Tense, skillfully crafted, and illuminating tales of suburban desperation.

SUBURBAN GOTHIC

A collection of short stories probes the anxieties of life in suburban America.

What makes the suburbs so unsettling? Perhaps it’s the expectation of tranquility and order that, once upset, highlights the troubles stirring beneath the surface. In one tale, a kite caught in a tree becomes a metaphor for a single mother’s mistaken attempt to move back to her hometown. In another story, a woman comes home to find a terrible, monstrous creature sitting in her driveway. She seeks help from two friends, a pair of twin sisters, but her visit to their house devolves into a literal nightmare. In a third, a protective mother puts her child in preschool after failing to find him an acceptable babysitter. But there’s something strange about the other kids there: Why do they just sit and stare like zombies? “Nina was outraged,” begins another tale, the ominously titled “Mullet.” “ ‘I told her!’ she shouted, grabbing fistfuls of her hair, ‘I wanted a layered bob with bangs! And look, look, look at this! What is this!’ ” In these 15 stories, Chen reveals that distress and unease are never far from the minds of her characters, lurking behind white picket fences and insincere smiles. The tales are a mix of shorter pieces that tend toward the surreal and longer, more realistic narratives. Both are enjoyable but the latter more so, particularly “The Zhangs and the Zumans.” The story follows a married couple who return to the house where they used to live, which they now rent out. The house has changed, but what is really striking is that the neighbors—whose antics caused the couple to move in the first place—seem different as well. Here, the wife, Annie, views her former neighbor’s abode as though it were a haunted house: “Although she tried to stop herself, Annie began to fix her gaze upon the large house, as if a magnetic force gravitated forth from its many black windows, pulling her very eyeballs, it seemed, right out of their sockets and towards the walls of staring, glassy recesses.” The author’s prose is exact and taut, building a sense of unease in a way that is so subtle the audience will often fail to realize it until it finally breaks. Readers should look forward to more books from Chen in the future.

Tense, skillfully crafted, and illuminating tales of suburban desperation.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-62429-252-1

Page Count: 177

Publisher: OPUS

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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An exhilarating ride through Americana.

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

Newly released from a work farm in 1950s Kansas, where he served 18 months for involuntary manslaughter, 18-year-old Emmett Watson hits the road with his little brother, Billy, following the death of their father and the foreclosure of their Nebraska farm.

They leave to escape angry townspeople who believe Emmett got off easy, having caused the fatal fall of a taunting local boy by punching him in the nose. The whip-smart Billy, who exhibits OCD–like symptoms, convinces Emmett to drive them to San Francisco to reunite with their mother, who left town eight years ago. He insists she's there, based on postcards she sent before completely disappearing from their lives. But when Emmett's prized red Studebaker is "borrowed" by two rambunctious, New York–bound escapees from the juvie facility he just left, Emmett takes after them via freight train with Billy in tow. Billy befriends a Black veteran named Ulysses who's been riding the rails nonstop since returning home from World War II to find his wife and baby boy gone. A modern picaresque with a host of characters, competing points of view, wandering narratives, and teasing chapter endings, Towles' third novel is even more entertaining than his much-acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). You can quibble with one or two plot turns, but there's no resisting moments such as Billy's encounter, high up in the Empire State Building in the middle of the night, with professor Abacus Abernathe, whose Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers he's read 24 times. A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles' novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of history.

An exhilarating ride through Americana.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-73-522235-9

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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