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Best Fiction in Translation of 2019

A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into...

CELESTIAL BODIES

Omani author Alharthi's novel, the first by a woman from that country to be translated into English, won the 2019 International Man Booker Prize with its sweeping story of generational and societal change.

The book opens with a betrothal in a well-to-do Omani family. Mayya, a serious girl who excels at sewing, obediently marries the son of Merchant Sulayman although she's secretly in love with a young student just returned from England. Later she surprises everyone by naming her firstborn daughter London. The story alternates between third-person chapters and ones narrated by Mayya's husband, Abdallah, a businessman whose childhood was marred by his father's cruelty and mother's mysterious death. Through the complex, interwoven histories of the two principal families and their households and their town of al-Awafi, we witness Oman's shift from a slave-owning, rural, deeply patriarchal society to one in which a girl with the unlikely name of London can become a doctor, marry for love, and obtain a divorce. The great strength of the novel lies in the ways this change is shown not as a steady progression from old to new but as a far more complicated series of small-scale transitions. Abdallah was largely raised by his father's slave Zarifa, whose mother gave birth to her on the day slavery was supposedly abolished at the 1926 Slavery Convention in Geneva. Zarifa is sold as a teenager by Shaykh Said to Merchant Sulayman and later married off to a slave kidnapped from Africa who screams "from the depths of his sleep, We are free people, free!" Both her husband and son leave Oman, and although Zarifa eventually follows, her heart remains in al-Awafi. The narrative jumps among a large and clamorous cast of characters as well as back and forth in time, a technique that reinforces the sense of past and present overlapping. In an image that captures the tension between old and new, a family uses its satellite dish as a trough for livestock. Salima, Mayya's mother, herself a kidnapped teenage bride, thinks sadly as she prepares the next of her daughters for her traditional arranged marriage, "We raise them so that strangers can take them away." But the daughter in question, Mayya's sister Asma, welcomes wedlock, because "marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home."

A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into Omani history and society.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-948226-94-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

Acerbic, playful, full of quick-witted philosophy, and unstintingly original, this is a varied and unsettling reader for our...

NIGHT SCHOOL

Award-winning Brazilian/Hungarian essayist, historian, and critic Bán's fiction debut presents itself as a tongue-in-cheek student textbook.

Within dryly titled sections—"French," "Chemistry/Physical Education," "English/Home Economics," "The Foundations of Our Worldview"—strange stories unfold, sprinkled liberally with interjections and assignments for the student: "CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless," or "WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?" There is a meditation on the Mathematics of Randomness, a "blog opera" based on Fidelio, a love story found in a bottle on a Borneo beach, an account of the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's second wife. Flaubert travels in Egypt with his friend Maxime, and years later a literary scholar devotes his career to the great writer's "deletions." Lesbian lovers meet clandestinely at a Night Zoo where a tapir "liked to plop right down on the tracks in front of the little zoo train like some despairing heroic lover." Bán inverts the primer model, giving free rein to a restless and inventive intellect and delighting in unexpected angles on the seemingly familiar. Characters from Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons correspond by email, undergo IVF, and meet up in NYC, where their stories intersect with 9/11. In "Drawing/Art History," the strong-willed model for Manet's Olympia dictates her conditions for posing to the artist: "You will never be free of this painting....All your life, you will be successful but wretched." In "Self Help," a teacher instructs her pupils what to do if they find themselves in a tsunami ("Grab your surfboard and paddle out at an angle until you reach the point where the wave is cresting but hasn't yet started to break") or if threatened by domestic assault. An idyllic childhood summer day in "Singing/Music" ends in sexual violence. The roving pedagogical voice is feminist, earthy, erudite, and subversive. "Don't take anything for granted!" the reader is exhorted. "Ask, and ask again!" The book's most moving section, "Teacher's Edition/Russian," is narrated by Laika, the dog sent into space by the Soviet space program in 1957. "This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS." Later Laika adds, "Learn that accepting the explanation there is no explanation is one of the most difficult and noble lessons."

Acerbic, playful, full of quick-witted philosophy, and unstintingly original, this is a varied and unsettling reader for our varied and unsettling times.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-940953-88-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Open Letter

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

A gripping, deeply moving coming-of-age novel; immensely readable, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

A GIRL RETURNED

In this slim novel by award-winning Italian author Di Pietrantonio, her first translated into English, a 13-year-old girl raised by distant relatives as their own is sent abruptly back to her birth family with little explanation.

