Reed’s debut novel explores how the disruptions of history affect the interconnected lives of several women in communist Czechoslovakia.
In August 1968, during a Soviet invasion, a baby girl is left outside a peasant woman’s house in Czechoslovakia, the name “Zofie” embroidered on her blanket. The woman, Uršula, takes her in. When Zofie is 11, a Communist Party apparatchik notes her intelligence, offers to help her learn German, and lends her books, which are transformative. Zofie experiences familial warmth for the first time when she’s invited to her classmate Katarina Vacek’s summer cottage, where she spends three summers. Later educated in Prague, Zofie immerses herself in its culture, becoming a translator for the education ministry, which becomes less subject to censorship as communism loses its grip. Next, Uršula tells her brief story: She didn’t speak until she was 8—her muteness a kind of spell that a circus dwarf breaks by asking her name and age. The next section tells the heartbreaking tale of Zofie’s mother, Maria, who’s separated from her baby daughter by the invasion. Now married and living in Wales with her son, Maria’s inquiries regarding Zofie’s location have led to nothing, and she must live with sorrow, regret, and uncertainty. The novel then takes up Zofie’s story again, as well as that of Nataša, Katarina’s orphaned daughter, whom Zofie takes in; painting helps Nataša heal her broken memories. Throughout this novel, Reed renders her characters’ different first-person points of view with the toughness and delicacy of a dancer en pointe whose grace belies a foundation of pain. Although tragedy runs through the broken mother-daughter relationships, each character manages to find meaning and beauty in the world through art. Even Uršula, whose words are so often trapped within herself, vividly remembers making a mobile out of string, a dead butterfly, feathers, and other bits and pieces. Not that art is easy; Zofie, for example, risks much when working on samizdat (banned literature), and it’s photography that takes Maria out of the country at a crucial time. Reed handles such ironies with intelligence and skill in this fine debut.
The past is never really past in Silman’s (Boundaries, 2015, etc.) latest novel, in which a man thinks back to his childhood in World War II–era Berlin.
It’s 1989, and the Berlin Wall has just come down. This awakens traumatic memories in Paul Bertram (ne Berger), who was a Jewish child in Berlin and escaped with his family to Sweden and then to America. He asks his ex-wife, Eve, to accompany him back to the German capital. They’d been married for 23 years and had three kids before Paul became distant and unfaithful. Paul has always been immensely talented, charming, and successful; everybody loved him—except Paul. Now he hopes for some sort of expiation in Germany, and surprisingly, Eve agrees to go with him. The Jewish Berger family had lived in Berlin for generations; they were successful and respected jewelers. In the 1930s, they thought that Adolf Hitler’s evil regime would pass. Later, their protector was Paul’s grandfather Gunther Berger’s chief designer, a gentile named Hjalmar Friedmann. The Friedmann family moves into the Bergers’ large house to disguise the Jewish family’s presence there. It gradually becomes, in effect, the Friedmanns’ house, as the Bergers have to hide in the attic. After Hjalmar dies in 1944, the Bergers make another long, dangerous trek. In this work, Silman shows herself to be an accomplished and experienced writer. The novel’s pacing is almost excruciatingly slow, but that’s what this study demands, as it allows the author to dig deeply into Paul’s pain and his relationship with Eve. Similarly, the elder Paul seems almost too good to be true, but that, too, is necessary so that readers can understand his suffering—his later success didn’t heal his wounds as he’d hoped it would. Over the course of the story, Paul comes to terms with his heritage, the awful things that he has done, and what has been done to him.
A harrowing story that readers will find compelling to the very end.
A dissolute preacher strives for redemption in this debut tragicomedy.
Abner Kincaid is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking 59-year-old minister of the Church of the Fiery Word of God in Kansas (he privately calls it “a cathedral for nitwits”). His only friends are George Granger, an old Army buddy, and the ubiquitous bottles of Jack Daniels that he sucks “down like a drowning man sucks air.” He runs into trouble when the church secretary—who doubles as his mistress—runs off with his savings; his Cadillac gets repossessed; and the flock is evicted. Repairing to a barren 50-acre homestead inherited from his estranged father, he hits upon another godly scam: the Lord’s Cross-Training Farm, whose members can get fit—for a hefty fee—by doing heavy labor to Christian exhortations (“Now get up off your fat, sinful asses and get to work!”) and schlepping weights around a Stations of the Cross–themed racecourse. Presiding with merry cynicism—“If we can wring enough work out of these saps, then we might start making money”—Abner fleeces one congregant of lottery winnings, beds another, and exploits them all until his callousness precipitates violence. Taken aback, he’s then hit with a terminal cancer diagnosis, and this raucous, hard-boiled, satirical novel deepens into a meditation on life and death. Abner remains his ornery, profane self, but under the tutelage of a kind but no-nonsense Vietnamese-American nurse, he starts to grudgingly reform his selfishness and to wrestle with his demons: a childhood broken home; his mother’s suicide; memories of terror and carnage from the Vietnam War; the stark fear of mortality. Abner’s saga alternates between bleakly evocative Plains gothic—he spends much time boozing and sweating in motels where “the only light was the flickering of the neon sign”—and deadpan humor from sharply etched, multidimensional characters, all couched in muscular prose and pitch-perfect dialogue. As calamities pile up, Mendelson resolutely avoids sentimentality. Abner’s stock-taking proceeds in the same slovenly, confused way as his previous life did only slightly better, lit by experience and empathy. The result is a reluctant turn of heart that feels hard-earned and emotionally compelling.
A wryly funny and moving story of bogus physical exercise that turns into genuine spiritual exertion.
In Questell’s debut YA novel, a teenage girl has her first kiss and becomes trapped by a traveling carnival’s magical spell.
