A brilliant, if harrowing, set of tales featuring sharp prose.

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QUEEN OF THE SUGARHOUSE

Studer, the author ofBody Language: First of All Do No Harm(2009), explores life in medical institutions from varied perspectives in nine stories.

The collection opens with “Mercy,” about an intensive care nurse who administers the wrong drug to a patient; the narrative digs beneath the everyday turmoil of life on the ward to examine the vulnerability of medical staff and how they deal with the trauma of their work in their personal lives. The following story, “Shelter,” introduces Benjamin Tyler, a destitute Desert Storm veteran who’s being treated for a debilitating illness following his tour of duty, and “The Isolation Room” is about a writer who’s committed to a mental institution after cutting her wrist. “Special Needs” follows Maria, a waitress whose brother, who has muscular dystrophy, is institutionalized; when she becomes pregnant, she wonders if she carries the gene that caused her sibling’s disease. The title story closes the collection with a poignant tale of a daughter nursing her mother through chemotherapy following a mastectomy. In these stories, Studer, a retired nurse, offers a dazzling and nuanced portrait of the medical world. She’s unafraid to depict the horrific but also acutely sensitive to the complexity of the psychology at play in this challenging environment. Her affecting prose allows readers to experience hospital life through the perspectives of patients as well as medical staff. On occasion, the characters’ observations can be wistfully poetic, as in “Mercy”: “I’ve seen the signs of imminent death: a blurring of the body’s boundaries, a gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle fusion with surrounding elements, a sigh into oblivion.” In other instances, the author offers up brutally vivid tableaux, as in “Shift”: “The boy’s heart floats in a pool of blood like a drowned kitten. The doctor’s hands continue to work inside the chest.” Studer successfully captures a spectrum of emotion in these tales, including her characters’ matter-of-fact approach to death: “It’s raining outside. The toddler is very dead.”

A brilliant, if harrowing, set of tales featuring sharp prose.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63-752922-5

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2021

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

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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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Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

A young woman finds herself at a Covid-induced crossroads in Picoult’s latest ultratopical novel.

Sotheby’s associate Diana O'Toole, age 29, and her surgical resident boyfriend, Finn, are planning a trip to the Galapagos in March 2020. But as New York City shuts down, Finn is called to do battle against Covid-19 in his hospital’s ICU and ER, while Diana, at his urging, travels to the archipelago alone. She arrives on Isabela Island just as quarantine descends and elects to stay, though her luggage was lost, her hotel is shuttered, and her Spanish is “limited.” What follows is the meticulously researched depiction Picoult readers have come to expect, of the flora and fauna of this island and both its paradisiacal and dangerous aspects. Beautiful lagoons hide riptides, spectacular volcanic vistas conceal deep pits—and penguins bite! A hotel employee known only as Abuela gives Diana shelter at her home. Luckily, Abuela’s grandson Gabriel, a former tour guide, speaks flawless English, as does his troubled daughter, Beatriz, 14, who was attending school off-island when the pandemic forced her back home. Beatriz and Diana bond over their distant and withholding mothers: Diana’s is a world-famous photographer now consigned to a memory care facility with early-onset Alzheimer’s, while Beatriz’s ran off with a somewhat less famous photographer. Despite patchy cellphone signals and Wi-Fi, emails from Finn break through, describing, also in Picoult’s spare-no-detail starkness, the horrors of his long shifts as the virus wreaks its variegated havoc and the cases and death toll mount. Diana is venturing into romantically and literally treacherous waters when Picoult yanks this novel off life-support by resorting to a flagrantly hackneyed plot device. Somehow, though, it works, thanks again to that penchant for grounding every fictional scenario in thoroughly documented fact. Throughout, we are treated to pithy if rather self-evident thematic underscoring, e.g. “You can’t plan your life….Because then you have a plan. Not a life.”

Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984818-41-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2022

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