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River House

Sally Keith. Milkweed (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-57131-465-9

In this heartbreaking and robust poetry collection, Keith (The Fact of the Matter) explores the complexity of the mind in the midst of grief. The work consists of 63 untitled, numbered poems, reflecting the age of Keith's mother when she died. Keith's poems intertwine Jacques Lecoq's concept of the neutral mask with the poet's efforts to relearn how to behave, react, and move the body after loss—to be "ductile, as in, to be flexible, to be able to be deformed." Every observation realigns itself to the permeating experience of loss and the determined preservation of memory. Keith's poems never exceed a page and are built primarily of couplets and tercets; they possess a quiet music, and their intricate scatters of thought bear witness to the intimate struggles of mourning. "You erase the voice from the answering machine./ You move the clothes from the floor or tossed on a chair.// You hope to talk in different ways./ You drive, you eat, you move." Keith skirts the edges of thought, wandering from literature to the river house where her family spent time, a space that holds the strong presence of her mother. "That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me," Keith reflects, "yet, I cannot help but crave conclusion." (May)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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No. 4 Imperial Lane

Jonathan Weisman. Twelve, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3045-8

Weisman, a New York Times economic policy reporter, successfully weaves a captivating story in his fiction debut. In 1988, David Heller, an affluent American college student on exchange at the University of Sussex to escape a home life consumed by grief, decides to extend his stay in order to spend more time with his British girlfriend. He takes a position in Brighton as a caregiver to keep his residency permit. Inside No. 4 Imperial Lane, David meets middle-aged Hans Bromwell, the quadriplegic he must care for; his sister, Elizabeth; and her beautiful teen daughter, Cristina. The Bromwells, children of the late Gordon Bromwell, a Tory member of parliament, live in the eccentric squalor of lapsed aristocracy; they make do through the sale of their remaining antiques. Elizabeth dreams of getting a job—it'd be her first—but her only education was from a tutor who knew nothing but Shakespeare. David finds himself drawn into the Bromwells' world. Through letters and stories, David learns of Elizabeth's marriage to a Portuguese military doctor and their life together in Africa in the waning, bloody days of the Portuguese empire. Weisman brings a reporter's sensibility to the chapters in Africa, but doesn't let it overshadow the storytelling, which has all the action and suspense of a good war story. The link between the third-person account of Elizabeth's time in Africa and David's first-person narrative in Brighton can feel disjointed at times, but Weisman imbues David with enough emotional heft to bridge these two stories about relationships, grief, and knowing how to return home. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Ambassador's Wife

Jennifer Steil. Doubleday, $26.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-53902-9

Steil, (The Woman Who Fell From the Sky) worked as a journalist in Yemen, and that experience clearly paved the way for her excellent debut novel. Miranda, an American artist, has recently married Finn, the British ambassador to Mazrooq, an impoverished, desert Arab nation (and fictional stand-in for Yemen) on the Arabian peninsula. Miranda is adjusting to her pampered and protected life as an ambassador's wife, complete with servants, bodyguards, visiting dignitaries, and diplomatic social events, in a violent country beset by poverty, illiteracy, civil strife, and terrorist attacks. She clandestinely teaches oil painting to Muslim women, a taboo act in Mazrooq. Finn also has a guilty secret, related to a disastrous event during a previous posting in Afghanistan. Miranda is kidnapped by terrorists while on a hike, beginning a horrifying ordeal of captivity; Finn is replaced as ambassador, but he refuses to leave without his wife, frantic with worry and despair. Miranda is only kept alive to breastfeed a tiny, malnourished baby girl, not knowing the significance of the child. Months pass without any word—no ransom demands, no claims. The story becomes increasingly high-stakes, culminating with betrayal and violence. This is a well-crafted, fast-paced novel, packed with ample suspense to keep the pages turning. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Sound of Our Steps

Ronit Matalon, trans. from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. Metropolitan, $32 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9160-1

Matalon (The One Facing Us) structures this exquisite novel as a series of short vignettes, painting a picture of life in an impoverished area of 1950s–1960s Tel Aviv. The family at the center of the story is composed of Lucette, the hard-working mother, who fled an abusive relationship in Egypt; her three children; and the children's volatile father, Maurice, who appears only occasionally. The eldest child, Sammy, works himself to exhaustion and refuses to cede the pride he takes in his working-class roots. The second is Corinne, who is obsessed with her appearance and struggles to move away from her family. The youngest, the protagonist, is so overlooked that she is only referred to as "the child." She takes in and recounts her family's story, examining quiet moments that gently alter the direction of their lives. Matalon's tale captures the tension that lies under Israel at all times, particularly for immigrants. Her beautiful language is kept intact by Bilu's deft translation. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The New Sorrows of Young W.

