A lyrical but uneven tale about a restless writer.

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AMERICAN BLASPHEMER

In this debut novel, a young man searches for meaning and morality in the vast canvas of New York City.

The son of two evangelical Republicans from Virginia—and the brother of two habitual users of psychedelics—John is a struggling writer in New York. But he’s not your average bohemian, in part because his faith in God keeps him away from sex and drugs—at least at first. He stops a girl from beating up her boyfriend on the street, then takes her back to his apartment where they disrobe but don’t sleep together because, to the virgin John, such an act would be “so vacant. There’s no human dignity in it. It’d be worse than masturbation.” Instead, he makes a speech about wanting a wife. (After trying to attack John with a knife, the girl admits to being molested by her uncle.) This is just one episode in this tale of incidental happenings: encountering a man dressed as a Buddhist monk in Times Square, attending a fight club, getting in arguments during jury duty, and going to the opera. John writes stories based on his experiences. In between, he manages a few trips to other places—Graceland, where his hero Elvis Presley lies entombed; a Los Angeles bookstore, where he witnesses a man vomit on the floor—but mostly he just roams New York and reacts to things he sees. Sometimes, his desire to split hairs and lecture people gets him into trouble—like right after Donald Trump is elected president and a fellow New Yorker suspects him of being a Trump supporter (which he never denies). The city challenges John in unexpected ways, forcing him to continuously reevaluate himself, his beliefs, his family, and his past.

Gillen’s prose is conversationally lyrical in the way of the Beats or Charles Bukowski. (He even includes a poem every few chapters.) Sometimes, he strikes upon a compelling image—usually when describing John’s childhood or the members of his family—but more often, the author tries a bit too hard. “I’ve been trying to figure out who Bob Dylan is for years,” John notes about one of his many (predictable) influences, “and it’s like trying to nail ayahuasca smoke to a rainbow waterfall. Like putting God in a box.” John’s project is that he’s seeking real experiences, but mostly it seems as if he’s doing things he thinks are artistic, such as sitting in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, waiting for something profound or colorful to happen. (John claims to have seen Taxi Driver “probably fifty times,” which explains a fair amount about the sort of young man he is.) Gillen’s anecdotes rarely get at any deeper truth or reach a satisfying conclusion. The instance with the naked girl fragments into a rather overripe poem at the end: “I never saw Sarah again. / But I cleaned up the glass. / And the blood. / And— / eventually— / we both died.” The tale includes some uncomfortable ranting about “mass emasculation” and other half-baked ideas, but the book’s main problem is simply that it reads like a 17-year-old’s concept of an artistic novel. While the story aims for grit and wisdom, older readers will find little of interest here.

A lyrical but uneven tale about a restless writer.

Pub Date: May 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-951937-12-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Epigraph Publishing

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

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ANXIOUS PEOPLE

Eight people become unlikely friends during a hostage situation created by an inept bank robber.

In a town in Sweden, a desperate parent turns to bank robbery to help pay the rent. Unfortunately, the target turns out to be a cashless bank, which means that no robbery can take place. In an attempt to flee the police, the would-be perpetrator runs into a nearby apartment building and interrupts an open house, causing the would-be buyers to assume they're being held hostage. After the situation has ended with an absent bank robber and blood on the carpet, a father-and-son police pair work through maddening interviews with the witnesses: the ridiculous realtor; an older couple who renovates and sells apartments in an effort to stay busy; a bickering young couple expecting their first child; a well-off woman interested only in the view from the balcony of a significant bridge in her life; an elderly woman missing her husband as New Year’s Eve approaches; and, absurdly, an actor dressed as a rabbit hired to disrupt the showing and drive down the apartment price. Backman’s latest novel focuses on how a shared event can change the course of multiple people’s lives even in times of deep and ongoing anxiousness. The observer/narrator is winding and given to tangents and, in early moments, might distract a bit too much from the strongly drawn characters. But the story gains energy and sureness as it develops, resulting in moments of insight and connection between its numerous amiable characters.

A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6083-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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