A bracing set of stories about smaller traumas embedded among a country’s larger crises.

SONGS FOR THE FLAMES

STORIES

Dark pasts catch up with the protagonists of this collection from the veteran Colombian novelist.

The nine stories in Vásquez’s second collection generally turn on a past lie or misdeed that won’t be easily put to rest. In “The Double,” a man recalls all but condemning a schoolmate to military service that winds up killing him and that death’s long aftereffects on the young man’s family. The narrator of “Frogs” deserts from the army just before a scheduled deployment to the Korean War, a memory stirred by a chance meeting with a woman he helped through her own crisis at the time. In “The Last Corrido,” the lead singer of a musical troupe is in decline but fending off a young rival replacement, exemplifying the tension between the past and the future. Though these characters are flawed, often unethical, Vásquez withholds stern moral judgment; “Us,” for instance, mocks the urge to find simple, satisfying answers for a man’s disappearance. As ever, Vásquez is concerned with his home country’s history, but the shorter form gives his prose a welcome tightness; each story (via McLean’s translation) is crisp and conversational. Still, he can infuse historical breadth to the short form: The closing, title story concerns the unfortunate fate of Aurelia, a free-spirited woman and one-time newspaper columnist whose family was consumed by the country’s 1948 civil war. Throughout, Vásquez paints a picture of a country that’s constantly buffeted by violent political rivalries, narcos, and war and where even bystanders get drawn in. “They’re sending us far away to get killed so there won’t be so many of us they’ll have to kill here,” a soldier cracks in “Frogs,” and that note of fatalism runs through the whole book.

A bracing set of stories about smaller traumas embedded among a country’s larger crises.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-19013-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: July 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2021

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A novel of capacious intelligence and plenty of page-turning emotional drama.

BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU

Two erudite Irishwomen struggle with romance against the backdrop of the Trump/Brexit years.

Eileen and Alice have been friends since their university days. Now in their late 20s, Eileen works as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin. Alice is a famous novelist recovering from a psychiatric hospitalization and staying in a large empty rectory on the west coast of Ireland. Since Alice’s breakdown, the two have kept in touch primarily through lengthy emails that alternate between recounting their romantic lives and working through their angst about the current social and political climate. (In one of these letters, Eileen laments that the introduction of plastic has ruined humanity’s aesthetic calibration and in the next paragraph, she’s eager to know if Alice is sleeping with the new man she’s met.) Eileen has spent many years entangled in an occasionally intimate friendship with her teenage crush, a slightly older man named Simon who is a devout Catholic and who works in the Irish Parliament as an assistant. As Eileen and Simon’s relationship becomes more complicated, Alice meets Felix, a warehouse worker who is unsure what to make of her fame and aloofness. In many ways, this book, a work of both philosophy and romantic tragicomedy about the ways people love and hurt one another, is exactly the type of book one would expect Rooney to write out of the political environment of the past few years. But just because the novel is so characteristic of Rooney doesn’t take anything away from its considerable power. As Alice herself puts it, “Humanity on the cusp of extinction [and] here I am writing another email about sex and friendship. What else is there to live for?”

A novel of capacious intelligence and plenty of page-turning emotional drama.

Pub Date: Sept. 7, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-374-60260-4

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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A SLOW FIRE BURNING

A young man has been stabbed to death on a houseboat...that much is clear.

Hawkins' third novel, after her smash debut with The Girl on the Train (2015) and a weak follow-up with Into the Water (2017), gets off to a confusing start. A series of vignettes introduce numerous characters—Irene, Deidre, Laura, Miriam, Daniel (dead), Carla, Theo, Angela (dead)—all of whom live or lived in a very small geographical area and have overlapping connections and reasons to be furious at each other. We can all agree that the main question is who killed Daniel, the 23-year-old on the houseboat, but it is soon revealed that his estranged mother had died just a few weeks earlier—a drunk who probably fell, but maybe was pushed, down the stairs—and his cousin also fell to his death some years back. Untimely demise runs in the family. The highlight of these goings-on is Laura, a tiny but ferocious young woman who was seen running from Daniel's boat with blood on her mouth and clothes the last night he was alive. Physically and mentally disabled by an accident in her childhood, Laura is so used to being accused and wronged (and actually she is quite the sticky fingers) that she's not surprised when she's hauled in for Daniel's murder, though she's pretty sure she didn't do it. The secondary crimes and subplots include abduction, sexual assault, hit-and-run, petty larceny, plagiarism, bar brawling, breaking and entering, incest, and criminal negligence, and on top of all this there's a novel within a novel that mirrors events recalled in flashback by one of the characters. When Irene reads it, she's infuriated by "all the to-ing and fro-ing, all that jumping around in the timeline....Just start at the beginning, for god's sake. Why couldn't people just tell a story straight any longer, start to finish?" Hmmmmm.

Overkill.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1123-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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