Ulrich Plenzdorf, trans. from the German by Romy Fursland. Pushkin Press (pushkinpress.com), $16 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-78227-094-2

Fursland's exciting new translation of Plenzdorf's breakout novel (which has been taught in classrooms throughout Germany since its publication in the early 1970s) begins after the body of 17-year-old star pupil Edgar Wibeau is discovered inside a condemned summer home in Berlin. Wibeau appears to have been electrocuted in a mysterious accident. Months earlier, Willi Linder, Edgar's best friend, received a series of tapes from Edgar in the mail. The recordings mention Edgar's crush on Charlie, a woman who's engaged to be married. Edgar's estranged father follows the tapes to trace his son's journey from Mittenberg to Berlin, speaks to Charlie, and then visits Edgar's last employer, Addi, in an attempt to uncover the cause of Edgar's death. Watching over his father's investigation, Edgar's spirit interjects to address readers and offer clarification. Edgar's voice is reminiscent of Holden Caulfield's, full of naïveté and and youthful arrogance, thoughtful and self-aware. Edgar appreciates jazz and film, and aspires to be an abstract painter. He is also well read and often references Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, quotes from which are employed to frame Edgar's story. The resulting intertextuality is more than aesthetic, not only advancing the narrative but also presenting a call and response between two celebrated German authors. Plenzdorf's novel is a touching and tragic coming-of-age tale that utilizes other pieces of art to examine life in East Germany. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Zagreb Cowboy

Allen Mattich. House of Anansi/Spiderline (PGW/Perseus, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $15.95 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-77089-108-1

Mattich's marvelous neo-noir debut begins in 1991. Balkan war is in the air, the weather is grim, and Marko Della Torre is in the backseat of a Mercedes saloon, sandwiched between Elvis-lookalike Bosnian hit men, on his way to a shallow grave. Marko is an anticorruption officer with Yugoslavia's much-feared secret police, but he isn't above making some cash on the side selling files to Strumbic, a crooked cop. After escaping the Bosnian hoods, Marko realizes Strumbic set him up. Now wanted for crimes against the state, he goes on the run across Croatia and Slovenia, through Italy to London, following the dirty money Strumbic stashed and trying to unravel why Strumbic, the Bosnians, and a mysterious old-guard Communist all want him dead. Morals are murky and loyalties confusing, and Mattich gives the novel a nihilistic yet sprightly sardonic tone. He includes some terrifically funny hard-boiled dialogue, a nice backdrop of Balkan politics, and a few wonderful secondary characters, such as Marko's lovably forlorn boss, Anzulovic, who's giving chase while still hoping that Marko is innocent. The action loses a bit of steam once the story moves to London but promisingly opens the door for a follow-up. Agent: Hilary McMahon, Westwood Creative Artists. (July)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Against a Darkening Sky

Lauren B. Davis. ChiZine (Diamond, U.S. dist.; PGC/Raincoast, Canadian dist.), $16.99 trade paper (311p) ISBN 978-1-77148-318-6

Davis (Our Daily Bread) takes readers to seventh-century Northumbria as great change sweeps the land and long-held pagan traditions are threatened by the arrival of Christianity. In the village of Ad Gefrin, this tension is depicted through the eyes of Wilona, a strong-willed apprentice seithkona (or "spell woman"), and Egan, a zealous but good-hearted Christian monk. Despite their opposing faiths, there are many parallels between Wilona and Egan, as both were led to their spirituality at a young age, and both honor their beliefs with a conviction that many others cannot understand. However, while Wilona is trained by Touilt, the village seithkona, to heal with plants and runes, recite sacred charms, and commune with the elemental spirits, Egan studies Latin, meditates upon Christian prayer, and prostrates himself to feel closer to God. When Egan arrives in Ad Gefrin to promote the Christian mission, Wilona and Touilt come up against growing distrust from their once-loyal neighbors and intensifying pressure to join in forsaking their ancestral gods. Set against an otherworldly, intimate backdrop, Davis's tale vividly brings to life a near-mythic period of British history while speaking to universal human experience. Agent: David Forrer, Inkwell Management. (May)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Acolyte

