Alexis, André. The Hidden Keys. Coach House. Oct. 2106. 232p. ISBN 9781552453254. pap. $17.95. F
Alexis, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fifteen Dogs, follows up with this witty, punchy, loquacious novel featuring an unexpected treasure hunt—and in fact inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It opens with aging heiress Willow Azarian approaching suave and surprisingly sophisticated thief Tancred Palmieri in a dodgy bar called the Green Dolphin and befriending him so that she can persuade him to steal the memento mori (e.g., a framed poem, a painting of Nero) willed to her and her siblings by their outrageously wealthy father. She herself received a Japanese screen, and she’s convinced that together these items will offer clues to something big their father has tucked away for them to find. Not that she expects or wants more money—they’re all filthy rich—but as she explains, “I want to know what’s hidden and I want to know why.” A heroin addict, Willow is soon dead, but Tancred takes up the challenge—and the reader will, too. VERDICT Fun, propulsive reading that really is about the hunt, not the treasure.
Alison, Jane. Nine Island. Catapult. Sept. 2016. 244p. ISBN 9781936787128. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936787272. F
J lives in a glass high-rise on one of Miami Beach’s alluring Venetian Islands and is seriously thinking of giving up men. In midlife herself, she’s seen her now ailing mother flop at many relationships, and she’s just returned from a visit with Sir Gold (as she dubs him), an old flame who had seemed interested in reigniting their passion but after a month decides it’s not to be and rather casually dismisses her. Meanwhile, she’s translating Ovid, which leads not only to some absorbingly sensuous passages but also sharp, lyrical reflections on physical intimacy and the nature of female sexuality as both need and burden; here, we see mythic characters fleeing violation of body and self. Yet as a friend says, “If you retire from love,…then you retire from life.” VERDICT Novelist/memoirist Alison, also a translator of Ovid’s stories of sexual transformation, has written an autobiographical novel–cum–meditation that many readers, and not just women, will find intriguing. Passion matters, and who doesn’t contemplate somehow moving forward?
Chung, Sonya. The Loved Ones. Relegation. Oct. 2016. 280p. ISBN 9780984764860. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 978098476484. F
Chung (Long for This World) opens this second novel matter-of-factly, with the wife of Charles Frederick Douglass Lee hiring 13-year-old Hannah Lee to babysit their two children. There’s no relation between the two Lee families—Charles is African American and his wife white, and Hannah’s parents are Korean immigrants. As the narrative unfolds, the story deepens to embrace the histories and hidden sorrows of both clans. As a young soldier in Korea, Charles became involved with Alice, just out of the Peace Corps, and married her when she got pregnant; unlike his father, he was determined to be an honorable family man. Hannah’s parents were a love match, her father marrying her mother despite family opposition, and the flight from war-torn Korea to America had not been easy. Charles and Hannah bond unexpectedly, and the narrative moves quietly forward until a seaside tragedy sets everyone spinning. VERDICT An effortlessly and elegantly written tale of family, with introspective insight into the issue of race; for all readers.
Coyne, Stephen. It Turns Out Like This: A Novel in Stories. New Rivers: Minnesota State Univ. Oct. 2016. 190p. ISBN 9780898233445. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780898233452. F
The 2014 prose winner for New Rivers’s Many Voice project, this work links numerous well-crafted stories to create a rich, fully detailed picture of Stu Jakes, who’s spent his hard-knocks life on or near the water. Here we see him suffering pneumonia as a child, floating down the river in a rowboat without oars until he encounters a man who accuses him of stealing his traps; hanging back with a girl named Linda during a school fire drill for his first romantic interlude; and as an adult trying to wriggle away from a local sexpot called the Wriggler. Alas, he’s just scraping by, with business shaky and his wife having left long ago: “What Stu needed was his daughter, his past. But there was no way back, he knew. There was nothing now, but time and tides.” Yet in an affirmative ending, his crabbing boat ready for scrap, he’s heartened by the sight of his waving grandson. VERDICT A poignant and cleansing read, with a terrific voice; Stu’s a character all his own also showing us a life we don’t always see in fiction.
Daisley, Stephen. Coming Rain. Text. Aug. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781922182029. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781925095029. F
Winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for 2011’s Traitor, his first novel, New Zealand–born, Australia-based Daisley returns with a brutally beautiful tale unfolding on the violent outer edge of civilization. In the 1950s, Lewis McCleod travels around Western Australia’s wheatbelt with seen-everything, done-everything Painter Hayes, who took him on as an apprentice at age 11 because his mother had too many mouths to feed. Now they’ve arrived at John Drysdale’s property to shear sheep, bringing along the joey whose mother they hit and killed on the way. They give the joey to Drysdale’s daughter, Clara, whose father scorns her tender love for all her dogs when only one dog would suffice. Meanwhile, the dingo who saw Lew and Painter hit the mother kangaroo trails them for reasons of her own. Eventually, the growing attraction between Lew and Clara, her father’s hardened ways, and the presence of the nursing dingo lead to a bloody, obdurate clash of wills. VERDICT Forthright, sparely perfect writing about an uneasy world; for readers who don’t want spoon-feeding.
