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GUNK BABY

Funny, bold, capacious, and more than a little exhausting—this book mirrors modern life.

The second novel by young Australian writer Lau is a maximalist caper set in the most achingly existential of modern locales: a suburban shopping mall.

Twenty-four-year-old Leen is adrift in her life. She and her mother settled in Par Mars, a suburb of carefully anonymizing subdivisions, when Leen was a child because they were attracted to “the tiredness of it, the bored unattractiveness of it, the lonely, antisocial nature of it, that made [them] both look inward.” Both her parents have since moved on, and Leen is left crashing somewhat indefinitely in her friend Doms’ living room, taking courses in massage therapy, and watching analysis videos of movies on her phone. With seed money from her peripatetic father and instruction from her mother—who has recently started a “healing business” in Hong Kong—Leen opens an ear-cleaning and massage studio in the Topic Heights shopping center, which sits in the center of the Par Mars suburb and represents “the exact summation of every need and personality of the people residing in its hem.” Though both Par Mars and Topic Heights strive to create the impression of regulation, order, and predictably scaled progress, there are signs that things are starting to come loose at the seams. Vic, Doms’ Nigerian boyfriend, is beaten in the street in a possibly racially motivated attack, and the rising unrest among the low-wage workers in Topic Heights is an expression of the growing social divide between people like Peggy—the CEO of the shopping complex, who facilitates drug-fueled swinger parties at her hilltop house on the coastal side of the estates—and people like Jean Paul, a nihilist pharmacy assistant who hosts social resistance meetings at the East Par Mars Community Center. As her business founders, Leen becomes increasingly involved with Jean Paul’s Resistance Acts—which begin as essentially harmless pranks against Topic Heights management but quickly escalate into psychological torment and then real bodily harm—even as she starts to doubt the purity of his proletariat motives. Lau’s second novel treads similar ground as Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2020), her debut take on Gen Z alienation, but with a hyperconscious maximalism that occasionally overwhelms the reader with the equity of its attention. There is so much to see in this novel that the reader is sometimes at a loss for where to look.

Funny, bold, capacious, and more than a little exhausting—this book mirrors modern life.

Pub Date: Dec. 13, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-662-60145-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Astra House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2022

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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SWAN SONG

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

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A stranger comes to town, and a beloved storyteller plays this creative-writing standby for all it’s worth.

Hilderbrand fans, a vast and devoted legion, will remember Blond Sharon, the notorious island gossip. In what is purportedly the last of the Nantucket novels, Blond Sharon decides to pursue her lifelong dream of fiction writing. In the collective opinion of the island—aka the “cobblestone telegraph”—she’s qualified. “Well, we think, she’s certainly demonstrated her keen interest in other people’s stories, the seedier and more salacious, the better.” Blond Sharon’s first assignment in her online creative writing class is to create a two-person character study, and Hilderbrand has her write up the two who arrive on the ferry in an opening scene of the book, using the same descriptors Hilderbrand has. Amusingly, the class is totally unimpressed. “‘I found it predictable,’ Willow said. ‘Like maybe Sharon used ChatGPT with the prompt “Write a character study about two women getting off the ferry, one prep and one punk.”’” Blond Sharon abandons these characters, but Hilderbrand thankfully does not. They are Kacy Kapenash, daughter of retiring police chief Ed Kapenash (the other swan song referred to by the title), and her new friend Coco Coyle, who has given up her bartending job in the Virgin Islands to become a “personal concierge” for the other strangers-who-have-come-to-town. These are the Richardsons, Bull and Leslee, a wild and wealthy couple who have purchased a $22 million beachfront property and plan to take Nantucket by storm. As the book opens, their house has burned down during an end-of-summer party on their yacht, and Coco is missing, feared both responsible for the fire and dead. Though it’s the last weekend of his tenure, Chief Ed refuses to let the incoming chief, Zara Washington, take this one over. The investigation goes forward in parallel with a review of the summer’s intrigues, love affairs, and festivities. Whatever else you can say about Leslee Richardson, she knows how to throw a party, and Hilderbrand is just the writer to design her invitations, menus, themes, playlists, and outfits. And that hot tub!

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

Pub Date: June 11, 2024

ISBN: 9780316258876

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 9, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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