While her mother is conducting research in Guatemala, young Emma has been sent to Claremore, Oklahoma, to live with her father. She’s lost and lonely, and during a night out at Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, she kisses a boy for the first time. But as soon as their lips touch, she knows that she’s made a mistake—not least of all because the boy then pushes her from the top of a Ferris wheel. As a result, Emma takes on his curse, becoming a sort of marionette—alive but without a heartbeat. Now she must travel with the carnival until she can lure someone into taking her place, as the boy did. Emma’s only solace is the apprentice carpenter, Benjamin, who, in his own way, is also a prisoner to the carnival. It soon becomes apparent that the carnival carries a charm as well as a curse—specifically, no one can die within the carnival grounds. Ben’s mother, it turns out, brought him there to be safe. But although he loves his mom and his circus family, he also longs to live his own life, and so he’s saving up money to run away. In just a few weeks, he’ll be free—but after he meets Emma, romance blossoms. As Questell tells her story of Emma’s incarceration in Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic, she captures much of the numb wonder and tumbling uncertainty of teenage existence. As a metaphor for first love, the carnival serves quite brilliantly, and the scenario will resonate with YA and new-adult readers. The switching between Emma’s and Ben’s increasingly interwoven stories also ensures that neither the young woman’s nor the young man’s point of view is especially favored. Overall, the author has crafted a compelling book with clear prose and depth of characterization. The carnival is a living, breathing conglomerate of real people with evolving stories that belie clichéd notions of good and bad. As Emma and Ben draw closer together, momentum builds and the pages fly by.
A dark idea for a YA story, executed deftly and with feeling.
A boy growing up alone in a hardscrabble Texas town weathers poverty, violence, and heartbreak in this coming-of-age saga.
Archuleta’s (Rio Sonora, 2010, etc.) tense stories unfold like chapters in a novella about a boy named Josh struggling to make his way in the 1950s and ’60s. In “Jolie Blon,” readers meet little Josh living in a tent with his mother, Belle, and an itinerant farm laborer named Cecil. The boy’s unsettled life is upended when the frustrated Belle steals Cecil’s car, sells it for quick cash, and packs Josh onto a Greyhound. In the gothic “La Tormenta,” readers discover Belle abandoned Josh in a nameless west Texas hamlet. He goes to school, earns his keep—a cot and meals—by doing odd jobs, and observes the town’s darker undercurrents. In “Tormenta,” a wife’s infidelities spark macabre bloodshed, and in “Old Dan’s Lament,” the blighted life of a reclusive, bookish ranch hand maimed in the Korean War becomes grotesquely immediate. As Josh enters high school, the tales merge into episodes in a more conventional adolescent yarn. He scores a touchdown in the homecoming game—rendered with gripping play-by-play by Archuleta. And Josh gets the attention of Missy, the flirty daughter of an affluent rancher who tantalizes him by playing Beethoven on the piano and making out with him in a truck, and Roble, a down-to-earth Mexican-American girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. Dirt poor and with few prospects, Josh wonders how he could fit into either girl’s life as he scrounges work, hangs out at the gas station, and fends off hooligans. Josh is a bit blank—good-hearted but unformed and unambitious. Fortunately, Archuleta surrounds him with more colorful and charismatic characters, from a no-nonsense deputy and a flinty rancher to a tart-tongued, motherly diner waitress. Josh’s town is convincingly crafted from punchy, plainspoken dialogue—“Anyone helping me on this, well, no more beer until it’s over,” a lawman admonishes his posse—and windswept landscapes. (“Tumbleweeds bounced and rolled across dry fields until they became tangled and trapped along the fence lines and as the wind blew south toward the town, it gathered more dirt from the fields and pushed it higher until it formed a great dark rolling cloud, gaining speed and dimming daylight.”) The result is an atmospheric Texas bildungsroman reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
A well-wrought panorama of small-town dramas and discontents.
A Jewish refugee family arrives in 1939 Paris after a series of hairbreadth escapes in this sequel historical novel.
On the run from Nazis in Prague, the physically and psychologically traumatized Kohut family has arrived safely in the City of Light, just in time for France’s entry into World War II. In this follow-up to his semiautobiographical debut novel, The Dragontail Buttonhole (2016), Curtis picks up the story of Sophie and her husband, Willie, a displaced clothier, and their infant son, Pavel, exactly where the last installment left them. Sophie is traumatized but unbroken, young Pavel is hungry, and Willie faces the challenge of reuniting with his mother and father in England while dealing with “a crushed finger, a slashed chest and empty pockets.” Booted from their fleabag hotel by its Nazi-sympathizer owner, the Kohuts soon find that their mere presence in France is illegal: if they’re discovered, Sophie and Pavel will be sent to a refugee camp and Willie to prison. While in Paris, they survive on a couple of pawned gold coins and the occasional half-truth; in Germany, Willie had learned that “deception was an essential skill for refugees on the run.” As Sophie finds a surrogate family at the Café Budapest, Willy volunteers for France’s army of Czech exiles and does his best to contend with the “rough, vulgar camaraderie” of the ragtag recruits. Both main characters suffer unexpected joys and real dangers in their travails—including an especially sticky moment involving Pablo Picasso. The story becomes even more emotionally heightened and complex when Willy and Sophie learn of a particular man from their past in their midst. As in Curtis’ last novel, there’s a poignant and arresting precision in the descriptions that make events from 80 years in the past feel immediate: “Even the taxis-bicyclettes that carried two passengers with a child on their lap charged the equivalent of ten fresh eggs.” Indeed, there’s not a wasted word to be found in the smoothly paced text. Readers will also find themselves absorbed by the book’s gradually building suspense as the characters experience both good fortune and jeopardy.
A heart-rending, pellucid story of wartime survival.