The book opens with the unnamed narrator carrying a suitcase and a bag of shoes up the stairs to an apartment where the door is stuck closed. At last a child with untidy hair opens it. "She was my sister, but I had never seen her." The man she has until now believed to be her father is dropping her off. In the dining room, her birth mother receives her without ceremony or interest, not bothering to get up from her chair. When the girl runs back down to the car, desperate to convince her erstwhile father to take her back ("Mamma's sick, she needs my help. I'm not staying here, I don't know those people"), he removes her bodily from the front seat and drives away. "The tire marks and I remained on the asphalt....The air smelled of burning rubber. When I raised my head, someone from the family that was mine against my will was looking down from the second-floor windows." Raised an only child in a comfortable, middle-class home, accustomed to days at the beach and dance lessons, she finds herself in an apartment crowded with violent strangers. There's not enough to eat, and no bed has been arranged for her. She sleeps on a mattress stuffed with sheep's wool, holding the sole of her sister's foot against her cheek: "I had nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath." In spare, haunting prose, Di Pietrantonio shows a girl struggling not only to understand, but to survive and belong. "You haven't known poverty," her birth mother tells her, "poverty is more than hunger." Class inequality, misogyny, and sexism are all at work as well. Late in the novel, in a scene both harrowing and illuminating, her two worlds overlap when she and her sister visit the house of the woman who raised her.

A gripping, deeply moving coming-of-age novel; immensely readable, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

Pub Date: July 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-60945-528-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

The darkest hour yet for a detective who pleads, “The only thing I can do is investigate murders. And drink”—and a...

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KNIFE

Inspector Harry Hole’s 12th case is his most grueling to date. And considering his history on and off the Oslo Police (The Thirst, 2017, etc.), that’s quite a claim.

Back on the bottle since his wife, human rights executive Rakel Fauke, threw him out, Harry wakes up one morning with no idea how he’s spent the last two days. Even before he can sober up, he’s hit by a tornado: Rakel has been murdered, and Harry’s colleagues want him to stay out of the case, first because he’s the victim’s husband, then because they can’t rule him out as her killer. The preliminary evidence points to Svein Finne, whose long career of raping women and later stabbing them to death unless he’s gotten them pregnant, hasn’t been slowed down just because he’s spent 20 years in prison and is now pushing 80. The elusive Finne, the very first killer Harry ever arrested, is driven by the need to avenge his own son’s death: “For each son I lose, I shall bring f-five more into the world.” Captured after Harry unforgivably uses his latest rape victim as bait, Finne blandly confesses to Rakel’s murder, but the unshakable alibi he produces sends the inquiry back to square one. A series of painstaking investigations identifies first one plausible suspect, then another, each one of whom might have been designed specifically to immerse Harry more deeply in his grief. And even after each of these suspects, beginning with Finne, is cleared of complicity in Rakel’s death, they continue to hover malignantly over the landscape, ready to swoop down and wreak still further havoc. Long before the final curtain, most readers will have joined Harry, shut out of the official investigation and marginalized in ever more harrowing ways, in abandoning all hope that he can either close the case or enjoy a moment of peace again.

The darkest hour yet for a detective who pleads, “The only thing I can do is investigate murders. And drink”—and a remarkable example of how to grow a franchise over the hero’s most vociferous objections.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-65539-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

A seminal work by an underread master. Required for all students of the human condition.

THE PROMISE

A woman relives the people and places of her life while stranded in the middle of the ocean.

