A gripping, precisely composed tale about music and those who give their lives to it.

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THE MUSIC BOOK

A young woman attempts to enter the elite and mainly male world of professional classical musicians during the 1950s in this literary novel.

In 1953, cellist Irena “Reenie” Siesel has just graduated from a conservatory. There, she’d been called gifted, exceptional even, but so far she’s only had offers for teaching positions—a path reserved for those unworthy of performing for a living. Making it as a performer is particularly hard for a woman because, as one female musician puts it, “the problem with women performers was they lacked the single-minded devotion necessary to sacrifice everything to their instruments.” Then Reenie gets a call out of the blue to replace the cellist of the Modern Strings, an avant-garde New York ensemble, at a music festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The group will play a selection of pieces, “from the Baroques to the moderns,” culminating in a new work by the ensemble’s difficult but brilliant leader, composer Arthur Cohen. During the four-day festival, Reenie attempts to navigate the tense, interpersonal dynamics of the Modern Strings while learning the material and demonstrating her talent and professionalism. After all, she may be invited at the end of the festival to join the group and move to New York, where the real musicians live. Reenie’s future with the ensemble quickly becomes complicated when, against her better judgment, she sleeps with Cohen in a fit of impulse—losing her virginity. Interspersed with her account of that weekend are scenes from decades later, when Reenie is in the memory unit of an assisted living facility. She receives a composition left by Cohen in his will—a work that he planned to have destroyed if she died before him. Her daughter and Cohen’s niece are arranging a performance in the hopes it will jog Reenie’s failing memory—but are these recollections worth recovering?

Osborn writes with incredible polish and subtlety, toggling between Reenie’s lush, moment-to-moment accounts from the ’50s and retrospective appraisals of the era: “The festival in Newport took place at a time when classical music was at its height in America, with Leonard Bernstein’s orchestra program and large concert audiences. Just ten years later, the audiences would shrink dramatically, but now no one knew that future.” The characters—particularly Reenie but also the demanding Arthur and the ensemble’s messy violinist Charles Breedlove and aloof violist Patrick Dempsey—are deftly rendered, and the author manages to capture seemingly every shifting tension in each relationship. Osborn also succeeds in writing about music in a way that elucidates and elevates an art form that is not easily put into words, particularly the ways in which the members of the group play together. The plot moves slowly, but it quickly teaches readers to appreciate its rhythm, which—like the sea that surrounds the festival location—is somewhat tidal. The narrative is unexpectedly suspenseful, particularly once readers have a grasp of the intensity of the personalities involved. The result is a meditation on art, aspiration, jealously, and selfishness, all placed against the backdrop of gender and shifting trends in the mid-20th-century classical music scene.

A gripping, precisely composed tale about music and those who give their lives to it.

Pub Date: May 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-60489-250-5

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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THE GLASS HOTEL

A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

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THE CITY WE BECAME

This extremely urban fantasy, a love/hate song to and rallying cry for the author’s home of New York, expands her story “The City, Born Great” (from How Long ’Til Black Future Month, 2018).

When a great city reaches the point when it's ready to come to life, it chooses a human avatar, who guides the city through its birthing and contends with an extradimensional Enemy who seeks to strike at this vulnerable moment. Now, it is New York City’s time to be born, but its avatar is too weakened by the battle to complete the process. So each of the individual boroughs instantiates its own avatar to continue the fight. Manhattan is a multiracial grad student new to the city with a secret violent past that he can no longer quite remember; Brooklyn is an African American rap star–turned–lawyer and city councilwoman; Queens is an Indian math whiz here on a visa; the Bronx is a tough Lenape woman who runs a nonprofit art center; and Staten Island is a frightened and insular Irish American woman who wants nothing to do with the other four. Can these boroughs successfully awaken and heal their primary avatar and repel the invading white tentacles of the Enemy? The novel is a bold calling out of the racial tensions dividing not only New York City, but the U.S. as a whole; it underscores that people of color are an integral part of the city’s tapestry even if some white people prefer to treat them as interlopers. It's no accident that the only white avatar is the racist woman representing Staten Island, nor that the Enemy appears as a Woman in White who employs the forces of racism and gentrification in her invasion; her true self is openly inspired by the tropes of the xenophobic author H.P. Lovecraft. Although the story is a fantasy, many aspects of the plot draw on contemporary incidents. In the real world, white people don’t need a nudge from an eldritch abomination to call down a violent police reaction on people of color innocently conducting their daily lives, and just as in the book, third parties are fraudulently transferring property deeds from African American homeowners in Brooklyn, and gentrification forces out the people who made the neighborhood attractive in the first place. In the face of these behaviors, whataboutism, #BothSides, and #NotAllWhitePeople are feeble arguments.

Fierce, poetic, uncompromising.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-50984-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Orbit

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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