Clever, high-concept stories that sometimes lack in the telling.

THE ADVENTURISTS

An assortment of speculative short stories filled with ghosts, time leaps, and alternate realities.

Butner has a knack for a quirky, eye-catching premise. “Holderhaven” turns on the discovery of a hidden staircase in a historic manor. “Horses Blow Up Dog City” imagines a dystopian future in which a puppeteer becomes a pop-culture celebrity. In “Give Up,” a man attempts to summit Mount Everest via a virtual reality, while the narrator of “Delta Function” finds himself witnessing the New Wave band he played in back in college. The stories’ arch tone, offbeat scenarios, and folkloric elements bear a resemblance to George Saunders' and Carmen Maria Machado's work, though Butner has his own thematic obsessions. Earnest but frustrated struggles to recover the past is a big one, not just in time-travel yarns like “Delta Function,” but “The Master Key,” in which two friends return to their high school, or the opening “Adventure,” in which a reunion of two friends becomes oddly upended by the appearance of a man in a jester suit. In his best stories, Butner effectively merges the strange setups with a bracing mix of humor and dread. “The Ornithopter,” for instance, takes place in an office whose staff has been rapidly whittled down to a handful of people, one of whom is a hardcore Star Trek geek. (“The metaphor they’re working inside of might be the Nostromo, the spaceship from Alien, not the USS Enterprise,” the hero notes.) And “Give Up” conjures the horrifying sense that a glitchy fake Everest might be as challenging as the real thing. But too often, these stories don’t rise to their promise, occluded with plot or dense prose that smothers the wit and insight Butner strives to bring to them.

Clever, high-concept stories that sometimes lack in the telling.

Pub Date: Feb. 8, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-61873-194-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Small Beer Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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An alternately farcical and poignant look at family bonds.

THE SUMMER PLACE

When a family convenes at their Cape Cod summer home for a wedding, old secrets threaten to ruin everything.

Sarah Danhauser is shocked when her beloved stepdaughter announces her engagement to her boyfriend, Gabe. After all, Ruby’s only 22, and Sarah suspects that their relationship was fast-tracked because of the time they spent together in quarantine during the early days of the pandemic. Sarah’s mother, Veronica, is thrilled, mostly because she longs to have the entire family together for one last celebration before she puts their Cape Cod summer house on the market. But getting to Ruby and Gabe’s wedding might prove more difficult than anyone thought. Sarah can’t figure out why her husband, Eli, has been so distant and distracted ever since Ruby moved home to Park Slope (bringing Gabe with her), and she's afraid he may be having an affair. Veronica is afraid that a long-ago dalliance might come back to bite her. Ruby isn’t sure how to process the conflicting feelings she’s having about her upcoming nuptials. And Sam, Sarah’s twin brother, is a recent widower who’s dealing with some pretty big romantic confusion. As the entire extended family, along with Gabe’s relatives, converges on the summer house, secrets become impossible to keep, and it quickly becomes clear that this might not be the perfect gathering Veronica was envisioning. If they make it to the wedding, will their family survive the aftermath? Weiner creates a story with all the misunderstandings and miscommunications of a screwball comedy or a Shakespeare play (think A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But the surprising, over-the-top actions of the characters are grounded by a realistic and moving look at grief and ambition (particularly for Sarah and Veronica, both of whom give up demanding creative careers early on). At times the flashbacks can slow down the story, but even when the characters are lying, cheating, and hiding from each other, they still seem like a real and loving family.

An alternately farcical and poignant look at family bonds.

Pub Date: May 10, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3357-2

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2022

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Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS

The Herculean efforts required to assemble the Oxford English Dictionary are retold, this time from a fictionalized, distaff point of view, in Williams’ debut novel.

Esme Nicoll, the motherless young daughter of a lexicographer working in the Scriptorium—in reality, a garden shed in Oxford where a team led by James Murray, one of the OED’s editors, toiled—accompanies her father to work frequently. The rigor and passion with which the project is managed is apparent to the sensitive and curious Esme, as is the fact that the editorial team of men labors under the influence of Victorian-era mores. Esme begins a clandestine operation to rescue words which have been overlooked or intentionally omitted from the epic dictionary. Her childhood undertaking becomes a lifelong endeavor, and her efforts to validate the words which flew under the (not yet invented) radar of the OED gatekeepers gain traction at the same time the women’s suffrage movement fructifies in England. The looming specter of World War I lends tension to Esme’s personal saga while a disparate cast of secondary characters adds pathos and depth. Underlying this panoramic account are lexicographical and philosophical interrogatives: Who owns language, does language reflect or affect, who chooses what is appropriate, why is one meaning worthier than another, what happens when a word mutates in meaning? (For example, the talismanic word first salvaged by Esme, bondmaid, pops up with capricious irregularity and amorphous meaning throughout the lengthy narrative.) Williams provides readers with detailed background and biographical information pointing to extensive research about the OED and its editors, many of whom appear as characters in Esme’s life. The result is a satisfying amalgam of truth and historical fiction.

Who tells your story? Williams illuminates why women needed to be in the room where, and when, it’s written.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-16019-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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