Reprieve: A Novel

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Franzen, Toews, Watkins, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jonathan Franzen, Miriam Toews, Claire Vaye Watkins, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Crossroads: “Franzen (Purity) returns with a sweeping and masterly examination of the shifting culture of early 1970s America, the first in a trilogy. The action is centered on the small Illinois town of New Prospect, where the each of the Hildebrandts is experiencing a sea change. The father, Russ, is an associate minister at First Reformed Church and has developed an illicit attraction to a new parishioner, the widow Frances Cottrell, whose zest for life makes Russ feel a renewed sense of his ‘edge.’ Russ is also embroiled in a yearslong feud with Rick Ambrose, who runs the church’s youth organization, Crossroads. Clem, Russ’s oldest son, is at college and having a sexual awakening with his girlfriend, Sharon, who pleads with him not to drop out and lose his deferment (‘I’m going to do whatever they want me to do, which probably means Vietnam,’ he says, referencing his low lottery number). Becky, Clem’s younger sister, inherits a large sum of money from an aunt and isn’t sure if she should share it with her brothers, especially Perry, who is brilliant but cold and self-medicates with weed and ’ludes. All of the characters’ sections are convincingly rendered, and perhaps best of all are those narrated by Russ’s wife, Marion, who had a psychotic breakdown 30 years earlier that she is just starting to come to terms with. As complications stack up for the Hildebrandts, they each confront temptation and epiphany, failure and love. Throughout, Franzen exhibits his remarkable ability to build suspense through fraught interpersonal dynamics. It’s irresistible.”

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fight Night: “Toews (Women Talking) continues her consideration of the theme of women’s self-determination in this indelible and darkly hilarious portrait of an unforgettable Toronto family. Framed as a long letter to eight-year-old Swiv’s absent father in her brisk, matter-of-fact voice, it also features letters to her mother and others. After being expelled from school for fighting, she grows closer to her larger-than-life grandmother, Elvira, who ‘has one foot in the grave’ and dives into homeschooling with gusto, convening so-called editorial meetings and devising assignments to write letters to one another. Meanwhile, Swiv’s mother, Mooshie, a pregnant actor, is prone to dramatic and sometimes violent mood swings, leading Swiv to fear Mooshie might succumb to the same mental illness that led to her aunt’s and grandfather’s suicides. The harder-edged Mooshie, who wants a ‘cold IPA and a holiday’ for her birthday, and the exuberant Elvira, are both brash and fearless, traits that alternately embarrass and inspire Swiv. Through these women’s letters and stories, readers glimpse histories of grief, loss, and abuse, making Grandma’s assertion that ‘joy… is resistance’ even more powerful. The moving conclusion, which has its roots in a plan for Swiv and Elvira to visit family members in California, shuns sentimentality and celebrates survival. Fierce and funny, this gives undeniable testimony to the life force of family. It’s a knockout.”

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lincoln Highway: “Towles’s magnificent comic road novel (after A Gentleman in Moscow) follows the rowdy escapades of four boys in the 1950s and doubles as an old-fashioned narrative about farms, families, and accidental friendships. In June 1954, 18-year-old Emmett Watson returns to his childhood farm in Morgen, Neb., from a juvenile detention camp. Emmett has been released early from his sentencing for fighting because his father has died and his homestead has been foreclosed. His precocious eight-year-old brother, Billy, greets him, anxious to light out for San Francisco in hopes of finding their mother, who abandoned them. Plans immediately go awry when two escaped inmates from Emmett’s camp, Duchess and Woolly, appear in the Watsons’ barn. Woolly says his grandfather has stashed $150,000 in the family’s Adirondack Mountains cabin, which he offers to split evenly between the three older boys. But Duchess and Woolly take off with Emmett’s Studebaker, leaving the brothers in pursuit as boxcar boys. On the long and winding railway journey, the brothers encounter characters like the scabrous Pastor John and an endearing WWII vet named Ulysses, and Billy’s constant companion, a book titled Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventures, and Other Intrepid Travelers, provides parallel story lines of epic events and heroic adventures. Woolly has a mind for stories, too, comparing his monotonous time in detention to that of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo and hoping eventually to experience a ‘one-of-a-kind kind of day.’ Towles is a supreme storyteller, and this one-of-a-kind kind of novel isn’t to be missed.”

April in Spain by John Banville

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about April in Spain: “Banville’s slow-moving eighth crime thriller featuring Irish pathologist Quirke (after 2015’s Even the Dead) finds Quirke and his wife, Evelyn, vacationing in San Sebastián, Spain. When the couple forget to buy an oyster-opening tool, Quirke tries to use a nail scissors instead and accidentally wounds himself badly enough that Evelyn insists they go to a hospital. There, he’s initially examined by Angela Lawless, an Irish physician who looks familiar, but who never returns to the exam room, leaving another doctor to tend to the injury. Her appearance and her initials lead Quirke to suspect that she’s actually April Latimer, a woman believed to be dead. April’s brother, who was sexually involved with his sibling, had confessed to killing her before taking his own life. Quirke shares his suspicions with his daughter, Phoebe, who had been April’s friend, and Phoebe travels to Spain to see for herself. Meanwhile, a psychotic hit man emotionally attached to his gun lurks in the background. The melodramatic ending doesn’t compensate for a story line too slight for the book’s length. Banville has been much better.”

