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Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be A-Holes: Unfiltered Advice on How to Raise Awesome Kids

Karen Alpert. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $19 (272p) ISBN 978-0-358-34627-2

Baby Sideburns blogger Alpert (I Want My Epidural Back) stays on brand with this foul-mouthed, hilarious guide to shepherding kids from being “douchenuggets” to well-adjusted young adults. Alpert’s discussion of her parenting approach hinges on balance: it’s okay to get angry, she writes, so long as there are also moments of kindness that kids will “remember forever.” She maintains that for the most part, parents naturally know what the outcomes of poor parenting choices will be (the “No Shit Sherlock” approach), and should follow their instincts. She covers such topics as bullies (taking a “kill them with kindness” approach), fostering creativity (embrace mess), and sports (knowing how to lose is key), and slips in touching moments without giving up her lighthearted tone (a story of watching her daughter’s resilience after a fall in an ice-skating performance is especially moving). While Alpert doesn’t bring in experts to back up her approach and can’t show success in her own seven and nine year olds’ path to adulthood, her plea that parents trust themselves is refreshing. Readers with young kids will find affirmation and camaraderie in Alpert’s humorous and entertaining takes. Agent: Rachel Sussman, Chalberg & Sussman. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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At the Chinese Table: A Memoir with Recipes

Carolyn Phillips. Norton, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-00245-1

In this multifaceted memoir, food writer Phillips (All Under Heaven) vividly recounts her love affair with Chinese cuisine. In 1976, she arrived in Taipei as a student and made her “greatest culinary discovery that first year”: pork ribs “soaked in a spicy marinade... over equally buttery chunks of sweet potato.” She remained in Taiwan for several years after falling in love with her now-husband, J.H., a local who broadened her palette and inspired her to recreate some of his favorite traditional dishes, including pig’s head with stir-fried scapes. Phillips’s reflections are peppered with humor (“My Mandarin... must have sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard”), and she provides ample historical and cultural context, especially when discussing J.H.’s family history. As she remembers cooking alongside her Hakka father-in-law, she explains that the word Hakka is “used to label a people, heritage, and cuisine, rather than a particular locale.” Phillips pairs every chapter with a few recipes­—among them black sesame candy wafers (her father-in-law’s favorite), garlic chile sauce, and Yunnan cold rice noodles—that ambitious home chefs will want to try. The blend of cooking, culture, and romance make this an irresistible treat for food lovers and travelers. (June)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Measuring Up: A Memoir

Dan Robson. Viking, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-735-23469-7

Canadian journalist Robson (Quinn) reflects on the death of his father and the emotional awakening it inspired in this quietly moving memoir. He begins in 2015, when his 59-year-old father, Rick, suffered a stroke. Though the initial prognosis was positive, swelling in Rick’s brain soon killed him. Despite the fact that they’d been very close, Robson always struggled with feelings of inadequacy around Rick, an expert craftsman and contractor whose practical skills never trickled down to his son. “He had assembled the world we lived in and he, quite literally, held it together,” writes Robson. In an effort to keep his father’s memory alive, he set out to renovate his parents’ Toronto home, where his mother still lived. As he works away at the project using his father’s tools, he unspools fond recollections of their time together, writing about his father taking him to hockey practice as a boy in the ’90s, the “dadest of dad jokes,” and the huge impact his father made on others—as seen in one particularly heartrending passage when his father helped a stranger overcome addiction. This powerful story of loss and healing demonstrates the positive difference one life can make. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead and Assoc. (May)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Day She Died

S.M. Freedman. Dundurn, $15.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-4597-4740-1