The premise of Argentinian writer Ocampo’s posthumously published novella, which she worked on for the final 25 years of her life, is a grand metaphor for the authorial condition. On her way to visit family in Cape Town, the nameless narrator somehow slips over the railing of her trans-Atlantic ship and regains consciousness in the water, watching “the ship…calmly moving away.” Adrift, facing almost certain death, she makes a pact with St. Rita, the "arbiter of the impossible," that she will write a “dictionary of memories,” and publish it in one year’s time, if she is saved. What follows is an intensely focused series of vignettes in which the characters of the narrator’s life once more walk through their dramas. There's Leandro, a handsome and feckless young doctor with “a face as variable as the weather”; Irene, his intensely focused lover and a medical student in her own right; Gabriela, Irene's obsessive daughter; and Verónica, a not-so-innocent ingénue. These central characters’ stories entwine and begin to form the basis of a tale that includes our narrator—who is present as a voyeur but never an active participant—but her drifting consciousness is just as likely to alight upon less crucial secondary characters like Worm, Gabriela’s countryside companion, or Lily and Lillian, devoted friends who fall in love with the same man because “instead of kissing him they were kissing each other.” As the narrator’s memories progress, and sometimes repeat, they grow increasingly nightmarish in their domestic surrealism. Meanwhile, as all chance of rescue fades, her sense of self is diluted by the immense mystery of the sea. Completed in the late 1980s, at a time when Ocampo was grappling with the effects of Alzheimer’s, the book can be read as a treatise on the dissolution of selfhood in the face of the disease. However, its tactile insistence on the recurrence of memory, its strangeness, and its febrile reality are themes that mark the entirety of Ocampo’s oeuvre and articulate something more enduring even than death. “I’m going to die soon! If I die before I finish what I’m writing no one will remember me, not even the person I loved most in the world,” the narrator exclaims in the final pages. This urgency and despair seem to sum up the central tenet of the artist’s condition—even in the final extreme, the act of making is a tonic against obscurity. Art is the cure for death.

A seminal work by an underread master. Required for all students of the human condition.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-87286-771-0

Page Count: 114

Publisher: City Lights

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

A quiet tale that considers the way small, human connections can disrupt the callous powers of authority.

THE MEMORY POLICE

A novelist tries to adapt to her ever changing reality as her world slowly disappears.

Renowned Japanese author Ogawa (Revenge, 2013, etc.) opens her latest novel with what at first sounds like a sinister fairy tale told by a nameless mother to a nameless daughter: “Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here…transparent things, fragrant things…fluttery ones, bright ones….It’s a shame that the people who live here haven’t been able to hold such marvelous things in their hearts and minds, but that’s just the way it is on this island.” But rather than a twisted bedtime story, this depiction captures the realities of life on the narrator's unnamed island. The small population awakens some mornings with all knowledge of objects as mundane as stamps, valuable as emeralds, omnipresent as birds, or delightful as roses missing from their minds. They then proceed to discard all physical traces of the idea that has disappeared—often burning the lifeless ones and releasing the natural ones to the elements. The authoritarian Memory Police oversee this process of loss and elimination. Viewing “anything that fails to vanish when they say it should [as] inconceivable,” they drop into homes for inspections, seizing objects and rounding up anyone who refuses—or is simply unable—to follow the rules. Although, at the outset, the plot feels quite Orwellian, Ogawa employs a quiet, poetic prose to capture the diverse (and often unexpected) emotions of the people left behind rather than of those tormented and imprisoned by brutal authorities. Small acts of rebellion—as modest as a birthday party—do not come out of a commitment to a greater cause but instead originate from her characters’ kinship with one another. Technical details about the disappearances remain intentionally vague. The author instead stays close to her protagonist’s emotions and the disorientation she and her neighbors struggle with each day. Passages from the narrator’s developing novel also offer fascinating glimpses into the way the changing world affects her unconscious mind.

A quiet tale that considers the way small, human connections can disrupt the callous powers of authority.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-87060-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

An unusual, intoxicating thriller from Argentina that casts deeper and deeper shadows.

THE FRAGILITY OF BODIES

Young boys from poor families in Buenos Aires are being lured into lethal games of chicken on the railroad tracks. Investigating the story, dedicated magazine reporter Veronica Rosenthal faces threats of her own.

The deadly games pit one boy against another. The last to jump away from the onrushing train to safety is paid 100 pesos—the equivalent of $2 American but a huge sum to these kids. The deaths have cast a pall on train travel, traumatizing drivers. One tormented engineer who also ran over three suicidal adults violently kills himself. Other drivers, including Lucio, who becomes Veronica's guide through this underworld, can't put aside their hatred for the victims for messing up the drivers' lives. Lucio, a married man who becomes Veronica's lover and partner in punishing sex, helps her track down the families of the young victims—and potential victims, including 10-year-old Peque. Accepted into a neighborhood soccer club by a coach out to program him as a train jumper, he survives his first bout and quickly spends the money on candy, chips, and Coke. Even after the deadliness of the game sinks in, he can't stay away—just as Veronica can't stay away from Lucio and the emotional perils he represents. It takes a while to adjust to Olguín’s flat narrative style and neutered tone, both of which may owe something to the translation. (Published in Spanish in 2012, this is the first of Olguín’s novels to be translated into English.) But the story is so gripping and Veronica is such a fascinating departure from crime fiction convention—she's 30, Jewish, brazen, and openly flawed—that the book becomes difficult to put down. Also a very good novel about journalism, it's the first installment of a trilogy.

