Fiction by Stanišić, the Life of a Woman in the Selma March, and a Boatload of Debuts | Xpress Reviews

Week ending July 1, 2016

Bennett, Claire-Louise. Pond. Riverhead. Jul. 2016. 208p. ISBN 9780399575891. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399575914. F
[DEBUT] Even as it focuses on life’s everyday details—“the commonplace order of things,” as the unidentified speaker would say—Irish author Bennett’s linked-vignette debut novel remains luminous and endlessly fascinating. For these small moments give way to endless reflection revealing the speaker’s rich interior life and how, in fact, our movement through the mundane can release a blazing stream of thought. The placement of bowls on a sill, the best way to eat porridge, a big event at the landlady’s (the reason forgotten) prompting a donation of colored straws, dirt from the garden showing through polished fingernails, the stove’s knobs, the sound of the dryer, collecting sticks after a storm, and recalling a speaking engagement (about the brutality of love, which the speaker seems to skirt, enjoying men mostly when inebriated): all inspire commentary delivered in a measured, matter-of-fact tone that’s at once almost funnily earnest and lyrically, thoughtfully deep. In one scene, the speaker describes two artworks she has bought—black cloths with rose-gold stitches that seem partly picked away but on careful inspection converge into sharp and affecting scenes telling a story. That’s how this novel works.
Verdict Highly recommended for discriminating readers. [See Prepub Alert, 2/1/16.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review starLee, Krys. How I Became a North Korean. Viking. Aug. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780670025688. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399563935. F
howibecame070116[DEBUT] After the brutal murder of his father and the wrenching separation from his mother and sister, Yongju must survive a new life of deprivation after his privileged upbringing as the only son of one of North Korea’s power elite. Danny, a misfit immigrant teen in southern California, abandons his father to join his mother in China, only to run away, feeling she’s betrayed his trust. Jangmi, desperate to protect her unborn child, escapes her North Korean village and becomes the purchased wife of a damaged Chinese man with a spoiled daughter. Through an unlikely combination of adversity and serendipity, the three young people will converge in a house of God—as victims of abuse and beneficiaries of benevolence. Drawing on her personal experiences working with North Korean refugees, Lee crafts an extraordinary narrative that is both contemporary testimony and literary achievement.
Verdict Arriving five years after her exquisite short story collection debut, Drifting House, Lee’s first novel should further elevate her reputation as one of the most elegant, impeccable voices of her youthful generation. Devotees of authors able to navigate effortlessly between short and longer forms, including Jhumpa Lahiri and Adam Johnson, will certainly be blessed to discover Lee’s work. [See Prepub Alert, 2/21/16.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC

starred review starMcInerney, Lisa. The Glorious Heresies. Tim Duggan: Crown. Aug. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780804189064. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780804189088. F
[DEBUT] Jimmy Phelan, the most merciless gangster in Cork, is also a family man. So when his mother, Maureen, accidentally kills an intruder in her kitchen, he enlists old friend Tony Cusack to clean up the mess. Tony has his own problems, though. The father of six and a drinker, Tony has a teenage son named Ryan who deals drugs for one of Jimmy’s rivals. And now one of Ryan’s customers, a prostitute name Georgie, has started asking after the whereabouts of her boyfriend Robbie. How did Maureen discover the identity of the boy she murdered? And how did Georgie find out that Robbie had been in Maureen’s kitchen? The Cusacks’ meddling neighbor Tara Duane may have some answers. But Jimmy’s only interested in what Tony is willing to do to stop tongues from wagging.
Verdict Award-winning blogger McInerney’s first novel offers a fresh and surprising view of Cork’s underclasses. Her characters are eloquent thugs and addicts, revealing in their crises Ireland’s social decline. Her work has heart and reads like a thrilling blend of the best of Anne Enright and James Kelman. [See Prepub Alert, 2/8/16.]—John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman

Pretorius, Michelle. The Monster’s Daughter. Melville House. Jul. 2016. 464p. ISBN 9781612195384. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781612195391. F
[DEBUT] It’s 2010: Alet is a disgraced and demoted South African policewoman trying to dig her way out of the sleepy, backwater town to which she had been exiled. When a woman is found murdered in a gruesome and ritualistic way, Alet seizes the opportunity to solve the investigation and get back into her superiors’ good graces. As Alet and the local chief investigating officer, Mathebe, work their way through the victim’s complicated life, conspiracies and old prejudices cloud the truth. In 1901, a doctor in a British-run South African concentration camp performs horrific genetic experiments on young female Boer prisoners and their unborn babies. The surviving children are different, engineered to be the next step in human evolution. All that survivors Ben and Tessa want, however, is a normal life together. The decisions they make and their “gifts” from the genetic experiments will steer the course to a horrific murder a century later.
Verdict Pretorius has written an impressive and well-executed debut novel, toeing the line between mystery, suspense, and sf. Readers who enjoy such international crime fiction authors as Stieg Larsson or Louise Penny will find this title a chilling read.—Jennifer Funk, McKendree Univ. Lib., Lebanon, IL

