Tales that are informative and occasionally evocative, but tediously long-winded.

EVENT IN THE MARSHES

A debut collection of short fiction set in the Middle East and Europe with annotations to help readers understand Iraqi culture.

Dark events lie at the heart of much of this book. A “devastating cholera epidemic” is occurring in the marshes of southern Iraq in the novella-length first piece in this collection, “Event in the Marshes.” The story opens with the mysterious Zaira Tiswahen, a “boat peddler,” rowing to Haj Raisan village. On her arrival, she meets a woman whose daughter, Hasna, has grown gravely ill. The villagers are desperate to save Hasna from death: A clergyman suggests that a miracle—the apparition of a wali, or holy person—may heal her, but her fiance, Hameed is skeptical of the idea and sets off on his own quest for a cure. In “Woman with a Bike,” the male narrator introduces himself to a woman whose bike has a flat tire and unexpectedly hears about “the greatest tragedy” of her life, the death of her husband on their wedding night. And in “Sorrow on the Banks of the Southerly River” a man ruminates about being a conscientious objector to serving in the Iraq War. Even the somewhat incongruous “Two Worlds,” an exploration of one diner’s fleeting attraction to another at a Brussels brasserie, ends with disillusionment. The collection opens promisingly with a rich description of an Iraqi marsh. Careful annotations in the form of detailed footnotes explain aspects of Iraqi culture. However, Lateef’s writing is off-puttingly wordy: “In such an unpleasant, creepy setting where myths and solid reality merged and became one, where actual fears with auditory and visual components intermingled with invisible horror that mimicked morbid hallucinations and the icy breath of formless danger, the metamorphosis of this isolated, untrodden swampy realm into a consternating, haunted world was an appalling mental experience.” That kind of verbosity draws out the stories to needless lengths, causing interest to wane. Although the author takes the reader into potentially new and exciting worlds, and his plotlines are mildly compelling, a significantly pared-down style would have helped to sustain the reader’s interest.

Tales that are informative and occasionally evocative, but tediously long-winded.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-72839-478-7

Page Count: 158

Publisher: AuthorHouseUK

Review Posted Online: April 8, 2020

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Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.

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MATRIX

Set in early medieval Europe, this book paints a rousing portrait of an abbess seizing and holding power.

After the spicy, structurally innovative Fates and Furies (2015), Groff spins back 850 years to a girl on a horse: “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” The inspiration is a historical figure, Marie de France, considered the first woman to write poetry in French. Groff gives her a fraught, lifelong, sexually charged tie to Eleanor of Aquitaine. A matrix, which comes from the Latin for mother, builds implacably between Eleanor and Marie. But in the first chapter, the queen rids the court of an ungainly, rustic Marie by installing her in a remote English convent, home to 20 starving nuns. The sisters hang the traveler’s clothes in the communal privy, where “the ammonia of the piss kills the beasties”—the lice. After a long sulk, Marie rouses herself to examine the abbey’s disastrous ledgers, mount her warhorse, and gallop forth to turn out the family most egregiously squatting on convent land. News spreads and the rents come in, “some grumbling but most half proud to have a woman so tough and bold and warlike and royal to answer to now.” The novel is at its best through Marie's early years of transforming the ruined, muddy convent, bit by bit, into a thriving estate, with a prosperous new scriptorium, brimming fields, and spilling flocks, protected by a forest labyrinth and spies abroad. In this way, Marie forestalls the jealous priests and village men plotting against her. Readers of Arcadia (2012), Groff’s brilliantly evocative hippie commune novel, will remember her gift for conjuring life without privacy. And she knows a snake always lurks within Eden. The cloister witnesses lust, sex, pregnancy, peril. Marie has visions of the Virgin Mary, 19 in all, but these passages stay flat. Medieval mystics, unsurprisingly, write better about mysticism. The gesture toward a lost theology based on Marie’s visions amounts to weak tea.

Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59463-449-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

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THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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