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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Winter, Mbue, Nolan, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jessica Winter, Imbolo Mbue, Megan Nolan, and more—that are publishing this week.

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The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Fourth Child: “In Winter’s smart second novel (after Break in Case of Emergency), a Catholic mother of three seeks greater fulfillment, first by volunteering for a pro-life group, then by adopting a new child. Stirred by a segment on 20/20 about the awful conditions of Romanian orphanages, Jane Brennan flies to Europe and adopts three-year-old Mirela, upsetting the dynamics between her; her husband, Pat; and their biological children. As the mischievous, overactive Mirela demands all of Jane’s attention, 15-year-old Lauren, Jane and Pat’s oldest, struggles with boredom like a ‘low-grade illness’ and falls under the sway of her charismatic, manipulative drama teacher, Ted Smith. Meanwhile, Jane begins participating in demonstrations outside an abortion clinic and finds herself in the limelight for her role in an altercation during a blockade—and for her difficulty with Mirela, who wanders off during the pandemonium. Meanwhile, Ted and Lauren become increasingly intimate, and Jane intervenes in surprising ways. Jane’s narration can be a bit slow and tedious, but the novel takes off when it switches to Lauren’s point of view, building tension as Lauren finds her way through a difficult situation. Though the novel feels a bit schematic at times, Winter’s surprisingly complex characters make it worthwhile.”

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How Beautiful We Were: “Mbue follows up her PEN/Faulkner-winning Behold the Dreamers with a stirring, decades-spanning portrait of an African village striking back against environmental exploitation. In the 1980s in the fictional village of Kosawa, children are dying, poisoned by American oil company Pexton’s leaking pipelines. One small act of sabotage—a villager steals a couple of Pexton representatives’ car keys—spurs Kosawa’s residents to kidnap their corrupt village headman and the two oilmen whose keys were stolen, and triggers a chain reaction of tiny revolutions that reverberate for generations through transatlantic radicalization and violence in Kosawa, told through the fortunes and failures of Thula Nangi and her family. Thula’s father, Malabo Nangi, vanished in the capital petitioning for government intervention; her uncle Bongo is spurred to seek foreign aid after Malabo disappears; and Thula becomes a charismatic revolutionary. With a kaleidoscope of perspectives, Mbue lyrically charts a culture in the midst of change, and poses ethical questions about the resisters’ complex set of motives. While a series of repeated reminiscences from various characters and explicit moral lessons stall the momentum, Mbue’s portrayal of Kosawa’s disintegration is nevertheless heartbreaking. This ruminative environmental justice elegy fills a broad canvas, but falls just short of being a masterpiece.”

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Acts of Desperation: “Vice contributor Nolan deconstructs a young couple’s toxic relationship in her fierce and intelligent debut. Things open with an unnamed young woman catching sight of Ciaran, an art critic and ‘the most beautiful man [she] had ever seen,’ at a Dublin art gallery in 2012. She appreciates how Ciaran seems ‘undeniably whole’ amid a crowd of shallow social climbers. The narrator then describes their subsequent spiral into a torturous, obsessive romance. She’s in her early 20s, a university dropout and aspiring poet who works in a restaurant and parties a lot. Ciaran, meanwhile, is passive-aggressive, insults the narrator’s friends, makes cruel remarks (‘Did you want me to say I’m falling in love with you? Because I’m not’), and carries on an ambiguous relationship with his ex. The narrator and Ciaran eventually break up, only to get back together a few months later and move in together. An idyllic glow surrounds them, until the narrator begins pushing Ciaran’s boundaries, and things devolve. The story is intercut with dispatches from 2019 Athens, where the narrator tries to move toward a future without Ciaran while reflecting on the nature of vulnerability, self-loathing, and her addiction to love with stark frankness. The narrator is remarkable for her complete lack of self-pity and unflinching depictions of her own motives and needs. This mesmerizes from the first page.”

