04-5

Decades after the 1994 Rwandan genocide that took the lives of the author’s parents and siblings, Mukasonga (Cockroaches) looks back at her resilient, resourceful mother Stefania in this intense tale of an exiled Tutsi family struggling to retain their culture and dignity despite brutality and death. Driven from her lush homeland in 1960 to “the dry, dusty plain of the Bugesera” by Hutu leadership following the end of Belgian rule, Stefania focused on saving her children, including four-year-old Mukasonga, as she attempted to recreate the framework of Tutsi life. Refusing to raise her family in a cheap sheet metal shack, Stefania built a traditional inzu, “a house made of straw woven like a basket,” because “it was only in the ancestral dwelling place that she’d find the strength and courage... to face our misfortunes.” In telling her mother’s story, Mukasonga, who fled to France in 1992, documents the Tutsi way of life as she describes growing and harvesting sorghum for the brewing of beer, medicine and healing practices, and Tutsi beauty standards and marriage customs. Ultimately, Mukasonga’s created a loving tribute to her mother: “My sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.” Despite the horrible tragedies recounted throughout, joy prevails in this beautiful and elegiac memoir. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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