starred review starScott, J. Todd. The Far Empty. Putnam. Jun. 2016. 448p. ISBN 9780399176340. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780698408272. F
[DEBUT] Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross seeks answers to his mother’s disappearance more than a year ago. When Chris Cherry, an ex-football star from Baylor University, reluctantly returns home to Murfee, TX, Caleb’s father, Sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross, hires Chris as his deputy. During a routine investigation, Chris unearths skeletal remains in the surrounding badlands. Caleb and Chris are then inexorably drawn to the same conclusion: the charismatic Sheriff Ross is the prime suspect.
Verdict Scott’s masterly debut delivers a complex, suspenseful entry in the Western noir genre. Devotees of Tony Hillerman (Leaphorn/Chee series) and Craig Johnson (Longmire series) will enjoy the intricate plot. Fans of Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian; “Border” trilogy) will appreciate the evocative rural Texas setting and the gritty depiction of the characters. [See Prepub Alert, 12/21/15.]—Russell Michalak, Goldey-Beacom Coll. Lib., Wilmington, DE

starred review starStanišić, Saša. Before the Feast. Tin House. Jun. 2016. 316p. tr. from German by Anthea Bell. ISBN 9781941040393. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040409. F
beforethefeast070116Stanišić follows up his brilliantly cockeyed debut, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, with a second novel set in the German village of Fürsenfelde in contemporary times—“our lousy, lovely, hypocritical, life-saving, reinvented Europe.” The feel, though, is timeless, even archaic, as the narrative’s increasingly agitated events unfold on the night of the Anna Feast, a major town event whose purpose is now lost. Among the townsfolk we meet are Silent Suzi, Lada, and Johann the apprentice bell-ringer, gathering by the lake before heading off to Ulli’s garage to drink; Herr Schramm, a conflicted former lieutenant-colonel of the National People’s Army; bossy Frau Schwermuth of the Homeland House; and Franz Kranz, who’s been documenting the town through her paintings for decades, just as Stanišić documents it in his writing. The narrative sometimes leaps back in time to mostly mythic events said to have shaped the town, with references made to the town’s ferryman and a guardian fox—significantly, because modern-day Fürsenfelde’s ferryman has just died and a vixen creeps knowingly along the town’s edge.
Verdict Though the novel resonates with the importance of times past, many of the rituals of the Anna Feast have been lost, revealing how slippery and mutable history can be. The luminous yet precise language recalls the best of Jim Crace. Highly recommended.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien. Sarong Party Girls. Morrow. Jul. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780062448965. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062448989. F
[DEBUT] This is a delightful glimpse into the lives of a group of twentysomething women in Singapore. However, it is not, as its promotional info proclaims, Emma set in Asia. Jazzy is determined that by year’s end she and her girlfriends Sher, Imo, and Fann—sarong party girls, a real term referring to Asian women who only date and prefer rich white men, or ang moh—will marry wealthy expats. Tan (A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family) uses Singlish, a patois that most Singaporeans use, a mix of English and several other dialects. It adds to the flavor and is easy to follow after a few pages. Jazzy is very witty and renders painfully honest truths about herself, her friends, and the men they encounter as they make the club scene night after night. Descriptions of the protagonist’s relationships with her parents and friends are surprisingly moving. Things take a more serious turn as Jazzy matures and realizes perhaps what she most cherishes is not surface things but more meaningful choices such as love and loyalty.
Verdict Those who enjoy a spirited and explicit look at contemporary dating and romance will most enjoy. [See Prepub Alert, 1/11/16.]—Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL

Williams, Andrea & Matty Rich. Bev. Karen Hunter: Gallery. Jun. 2016. 260p. ISBN 9781476797359. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781476797366. F
Based on the life of Beverly Luther, a white social worker from New York City and a little-known figure in the 1960s civil rights movement, this fictionalized account holds true to the historical events, specifically the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. When Bev’s friend Mickey Schwerner is murdered in Mississippi while trying to register African Americans to vote, his death ignites a desire in Bev to help, and she travels to Alabama. But she soon discovers that many of the rural black citizens are more concerned with surviving then with fighting political battles. In assisting with the organization of the Selma march, Bev is assigned to screen participants to remove anyone without “sound mental capacity” as organizers don’t want anyone involved who would react violently when provoked. And provoked they are, especially by state troopers shouting racist epithets while spitting tobacco. Coauthors journalist Williams and filmmaker Rich (Straight out of Brooklyn) write with passion about an ordinary woman who performed bravely in extraordinary times. An appendix written by Meredith Kopald provides more details about her sister, who died in 1977. Several powerful scenes will grab readers’ attention, but the action is slowed by moments of clunky dialog and dry explanatory sections that read like an encyclopedia.
Verdict Despite its flaws, this is a richly detailed insider’s account of the racial struggle that took place just over 50 years ago. This work may be considered for high school students owing to content devoid of strong language or sex.—Rollie Welch, Lehigh Acres, FL

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