The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seed Keeper: “Wilson’s deeply moving debut novel (after the nonfiction narrative Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life) unfurls the complex story of Rosalie Iron Wing and her search for connection to her family, her people, and the land. The novel opens with the voice of the Dakota people’s seeds, passed down through generations (‘We hold time in this space, we hold a thread to infinity that reaches all the way to the stars’). Rosalie’s sole friend as a teen, Gaby Makepeace, is a strong young woman whose auntie teaches Rosalie about the bonds shared by Dakota women. At 18, pregnant and married to John, a white man, Rosalie tries to make a life for herself on John’s farm, whose family founded it on land stolen from her ancestors, and whose inorganic farming practices alienate Rosalie from anti-GMO activist Gaby. Decades later, after John dies from cancer, Rosalie returns to her father’s cabin where she grew up. While struggling to survive through a brutal winter, Rosalie delves into stories of her family’s painful past, often shaped by dehumanizing interventions from the U.S. government. Wilson offers finely wrought descriptions of the natural world, as the voice of the seeds provides connective threads to the stories of her people. This powerful work achieves a deep resonance often lacking from activist novels, and makes a powerful statement along the way.”

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Arsonist’s City: “Poet and novelist Alyan (Salt Houses) illuminates in this exquisite novel the recent history of Lebanon and Syria through the intimate tragedies and betrayals befalling one family. After Lebanese American heart surgeon Idris Nasr’s father dies, Idris feels compelled to sell the family’s ancestral home in Beirut. His Syrian-born wife, Mazna and their three adult children—Ava, Mimi, and Naj—fear he’s making a mistake, and they gather in Beirut to host a memorial and discuss the sale. All of the children harbor jealousies of various kinds and hide secrets from one another and from their parents, but no secrets are bigger or more potentially devastating than those carried by Mazna, and they gradually emerge in flashbacks of her life before she married Idris. The family conflict plays out over the summer of 2019, and the narrative alternates with scenes from Mazna and Idris’s lives in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and in California during the early years of their marriage. ‘We don’t choose what we belong to,’ Mazna considers near the novel’s end, and in Alyan’s sweeping yet intimate narrative, this thought holds true for the characters’ relationships to family and country alike. Tenderly and compassionately told, and populated with complicated and flawed characters, the Nasrs’ story interrogates nostalgia, memory, and the morality of keeping secrets against the backdrop of a landscape and a people in constant flux. Alyan’s debut was striking, and this one’s even better.”

Last Call by Elon Green

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Last Call: “Journalist Green debuts with an ambitious if flawed look at an obscure serial murder case. In the early 1990s, five men were picked up in gay bars in Manhattan by a man who stabbed them to death and dismembered their corpses. Green provides detailed backstories of the Last Call Killer’s victims, showing how their life paths led them to their fatal encounters with the man who murdered them, Richard Rogers. Rogers was a respected nurse in Mount Sinai’s cardiac surgical intensive care unit until his arrest in 2001 after a technology called vacuum metal deposition, previously unknown to the investigators, enabled them to match Rogers’s fingerprints to unidentified ones recovered from plastic bags used in the disposal of one of the bodies. In 2005, he was convicted of two murders and, the following year, sentenced to 30-years-to-life on each charge. While Green devotes attention to the lives of the five victims, those sections aren’t as memorable as the ones focusing on the investigations of their tragic deaths. Green’s at his best in analyzing how the crimes were handled at the time, when the victims’ sexual orientation led to the murders being treated less seriously. The author did his homework, spending over three years reviewing records and interviewing those who knew the victims, but his methodology can be spotty. At one point, he quotes then NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik about the handling of Rogers’s case, noting in a footnote, without elaboration, ‘Off the record, Kerik said something different,’ leaving readers to wonder what that was and its significance. Green deserves credit for reviving awareness of the killings, but this won’t stand out amid the current true crime boom.”

Also on shelves this week: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina (translated by Lucy Rand) and If This is The Age We End Discovery by Rosebud Ben-Oni.

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