Finn, Melanie. The Gloaming. Two Dollar Radio. Sept. 2016. 318p. ISBN 9781937512477. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781937512545. F
In this intent and unexpectedly suspenseful work, Pilgrim Jones has devotedly followed her husband as he attends to his various NGO duties, mainly in Africa, only to be abandoned for another woman in the Swiss village where they are living. But here she doesn’t play the role of stereotypically to-be-pitied wife, having accidentally fatally struck three children when she drives away in anger after discovering yet another betrayal; Finn (Away from You) skillfully and uncomfortably makes her guilt and disquiet the reader’s as well. Pilgrim lands in Africa, making herself useful by carrying away the cursed remains of an albino African from the scrubby village where she was staying to the Tanzanian port city of Tanga. There, she falls in with a brassy expat and is eventually trapped in a plot for vengeance more twisty and real than a lot of domestic thrillers could manage. VERDICT An embracingly and impeccably written study of one woman’s anguish; highly recommended.
Francis, David. Wedding Bush Road. Counterpoint. Nov. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781619027879. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781619028746. F
Los Angeles–based Francis (The Great Island Sea) spends part of his time in his native Australia, and his latest work sends protagonist Daniel Rawson there to great effect. When his mother calls to say that she is dying, Daniel scurries to join her, leaving behind a disgruntled girlfriend with whom he’s struggling to connect. You can see why; it’s evident from the moment he arrives that Daniel comes from a classically dysfunctional family, with his tough-old-bird mother having long ago run his philandering father off the horse farm that belonged to him. Now, the mother insists on giving notice to Sharen, a glamorous if slightly worn tenant with whom the father is involved, and she retaliates by setting a fire that eats up some family valuables. Hapless Daniel stumbles through this dislocated world as best he can, while Sharen’s son, Reggie, emerges as the book’s most intriguing character. VERDICT In prose as severely beautiful as the land depicted, Francis takes us into the bleeding heart of family. Well recommended for many readers.
Gébler, Carlo. The Wing Orderly’s Tales. New Island: Dufour. Oct. 2017. 166p. ISBN. 9781848404946 pap. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781848404960. F
While the individual pieces here have been published as stand-alone stories, and all could be read that way, this work from distinguished Irish writer Gébler (The Dead Eight) forms a cohesive and absorbing whole. Harold “Chalky” Chalkman is doing 12 years for assault in Her Majesty’s Prison Loanend, where he works as an orderly, a job that assures him certain privileges and a sense of power in the rigidly authoritarian and hierarchical prison world. Chalky is described in his record as intelligent, manipulative, violent, and selfish. He’s also coolly observant, carefully portraying inmates like Eskimo, killed because he goes up against the Evil Twins sitting at the top of the prison heap, or a man convicted of owning child pornography viciously ostracized from a creative writing class. Throughout, Chalky stays aloof as the best protection. VERDICT By using language that’s direct but understated, Gébler successfully depicts the bleak, violent prison world. Not just for readers of literary fiction.
Helm, Michael. After James. Tin House. Sept. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9781941040416. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040423. F
A neuroscientist rebels against her role in the creation of a new drug that boosts creativity with unfortunate side effects and disappears to a remote cabin, where her spooky neighbor may or may not be a dangerous killer. At loose ends, a graduate student manqué accepts a job to become a sort of literary detective, mining a somewhat controversial poetry website for a scholar obsessed with the disappearance of his daughter. A virologist working for a big corporation visits her archaeologist father and is upset to find him obsessed with religion and in thrall to a wealthy artist whose works intrude on her own life. VERDICT Hard nuts to crack, these thematically linked pieces don’t resolve easily but form a disturbing triptych of our hunt for answers that turn inevitably into more questions. An inventive and intriguingly demanding work for sophisticated readers from Canadian author Helm (Cities of Refuge).
Maksik, Alexander. Shelter in Place. Europa. Sept. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781609453640. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609453688. F
In the 1990s Pacific Northwest, Joseph March is a happy-go-lucky guy fresh out of college and uninterested in following snooty older sister Claire’s quest for a better, more cultured life when he’s hit by an overwhelming sense of inertness, as if he were drowning in tar. He’s suffering from the onset of bipolar disorder, something he soon realizes that he shares with his mother, who’s always been rather wayward but has now been convicted of beating a man to death with a hammer. Joe’s father sells his business and moves near the prison where his wife is confined. Joe eventually follows, reluctantly leaving behind the passionate, electric Tess, with whom he’s deeply in love. But Tess comes after him, and what unfolds is an exacting tale of desperate people taking desperate measures as they crash up against the enduring rock of love. VERDICT Maksik (A Marker To Measure Drift) perfectly captures the weight of mental illness, the ache of longing and uncertainty, and the complexity of human relationships. Highly recommended.