In the first chapter of this dreamy tale of sin and guilt from Canadian author Freedman (The Faithful), a car fatally strikes Vancouver artist Eve Gold on her 27th birthday. Flashbacks, many of them to birthdays, fill in Eve’s life story. Eve has a love-hate relationship with her mother, Donna, who puts her as a young teen into a psychiatric hospital, where she drifts in and out of consciousness. After Eve’s release, her best friend, Sara Adler, dies on Sara’s 17th birthday, but it’s unclear whether Sara’s death was an accident or Eve had a part in it. Sara’s brother, Leigh, to whom Eve is drawn, may also have had something to do with the death. A short time later, Donna is murdered on Eve’s 17th birthday, and her grandmother, who disapproves of her relationship with Leigh, ensures that she pursues an art career. Fully rounded characters compensate in part for the confusing jumping back and forth in time and the lack of clarity about what’s really happening and what’s imagined. This works better as a character study than as a mystery. Agent: Kim Lionetti, BookEnds Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Cleaner

Mark Dawson. Welbeck, $24.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-78739-512-1

Government assassin John Milton (aka Number One), the hero of this outstanding series launch from British author Dawson (the Beatrix Rose series), seeks personal atonement after his 137th assigned kill goes wrong. His handler, known as Control, blames the botched mission, which targeted a pair of married scientists who until recently worked for Iraq’s Atomic Energy Agency, on Milton, who abruptly quits his morally questionable service to queen and country. He moves to London’s low-income East End, where he becomes involved with a single mother desperately struggling to keep her 15-year-old son out of gang entanglements. Through an AA contact, Milton tries to help the boy develop his boxing talent. Meanwhile, Control orders Number Twelve to track down Milton and kill him. Powerful descriptions of London’s seamiest streets provide the backdrop for Milton’s painful attempts, punctuated by dream flashbacks into his murderous past, to restore his battered soul. Readers will look forward to the further exploits of this unusually sympathetic lead. Agent: Annabel Merullo, Peters, Fraser, & Dunlop (U.K.). (May)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bonnie Jack

Ian Hamilton. House of Anansi, $17.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4870-0708-9

This glacially paced novel with minor mystery subplots from Hamilton (the Ava Lee series) focuses on Jack Anderson, the head of a successful Massachusetts insurance company. On Thanksgiving 1989, Jack reveals to his family that he has lied about his past to everyone, including his wife, Anne. When Anderson was six years old, his mother took him and his older sister, Moira, to a movie double feature in Glasgow, Scotland, where they lived. After the first film ended, she told Jack she was just going to take Moira to the bathroom; instead, she abandoned him. When the authorities contacted Jack’s father, the father told them he wasn’t interested, and Jack ended up in foster care, eventually getting adopted by an American couple, whom Anderson has said are his birth parents. Jack finds Moira, who agrees to meet, and after Jack and Anne travel to Scotland, they learn more family secrets and wind up dealing with violent criminals. Hamilton tells rather than shows, an approach that further lessens the emotional impact of the plot’s surprises. Contrivances that enable resolution of serious issues don’t aid engagement with either the story or its characters. This is for Hamilton fans only. (June)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Past That Breathes

Noel A. Obiora. Rare Bird, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-644281-70-3

At the start of attorney Obiora’s debut, a slow-moving, unconvincing legal thriller, Goldie “Footsie” Silberberg, a white “songstress,” is found strangled in her Los Angeles apartment early in 1995. Suspicion soon focuses on African American songwriter Paul Jackson, Footsie’s ex-boyfriend, who was seen arguing with her the day she died. After Jackson’s arrest, his case is assigned to a junior prosecutor, deputy DA Amy Wilson, because, according to Amy’s supervisor, Kate Peck, Amy had “been exposed to publicity” all her life because her family owns a pharmaceutical company and other large businesses and would be able to handle the high-profile Jackson case better than anyone else. Suspending disbelief becomes even harder when Kate asserts that the prosecution won’t get overshadowed by the ongoing murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Unnecessary melodrama includes Amy’s courtroom adversary, Kenneth Brown, being a college classmate of hers for whom she once had feelings. The courtroom scenes don’t ring true, and run-on sentences are a minus (“Invariably though, the nights lose something, like the feeling that the table between you and the person across from you is a well that either falls into an abyss of uncertain excitement or a life-changing mistake and the joy of knowing he is willing to take the leap across just to get to you”). This exploration of how race impacts the criminal justice system disappoints. (June)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bolt from the Blue