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Monticello: “Johnson wrestles with questions of racial identity, post-racial society, and the legacies of slavery in her masterly debut collection. The pitch-perfect opener, ‘Control Negro,’ follows Cornelius, a Black history professor whose peers mistake him for a janitor and whom white students mock with racist jokes, prompting him to plot with a married Black graduate student to have a son together and give him opportunities equal to those of ‘Average Caucasian Males.’ In the experiment, the ‘Control Negro’ doesn’t learn the identity of his father, and Cornelius observes from a distance, hopeful his son will turn out better. Other stories reckon with institutionalized racism in schools (‘Something Sweet on the Tongue’) and the collateral damage wrought by the trauma endured by immigrants prior to leaving their homelands (‘King of Xandria’). The superb title novella is set in the near future in Charlottesville, Va., where the Unite the Right rally has cast a long shadow and white supremacists pillage the downtown area. A collective of BIPOC residents decamp to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, seeking refuge. There’s Da’Naisha Hemings Love; her white boyfriend, Knox; and her other largely Black and brown neighbors. Love and her grandmother, MaViolet, descend from the Jefferson-Sally Hemings lineage, and thus occupy a unique position in the group. The author’s riveting storytelling and skill at rendering complex characters yield rich social commentary on Monticello and Jefferson’s complex ideologies of freedom, justice, and liberty. This incandescent work speaks not just to the moment, but to history.”

Reprieve by James Han Mattson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Reprieve: “Mattson (The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves) returns with the smart and harrowing story of a killing at a haunted house. In 1997, Victor Dunlap, a bank manager who used to teach English in Thailand, agrees to participate in a full-contact escape room–style challenge at Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebr. His four-person team includes his fiancée, Jane Roth, who is obsessed with Halloween but finds being handcuffed, shocked, and muzzled with electrical tape by the haunted house’s staff to be a bit too much; and Jaidee Charoensuk, a university student whom Victor had taught in Kanchanaburi, and who sought Victor out in the U.S. because he had a crush on him. The house supplies a fourth teammate, Bryan Douglas, a Black university student whose throat is slit in the house by Leonard Grandton in front of the others, who initially think it’s part of the act. Leonard had developed a friendship with the man who owns Quigley, before becoming needy and erratic. The tense, well-paced story—meted out in snippets of courtroom transcriptions during Leonard’s trial and chapters from various characters’ points of view, including Bryan’s cousin Kendra, who recently moved to Lincoln from Washington, D.C., and whose friend back east was concerned about her ‘managing all that white’—gradually reveals thematic connections as everyone grapples with understanding why Bryan was killed. It adds up to a canny use of horror as metaphor for themes of guilt, race, and sexuality.”

Search History by Eugene Lim

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Search History: “Montage is the message in the elliptical, swirly latest from Lim (Dear Cyborgs), who delivers a post-human manifesto on loss, identity, and the transfigurative potential of art. Billed as ‘a murder mystery, an outdated owner’s manual… a broken novel,’ this outing opens with a ‘dysthymic artificial intelligence scientist’ experimenting with machines capable of creating poetry and prose on behalf of a galactic corporation while a robot named César Aira discusses cyborg aesthetics with his own ex-wife. A no less outlandish plot soon bubbles up in New York City. Based on an overheard conversation, a grieving friend of the late Frank Exit—outré pianist, drug aficionado, virtual reality explorer—becomes convinced that Frank has been reincarnated as a robot dog named Izzy and teams up with an amnesiac clown-school graduate calling herself Donna Winters, who is herself convinced that the dog holds the key to being reunited with her deceased mother, to steal Izzy from the enigmatic Doctor Y before they can escape by rocket to the far side of the moon. Meanwhile, a group of old friends gather at the restaurant they’ve dubbed ‘Inauthentic Sushi’ to discuss dreams, ghosts, and the lives of Asian American entertainers. Also in the mix is an autobiographical interlude concerning Lim’s mother, and a poet and nurse named Muriel. The resulting novel is profound and casually bonkers, featuring a drift of photographs, screen grabs, and an eclectic lexicon of quotations from W.G. Sebald, David Byrne, and more that reveal the shuffled heritage of Lim’s distillation. This brilliant sui generis takes storytelling to new heights.”

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness: “In this vivid if overstuffed outing from Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus), a writer named Claire Vaye Watkins returns to her hometown of Reno for a reading. The trip is meant as a brief respite for Claire from her husband and daughter, but it becomes a monthslong stay as she grapples with memories of those who are gone. Her late father, Paul, a member of the Manson Family, was described by her mother, the late Martha, as the cult’s ‘number one procurer of young girls.’ Martha, meanwhile, died when Claire was in her 20s, either by an accidental opiate overdose or by suicide. She also remembers an ex-boyfriend who died in a car crash. And as Watkins catalogs her ‘maternal ambivalence’ and ‘wifely rage,’ she breaks the rules of her open marriage by falling in love with an extramarital partner. While Claire’s memories provide the narrative thrust, nearly a third is spent on her family’s history, including letters from Martha to her cousin from 1968 through the ’70s (‘I think I’m mentally ill. Love is a fucking hassle’), and the material doesn’t quite illuminate Claire’s story or develop the plot. What makes this work is Claire’s raw sense of pain on the page, and the evenhanded honesty with which Watkins portrays her actions. Thought Watkins overreaches, her talent is abundant.”

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