An unusual, intoxicating thriller from Argentina that casts deeper and deeper shadows.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1912242-191

Page Count: 382

Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

A tantalizing, un-put-down-able novel by an instant master of the form.

THE CHESTNUT MAN

In a debut novel by the creator of the television show The Killing, a serial killer in Copenhagen targets young mothers as part of a complex scheme that seems to have ties to the apparent murder of government minister Rosa Hartung's 12-year-old daughter, Kristine, a year ago.

The homicidal Chestnut Man, named after the chestnut and matchstick dolls he leaves behind, is a grisly operator who amputates the hands of the women he abducts while they're still alive. A pair of mismatched investigators are reluctantly on the case: Naia Thulin, a local cop who, tired of what she thinks of as "tedious" assignments with Major Crimes, eyes a promotion to the cybercrime unit, and Mark Hess, a disheveled Europol agent on temporary leave from the Hague to serve "penance for some blunder or other." The big complicating factor is the absence of proof that Kristine, who disappeared, is dead; when her fingerprints turn up on the chestnut dolls, hopes stir that she is, in fact, alive. It takes a little time for the novel to set itself apart from other such thrillers. What are the chestnut dolls if not an imitation of the diabolical snowmen in Jo Nesbø's The Snowman? But with its densely layered plot, chilling settings, and multiple suspects with murderous grudges, Sveistrup's epic rises above any such comparisons. This is a page-turner that will make you hesitate before turning the page, so unnerving is the violence. One of the best and scariest crime novels of the year, it adds to its rewards by promising us at least one sequel.

A tantalizing, un-put-down-able novel by an instant master of the form.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-289536-3

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

In her depictions of her characters and their worlds—both internal and external—Tokarczuk has created something entirely new.

DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD

A series of deaths mystifies a small Polish village.

When her neighbor Big Foot turns up dead one night, Janina Duszejko and another neighbor, Oddball, rush to his house to lay out the body and properly dress him. They’re having trouble getting hold of the police, and, as Oddball points out, “He’ll be stiff as a board before they get here.” Janina and Oddball—and Big Foot, up till now—live in an out-of-the-way Polish village on the Czech border. It’s rural, and remote, and most of the other inhabitants are part-time city-dwellers who only show up in the summer, when the weather is more temperate. Janina narrates Tokarczuk’s (Flights, 2018) latest creation to appear in English. But she wouldn’t like to hear herself referred to by that name, which she thinks is “scandalously wrong and unfair.” In fact, she explains, “I try my best never to use first names and surnames, but prefer epithets that come to mind of their own accord the first time I see a Person”—hence “Oddball” and “Big Foot.” Janina spends much of her time studying astrology and, on Fridays, translating passages of Blake with former pupil Dizzy, who comes to visit. But after Big Foot dies, other bodies start turning up, and Janina and her neighbors are drawn further and further into the mystery of their deaths. Some of the newly dead were involved in illegal activities, but Janina is convinced that “Animals” (she favors a Blakean style of capitalization) are responsible. Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything. Like the prizewinning Flights, this novel resists the easy conventions of the contemporary work of fiction.

In her depictions of her characters and their worlds—both internal and external—Tokarczuk has created something entirely new.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-54133-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

Thanatofiction at its best and a debut that leaves the reader wanting more.

THE REMAINDER

First novel by a Chilean literary scholar who serves up a centrifugal story of death, history, and mathematics.

Felipe Arrabal, a young man living in Santiago, and his friend Iquela have an unusual ability: They can see the dead, legions of whom are to be found in what he describes as “the strangest of places: lying at bus stops, on curbs, in parks, hanging from bridges and traffic lights, floating down the Mapocho.” The dead are everywhere, and Felipe uses “apocalyptic maths” to try to account for them all, millions on millions, their number added to dramatically by the murderous military government of Pinochet and company. Iquela’s heart goes aflutter when she meets Paloma, an ever so cool young woman who has come to Santiago from Berlin; she smokes, has blonde hair, looks tough, and knows the ways of the world. Paloma is so mysterious that a cop wonders whether to bust her for smoking underage “or let her do as she pleased.” Clearly Paloma does what she pleases most of the time, raised, like Iquela, in a home that has deep, hidden roots in the anti-Pinochet resistance movement. “We were so young,” laments Iquela’s mother, looking back on the day she met Paloma’s mom, who, alas, has died—and now her body has gone missing somewhere on the other side of the Andes. She might be anywhere, Iquela observes: in an airplane hangar, in a morgue, back home in Berlin, or “locked inside the photograph hanging on the wall of my mother’s dining room.” Clueless, the three go on a winding journey in search of the wayward body, adding “an improvised inventory of corpses” to Felipe’s endless calculations. The story is told matter-of-factly, with a few hints of magical realism layered in, especially as it draws to a close: They might be angels or Valkyries, perhaps ghosts themselves, but whatever they are, they’re memorable companions on a strange trip.