Jeremy Cooper. Fitzcarraldo, $15.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-913097-46-2

A mother dies and a daughter is left struggling to understand their idiosyncratic relationship in this quietly moving epistolary work from Cooper (Ash Before Oak). For more than 30 years, Lynn Gallagher and her mother have primarily communicated through letters, emails, and postcards. Beginning with Lynn’s first year as an art student in London and spanning the course of a successful filmmaking career, the surviving correspondence often reflects an aloofness on Lynn’s part, and her prefatory narration makes clear that the episodic silences were her choice. Ambitious, and prone to exclamation marks and the occasional biting comment, Lynn always seems to know what she wants and what she doesn’t. Her mother, meanwhile, can be resigned, emotionally reserved, and resentful of Lynn’s ebullient missives on art and politics, but she also secretly visits Lynn’s screenings in disguise. Shared between them is a mixture of affection and loathing that they explore in brief bursts, without resolution or revelation. Thin-seeming at the beginning, the book becomes deeply intimate thanks to the two women’s distinctive voices and the effect of three decades upon their dynamic. The result is a memorable portrait of difficult love, and a captivating tour of the London art scene. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/30/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure

Menachem Kaiser. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-328-50803-4

Kaiser debuts with a spellbinding account of his quest to reclaim an apartment building that was once owned by his grandfather but taken from him by the Nazis. Kaiser is frank about the context of his reclamation. For starters, he’d never met his grandfather. But after a visit to Sosnowiec, Poland, in 2015, Kaiser took it upon himself to repossess the property his family lost during the Holocaust. Hiring a lawyer (called “The Killer”) to represent him, Kaiser set out on a twisty path as shocking information on his lineage came to light—namely, that his grandfather’s cousin, Abraham Kajzer, wrote a secret memoir while working as a slave laborer on the Nazi’s mysterious Riese project. This revelation caught the attention of a group of eccentric Silesian treasure hunters who believed Kaiser was Abraham’s own grandson, suddenly turning him into a pseudo-celebrity. Meanwhile, the complicated legacy of WWII haunts Kaiser: the people who lived in his grandfather’s building “benefited from the wholesale murder of my family,” he writes. (“Let’s embrace the stereotypes, I’ll be the Jew coming back for his property and you be the fearful Pole.”) Yet at the same time, he wonders if, by upending people’s lives with his claim, he’s complicit in the problem, too. Superbly written, this page-turner reads like a gripping adventure novel. Agent: Janet Silver, Aevitas Creative Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth

Michael Spitzer. Bloomsbury, $35 (656p) ISBN 978-1-635-57624-5

Musicologist Spitzer (A History of Emotion in Western Music) explores music as a consistent presence in the human experience in this meticulously researched work. He argues that, over time, man has become less an active participant in vocal sound, instrumentation, and body expression and more a passive listener. To bolster his position, he surveys the biblical era, tribal cultures, and the history of European empires, noting, for instance, that ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras “lectured to his disciples behind a screen so that they could hear his voice without being able to see his face.” (His disciples were called the akousmatikoi, translating to “ ‘those who hear’, and the term ‘acousmatic’ came to define the condition of musical listening in the West.”) Ancient civilizations in Africa and Australia, meanwhile, relied on vocalization, rhythm, and movement to preserve the past. As Spitzer weaves through musical developments, he points out how Beethoven’s compositions were about “life, emotion and the spirit,” and examines how cultural attitudes of the 11th century prompted a moving away from primitive sounds in Western classic music. It’s a noble if muddled effort to explain millions of years in sound and the components of it that shaped human lives then and now. This one’s for specialists only. Agent: Jonathan Gregory, Antony Harwood. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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