Nick Cutter. ChiZine (Diamond, U.S. dist.; PGC/Raincoast, Canadian dist.), $16.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-77148-328-5

Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated author Craig Davidson, writing under the Cutter pseudonym, adds another title to his growing repertoire of genre fiction. Unlike his previous two novels, this is not a horror story per se but rather a dark dystopian tale of a theocracy run amok. Jonah Murtag works in the city of New Bethlehem, in what appears to be the U.S. in an unspecified future. as a member of an elite religious police force called the Acolytes. While on a routine assignment, Jonah witnesses an extraordinary act of terrorism that forces him to question whom he trusts and what he believes. Jonah must hurry to discover who is behind the bombings before they reduce his city to rubble—and before he loses his own head in the process. Though the premise is promising and Cutter's imaginative capabilities are undeniable, the story buckles under the weight of subplots, tangents, and disappointing sentimentality. New characters and new plot lines are introduced throughout, as are digressive notes about life in New Bethlehem, which on their own may be interesting but mostly serve to distract readers from an already complicated narrative. Cutter masterfully manages the atmosphere of his grim vision, but his lack of focus is tiring and his underlying message about the unshakable nature of faith is uninspired. (May)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Twain’s End

Lynn Cullen. S&S/Gallery, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5896-1

The extraordinary relationship between the popular, complicated author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, and his longtime secretary Isabel Lyon is wonderfully reimagined in this absorbing novel. Cullen (Mrs. Poe) depicts an immensely talented and virile, yet crude, hot-tempered, self-centered late-in-life Samuel, whose own children fear him and who remains tormented by his childhood with slave-owning parents—sordid realities that lie beneath the famous wit. Raised wealthy, Isabel must work after her father dies; she becomes social secretary to Livy Clemens, Samuel’s seriously ill wife, but in reality, she works for Samuel. Isabel is devoted, scheduling appearances, managing employees, paying bills and becoming the confidante to an aging, increasingly troubled, regretful man: “I kill the people I love with words,” he confides to Isabel. An intimacy develops, yet certain lines are not crossed. Messy romantic entanglements involving Samuel’s daughter Clara and her lover, Samuel’s business manager and Isabel, and even a visiting Helen Keller and her teacher’s husband make Samuel enraged and distrustful. Isabel and Samuel’s memorabilia are the basis of Cullen’s fascinating interpretation of this early 20th-century literary immortal, distinguished by incisive character portrayals and no-holds-barred scrutiny. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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To Desire a Highlander

Sue-Ellen Welfonder. Grand Central/Forever, $7.99 mass market (416p) ISBN 978-1-4555-2628-4

The lead couple in Welfonder’s second Scandalous Scots medieval romance (after To Love a Highlander) unexpectedly cede center stage to the author’s purple prose (“a terribly tingly warmth spread across her moist, private places”) and melodramatic storytelling. The serviceable plot is given just enough of a twist to avoid staleness. Instead of the usual device of a knight sent to take control of an area by marrying into local nobility, Roag the Bear assumes the identity of a dead man, Donnell MacDonnell, to use the man’s Hebridean island as a base to stop attacks against his king’s ships. MacDonnell was betrothed, so Roag must handfast Lady Gillian MacGuire, who last saw her loathsome fiancé five years earlier and cannot understand how this handsome man could be her husband-to-be. Roag isn’t the only one with secrets. Gillian’s look innocuous enough, but there’s an unnecessary doozy among them. Unfortunately, Welfonder metes out almost every revelation so slowly that her storytelling has a staged feel to it, which overshadows the actual romance. Agent: Roberta Brown, Brown Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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