Thanatofiction at its best and a debut that leaves the reader wanting more.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-56689-550-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

Each chapter is as elegant and self-contained as a pearl or a perfectly articulated drop of water.

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TERRITORY OF LIGHT

This lovely, melancholy novel painstakingly documents a year in one young woman’s life.

A woman and her husband are looking for an apartment. It’s not for them to share; her husband is leaving her but wants to find her a new place because, he says, “I won’t be able to sleep at night knowing you’re in some dump.” The nameless young woman, who narrates Tsushima’s (The Shooting Gallery, 1997) slim novel, eventually finds an apartment filled with light for herself and her young daughter. That might sound like a good augury, but the reality is more complicated. The novel’s 12 chapters—originally published serially—document the narrator’s struggle to build a new life. It’s not a one-way journey. This is mid-1970s Tokyo, and divorce isn’t exactly common: The narrator finds herself isolated from her old friends and determined not to ask her mother for help. She makes mistakes—drinks to excess, loses patience with her daughter, oversleeps, oversleeps again. The subject matter is partially based on Tsushima’s own childhood: Her father, the celebrated writer Osamu Dazai, committed suicide a year after she was born. She has returned to the subject in several of her books, always with great sympathy and a nuanced respect for her characters. Tsushima’s prose is achingly elegant, well worth lingering over. But there’s also a quiet simplicity, even banality, to her style and what she allows us to see of her narrator’s life: domestic rituals like waking up, washing, shopping for groceries, cooking, and all the rest. Grace hovers above the banal and the transcendent alike.

Each chapter is as elegant and self-contained as a pearl or a perfectly articulated drop of water.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-27321-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

With her delicate prose, arch tone, and mischievous storytelling, Wunnicke proves herself a master of the form.

THE FOX AND DR. SHIMAMURA

An elusive little novel about medicine, memory, and fox possession

Dr. Shun’ichi Shimamura, a young physician, is sent to the provinces to treat the scores of young women who appear to be suffering from fox possession. Shimamura, a bright, ambitious student, is flummoxed by the assignment: Why give credence to a superstitious belief out of Japanese folklore? It’s summer, it’s hot out, and all the young women turn out to have only “the most annoying diseases (dipsomania, cretinism, an ovarian abscess…).” But then Shimamura comes to the last patient. As he examines her, she begins to writhe and convulse; Shimamura can plainly see, moving beneath her skin, a fox. German writer Wunnicke’s (Missouri, 2010) second novel to appear in English is a marvel, a wonder—and deeply strange. After his fox excursions, Dr. Shimamura sets off to study in Europe. In Paris, he becomes acquainted with Dr. Charcot and his dubious work on hypnosis and hysteria. When afflicted, Charcot’s female patients—he parades them around in front of a lecture hall—bear a remarkable resemblance to the woman who’d been possessed by a fox. Oddly, in the midst of all this, Shimamura’s memory seems to be fading—particularly his memory of one crucial night with that last fox-possessed patient. In any case he goes on to meet other masters of early neurology and psychiatry (Freud and Breuer each make an appearance) before returning home. Ultimately Shimamura retires to a remote area where he waits for death. It is from this standpoint—a few decades after his European sojourn—that the rest of the novel is narrated. Shimamura is cared for by his wife, his mother, his wife’s mother, and a housemaid—no one can remember whether the housemaid was once a nurse or a patient herself. Gradually it emerges that Shimamura’s wife may be tampering with his memory, conducting little experiments of her own. What is real and what isn’t? What is superstition, what is medicine? Wunnicke’s sly novel offers a great deal of mystery and humor but no hard answers.

With her delicate prose, arch tone, and mischievous storytelling, Wunnicke proves herself a master of the form.

Pub Date: April 30, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2624-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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