Metcalf, John. The Museum at the End of the World: Stories. Biblioasis. Nov. 2016. 372p. ISBN 9781771961073. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781771961080. short stories
A noted teacher and editor as well as a writer, Canada-based Metcalf offers his first fiction since the widely hailed Adult Entertainment was published three decades ago. It was worth the wait. The linked stories here form a cohesive whole as they render the life of Robert Forde from his early adolescent escapades with friend Jimbo through education at Bristol University (he went for a young woman and a Shakespeare scholar, both disappointments), a hilarious near-seduction, an eye-opening teaching job, a sojourn in New Orleans, and the abandonment of luscious Jenny because he fears she’ll fade on him. He also embarks on a move to Canada and first publication (a review suggested that “Albertans, commonsensical and down-to-earth as they were, would only be repelled by the book’s so-called sophistication”), marriage to the prickly Sheila, and a final, ill-fated tour of post-Soviet territory. Throughout, the dialog is rat-a-tat and the wit drily delicious, but beneath the surface there’s a sense of vaguely unfulfilled longing. VERDICT Masterly entertainment for most readers.
Rose-Innes, Henrietta. Nineveh. Unnamed. Nov. 2016. 226p. ISBN 9781939419972. pap. $16. F
It’s not every novel that has as its protagonist a pest removal specialist. Following her father in the family business, Katya Grubbs is indeed willing to get rid of anything that creeps and crawls, but she does so ethically, carefully relocating her catches to the wild with the help of wide-eyed nephew Toby. Her father wasn’t like that, being both a physically scary man and famous for his brutal exterminations; he also famously cheated clients. Now Katya has a new assignment; a just-built and as yet uninhabited luxury complex called Nineveh is apparently overrun with some sort of exotic bug. Katya has never worked a big estate before and is excited by the prospect, but during her first few days there she doesn’t see a single bug; apparently, they come out only when it rains. Soon, however, she has reason to suspect unsettling human intervention at the complex; this is, after all, South Africa, where those shiny towers are both threat and lure. VERDICT From an award-winning South African novelist making her U.S. debut, this is both a soberingly telescoped look at postapartheid South Africa and a brisk, enjoyable read even if you are squeamish.
Sheck, Laurie. Island of the Mad. Counterpoint. Dec. 2016. 396p. ISBN 9781619028357. $26. F
A Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry and author of the reverberant A Monster’s Tale, a rethinking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sheck returns with a gorgeously written work that layers together strands of history in one bravura act. Her protagonist, a hunchback named Ambrose, physically fragile but mentally robust, is prompted by a mysterious missive to run off to Venice in search of a lost notebook. Past and present, history and literature all blend as Ambrose encounters Pontius Pilate, his unfortunate dog, the artist Titian, a lovely young woman named Freida convicted of murder in the past century, and characters from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. In addition, there are frequent scenes of Venice during the terrible 1575 plague, as doctors with their distinctively beaked plague masks swoop through the text. Finally, Ambrose arrives at San Servolo, the Island of the Mad, where an abandoned hospital has been turned into a conference center. There he finds papers from two former inmates that further complicate his quest. VERDICT A dizzyingly inventive work that reveals a strong sense of human connectedness; highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t want just plot.
Sherrill, Steven. The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time. Blair. Sept. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780895876737. $26. F
It’s been 16 years since the Minotaur took the cigarette break that made Sherrill something of a cult author, and now he’s back, working as a Civil War reenactor in a Pennsylvania theme park. Having endured millennia as an outsider in the world of humans, M is less action figure than existential loner trying to get along, and Sherrill lets us feel his pain. M is affable enough as he slowly meanders from job to home, the motel where the immigrant Indian owners treat him kindly, and he is taunted some but mostly tolerated by his neighbors. The plot takes its own sweet time getting to the crux of the matter: the arrival of a tough young woman named Holly and her rascally brain-damaged brother, whose presence creates a crisis M will overcome. VERDICT Brightly and incisively written, this is a well-rendered portrait of a stranger among us.
Tea, Michelle. Black Wave. Feminist. Sept. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781558619395. pap. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9781558619463. F
The author of ten books exploring queer culture, pop culture, feminism, and more, plus founder of the literary nonprofit RADAR Productions and cocreator of Sister Spit, Tea makes great literary content from the stuff of her on-the-edge life. This book started as a memoir aimed at examining the end of a long relationship and her sense of finally transitioning to adulthood. Soon, however, it morphed into a closely observed novel starring the hyperkinetic, probing Michelle, who moves from major drug taking at a San Francisco bar to a lucid grappling with life and love. It takes a moment to adjust to third-person Michelle-as-protagonist, but the pleasures of the prose, which is energized and exuberant (one might even say goofy), are the reward. VERDICT Tea paints a terrific portrait, but her great gift is how she makes readers look more closely at themselves.